Aristotle and the Bible
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Grinding Aristotle

by Rev. Jane Voigts

Once again 3D movies are all the rage. It seems whether or not you really want to see the 3D movie now playing, or you could pay a little less and see it in 2D, the fact that you can see something that magically looks like it’s jumping off of the screen is worth the sacrifice. This includes wearing the 3D glasses, which can be a bit unwieldy if you already wear glasses and rather humiliating since no one looks good in 3D (unless of course you’re actually 3).

There’s always a bit of an adjustment that your eyes and brain need to make in order to refocus and receive the 3D experience. And once that’s made… c’mon Hollywood, knock my socks off (figuratively and almost literally).

This is how I experience the process of seeing the Bible as comedy. I have to, as it were, put on special glasses that allow my eyes and brain to refocus from the solemn tragedy I’ve been trained to see everywhere and receive what the Bible is otherwise trying to say, knocking my socks off… and then, more-often-not, believe-it-or-not, tickling my feet.

The materials I grind together, as it were, to create lenses to see the Bible (and so much of everything else actually) as comedy come from the ancient philosopher Aristotle in his book, Poetics. In this short but very informative tract, he lays out what characteristics make for comedy and what characteristics make for tragedy (much like the way he cataloged plants and animals) so we can better recognize what is what (besides the fact that comedy will make us laugh and tragedy will make us cry). I have found once I become aware of what makes for comic structure, a story or situation that was intended as funny but is now at best hazily humorous comes into comic focus – lively 3D!!

So I thought I’d list Aristotle’s characteristics of comedy here, as well has characteristics of tragedy, so you can better discern what should go in and be left out of your grind work. (Ugh, that sounds so unpleasant! Or exotic dancer-y…)

Here are the characteristics of (and differences between) comedy and tragedy.

Tragedy…

1) … is about high and high status characters — kings, princes, noblemen and wise men, etc.

2) … who speak in high language — beautiful, poetic, well-communicated (think about the soliloquies of Shakespeare for example).

3) … and are fated to die — the tragic hero is going to die no matter what, either because of a tragic flaw in his personality or because God or the gods have decided this right from the first or both.

4) … and they endure much suffering — they suffer to the end nobly.

5) … and when they die we experience catharsis — there is an explosion of relief and release as we learn how we, too, can nobly face our own unavoidable sufferings and death.

Comedy (on the other hand)…

1) … is about low and low status characters — peasants, slaves, foreigners, second-borns, women, buffoons.

2) … who speak in low language — slang, obscenities, gossip, riddles, foolish talk.

3) … and get into scrapes that should do them in but somehow they slip through the cracks and land on their feet and make it through amazingly okay — think about what happens when the guy slips on a banana peel.

4) … and the suffering they experience is ridiculous — think The Three Stooges.

5) … and the ending is always happy — including a marriage or birth or both, reminding us that life is crazy and we screw up and should have been dead long ago but for some reason we’re getting another wonderful chance.

When we look at the Bible in this way, it’s much easier to see why we can call it – and experience it – as a comedy. Most all of its characters are low, either because of their foolishness/sinfulness or social status. They speak more often than not foolishly, sinfully, or in hick dialect (such as Galilean); and in the case of Jesus, and others, they speak in parables aka riddles. Their accounts of getting into scrapes that should do them in and then landing on their feet and getting a second chance are legion. There is so much violence in the Bible, you have to wonder if maybe at least some of it is intentionally over-the-top… And the Bible ends, at least the New Testament does, with a wedding: at the end of the Book of Revelation, Jesus descends as a groom to marry his bride, the church. (The mind reels with possibilities of what that honeymoon night is like.)

I invite you to start playing around with Bible stories, looking at them with your newly ground glasses and exploring where the comedy is or might be. There are of course no right or wrong answers and I will be bringing you some of the goofy gracious (sometimes gross) and often surprisingly great humor that has come into focus for me. And how it’s made me care not so much about what I look like or how unwieldy new lenses can be.

This has been posted with permission by the author.

Rev. Jane Voigts

About Rev. Jane Voigts

The Rev. Jane Voigts began her professional life as a stand-up comic and improvisor in Chicago, and since becoming an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church 16 years ago, she has had a passion for discovering new ways of connecting humor and faith. Last year she got to experiment with the creation of a "Comedy Church" in Toluca Lake. She is currently residing in Iowa to care for her parents. When asked about the future of the Church, she replies, "Big props!" She then adds, "And polyester pant suits. They have both male and female attributes and last forever. Like God."

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