Is Christianity just one big joke? Karen Armstrong looks for the punch-line in the Gospels
Laughter at the Foot of the Cross

by M A Screech

Allen Lane, pounds 30

In ancient Greece and Rome, as well as during the age of Shakespeare, laughter was considered the distinguishing characteristic of humanity. Not to laugh was not to be fully human. But neither Jesus nor the Virgin Mary are depicted as laughing in the Gospels and some theologians, such as St Bernard of Clairvaux, believed that laughter had no place in the Christian life.

In this elegant and stimulating study, M A Screech explores the humour of the Christian humanists of the 16th century, focusing on Erasmus and Rabelais. It is not a systematic survey. Screech circles around his subject whimsically, often revisiting material, making it reveal new meanings. The reader comes away with an impression of a rich but elusive truth rather than a precise argument.

For Erasmus and his fellow humanists, the model of Christian humour could be found in the derisive laughter of the prophet Elijah as he gazed at the impotent frenzy of the prophets of Baal. Laughter was a weapon against error. Erasmus and Luther would scoff at their foes from a position of lofty superiority. As Screech wryly observes, this was so much better than burning them.

But Elijah's contemptuous laughter was similar to that of the people who jeered at the dying Christ. For humanists such as Erasmus, Christians were themselves risible in the eyes of the world - an insight first voiced by St Paul when he called the wisdom of God madness to those who do not believe.

Yet God has the last laugh. In the psalms, God is shown roaring with laughter at human folly. Erasmus taught that Jesus jeered at those who deserved it. The rich man in the parable was at death's door, but he continued to amass worldly goods. It was an irrational folly bordering on madness.

Christian laughter thus springs from a certainty opposed to worldly values. Erasmus and theologians of his day were convinced that Christ was regarded as raving mad. In the Gospels we are told that his kinsfolk tried to restrain him, believing him insane (Mark 3:20-22). He seemed deranged to those who mocked him on the Cross, caught up in a frenzied ecstasy: a state of mind touched by divine inspiration. Christians such as St Paul, who was accused of mania, were beside themselves with the love of God.

Rabelais's humour is kinder than that of Erasmus; Screech warns against focusing on his scatology. Rabelaisian laughter must be seen against the backcloth of eternity. As cleanliness is next to godliness, dirt is a sign of something wrong. It is also a sign of the worldly madness at which Christians can laugh from their vantage point of certainty. Such confidence is alien to many Christians today: even fundamentalism is an embattled faith. Screech also admits it is difficult to square Erasmian humour with charity, noting only that laughter induces a joy from which true compassion can spring.