A series of events conspired which led me to reflect on how we view the meaning of our circumstances. Firstly, my eldest had to do a report on Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. In turn we watched the Kenneth Branagh screen adaptation. As she and I discussed the play and movie, I began to wax on Alan Jacob’s discussion of the play in the Epilogue of his book, Original Sin, and in particular, W.H. Auden’s category of Christian comedy. (To my daughter’s credit, she recognized Much Ado as a “garden story” — that is a story in which the innocents in the garden fall and become alienated. What is remarkable about Shakespeare’s garden story is the manner in which the restoration and reconciliation is effected.)
At the same time I was preparing to preach on the account of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau from Genesis 33. What struck me in the passage was not so much the didactic messages in the passage, but rather the beauty of the story. What sorts of qualities are present for such a warm and sweet reconciliation? One of those qualities which is necessary is a “lightness” with respect to one’s own rights and privileges. And so Dr. Jacobs helped me again in that same discussion in commenting about the trap of taking ourselves too seriously. Indeed, it was for the “joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. In talking about the danger of taking ourselves too seriously, Jacob’s writes,
“Well, these are sobering thoughts, indeed, and we should take them seriously—as seriously as we can take any thoughts. The immensely difficult trick is to do so without taking ourselves seriously, because one could argue that at or near the very heart of our bent wills is a determination to uphold our own dignity. Milton tells us that Satan decided to rebel against the Almighty because of his sense of ‘injured merit’: he was the one who deserved to be named Messiah, not God’s Son who surely was chosen not because of his ‘merit’ but on account of some divine nepotism. Looked at in the proper way, this idea of Satan’s is simply laughable, which is what G.K. Chesterton was indicating in one of his wisest aphorisms: ‘Satan fell by force of gravity.’”
Alan Jacobs, Original Sin
The patriarch, Jacob, it seemed to me, could have only received the promise and appropriately humbled himself before Esau, if he did not take himself too seriously. Therein’s a beauty.
Serendipitously, just a few days later, Dr. Jacob’s posted the Auden quote on his online common place book, more than 95 theses. Reflection upon Auden’s categories and Jacob’s commentary has proved to be fruitful soil to contemplate the meaning of the stories which make up my life and of course those things about which I am so serious.
“Comedy … is not only possible within a Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because classical comedy is based upon a division of mankind into two classes, those who have arete and those who do not, and only the second class, fools, shameless rascals, slaves, are fit subjects for comedy. But Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge others and that it is our duty to forgive each other. In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.”
W. H. Auden
And, after Christmas, I will celebrate Twelfth Night by watching a play entitled the same. In Twelfth Night one finds one of the gravest of Shakespeare’s characters, Malvolio who is the virtuous rascal classified by Auden.