Laughter can be innocent. When I give my grandson a great push in his pushchair and it surges forwards before stopping, he laughs. For there is a little fear and some excitement followed by relief. The energy of the former explodes into the laughter of the latter. Sometimes this relief is accompanied by a sense of triumph and the laughter is even less restrained, as when a crucial goal is scored at a football match. That laughter can still be innocent, a sheer joie de vivre. But suppose there is an exultation over the foe, can this be Christian? Psalm II suggests it can. For after describing the rage of the heathen and their plots against God's anointed, it says: "He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: The Lord shall have them in derision."
What gives Laughter at the Foot of the Cross its sinew and muscle is the way M. A. Screech takes this mocking triumph with the utmost seriousness.
The soundest Christian thinkers have always had a proper place for laughter. Aquinas, following Aristotle and Augustine, regards play and wittiness as essential relaxants of the mind and soul. Without these we would snap, like a bow pulled too hard, too long. Indeed Aquinas argues that a lack of mirth is sinful because someone without a sense of humour is burdensome both by failing to offer the pleasure of playful speech to others and because their dourness stops them from responding to the humour of others.
All this is civilised enough. But Christ on the Cross was mocked not just by religious leaders but by the crowds and even by those who were crucified with him. What is the proper Christian response to such mockery? In this learned yet accessible study, Screech highlights one response: counter-mockery at once wittier and more devastating than anything put forward by the enemies of truth. This is what he calls Diasyrm, which he defines as "harsh, railing satire" combining "disparagement and ridicule". The basic meaning is "tearing a man apart". A Renaissance scholar of international renown, as well as a priest of the Church of England, Screech draws on his earlier work on Erasmus and Rabelais to show how the fiercest satire has been used to impale Christ's enemies. Screech indicates how both Erasmus and Rabelais used the second-century Greek satirical writer Lucian.
He also shows how they read the Old Testament to see Christ prefigured there in all its details - details which influenced the way people read the New Testament. Thus he describes how the mockery of Elijah, God's holy one, as "baldy" and Elijah's subsequent mockery of the prophets of Baal, is a shadow cast ahead by the truth of the Gospel. Christ is mocked but those mockers will be outmocked. What is taunted is in the end not just ignorance or even ugliness but what seems mad. A central theme running through the book are some words of folly in Erasmus's In Praise of Folly. "But the mad laugh at the mad, each provides mutual enjoyment to the other." The mockers see Christ and his followers as mad. And they are mad, for they have been caught up into the beauty of God's love, enraptured, ecstatic. Like Socrates, they practise the art of dying for they have already begun to leave their mortal bodies with a vision of immortal truth. Screech sees an integral link between ecstasy or self-transcendence and the folly of Christ and his followers.
In the light of the Cross and Resurrection, it is this folly that is shown to be triumphant: the mockers of Christ who are exposed not just as ignorant but as mad.
Screech quotes Fontaine: "We then saw what St Jerome said of those who serve God and those who serve the world: 'Each to the other we seem insane': Invicem insanire videmur. There is a never ending dual between the two.'" This is the theme explored with great thoroughness and subtlety through the pages of Erasmus and Rabelais as they interpret the Bible in relation to the scandals of their time.
These days people tend to think that Christianity is about being "nice" to one another: and niceness is certainly an admirable trait. But Erasmus and Rabelais - and later, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Sydney Smith, Evelyn Waugh and others - thought that you had to oppose pomposity, self-aggrandisement, malice and greed with every literary weapon open, including the most biting satire. And that tradition is not completely dead. Richard Ingrams is a church organist and Ian Hislop a Christian fellow traveller.
The trouble with being nasty about others, however much they deserve it, is that it can still feel un-Christian, can make one feel somewhat uneasy. How can biting satire be squared with Christian charity?
Two answers are at least implicit in Screech's exposition of Erasmus and Rabelais. First, better by far Christian mockery than Christian thumbscrews. Second, Erasmus and Rabelais allow a place for pity. This is not always so among Christian thinkers. In considering the question, "Whether the blessed pity the unhappiness of the damned?" Aquinas answers, No. We can pity someone suffering on this earth but when they are damned for eternity, rational pity has no place. Furthermore the sufferings of the damned highlights the blessedness of the blessed. They do not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked directly. But indirectly they do because such suffering affirms divine justice and underscores their own salvation. In this sense "the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked". But for both Erasmus and Rabelais there was a softening.
What brought kindness trickling into the laughter of Erasmus, and flooding into that of Rabelais was indeed charity. With charity comes the deeper understanding of the mercy of God and the redeeming power of Christ. Neither laugh-raiser revelled in the endless and ingenious torture of the damned.
Apart from the numerous fresh insights along the way and the scholarly erudition, the great importance of this book is a paradoxical one. It is a book about laughter but it forces us to face the reality of evil. However much we would like to make Christianity and decorous civilisation coalesce, we have to choose between two different kinds of madness, the madness of being lost in the love of Christ and mocking the world's aggrandisement or seeing that sublime self-giving as madness and mocking those who see this world stretching out beyond time and space to eternity.
Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.
Laughter at the Foot of the Cross
Author - M. A. Screech
ISBN - 0 713 99012 0
Publisher - Allen Lane
Price - £30.00
Pages - 328