Over the past couple of decades, a prominent sub-genre of stand-up comedy has emerged known as "Christian Comedy." One of its characteristics is that it is comedy performed by entertainers unabashed about their faith. Another of its characteristics is that it is often performed in churches and about church life, giving Christians the opportunity to laugh at themselves. The probably most-promoted feature of Christian comedy is that it is "clean." You can count on there being nothing off-color or offensive in the Christian comic's material. This is the kind of entertainment that takes pride in the fact it's something the whole family can enjoy.
While there is much to commend about "Christian Comedy", it should be noted that the earliest Christian comics did not work "clean," not by any stretch of the imagination. At least that's what the Bible tells us.
In the first several chapters of Paul's "first" letter to the Corinthians, he emphatically states that the gospel message he was called to give his life to and preach -- "the message of the cross" -- is "foolishness" and he and those who preach it are "fools for Christ," "a spectacle to the world," "like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things."
What Paul is most likely referring to here, because it was a hallmark of Greek and especially Corinthian culture, is the very popular comic character of the mimic fool that commonly entertained the masses on the street or in the arena following a piece of serious, highbrow theater.
The fool (literally, "moron" in Greek) was intentionally silly, embarrassing, and disgusting. While not wearing a mask, he would contort his body to look physically grotesque, presenting large ears, nose, and lips; his head was bald and his belly bulged (as the fool character was always on the lookout for and would do anything for free food). His costume was a tunic that was tattered and torn and way too short, so when he stupidly (and frequently) raised his arms he'd expose a large (and usually fake) phallus. Fools came into the arena to mock the words and actions of the preceding drama's noble characters and often got beatings by cuckolding wives or other "low" characters, usually with the sticks that the fools themselves foolishly carried.
Why in the world would Paul associate himself, and proudly so, with something so immoral, undignified and downright offensive? Beyond Paul's wicked sense of humor (see earlier blog!) it's probably because stage fools were the one group of people known to - allowed to - publicly discuss and display crucifixion, Rome's dirty little secret.
While crucifixions happened all the time, Rome was conspicuously silent about the subject. This is an observation made by German scholar Martin Hengel in his most interesting book, Crucifixion (Fortress Press 1977). Caesars and Roman generals rarely ever mention 'crucifixion' in their annals. Cicero says no citizen should even say the word (see above). This was a mode of execution designed to be the most degrading, awful punishment ever imagined…and clearly needed (irony thick here) to keep the Empire's masses in line. It was absolutely unthinkable that a god would come to earth and undergo something so repulsive.
The fools, however, relished in promoting this kind of repulse. In fact, the most documented (and popular?) sketch performed by Ancient Roman mimic fools lampooned the crucifixion of a robber named Laureolus. Apparently it was reenacted in the arena with a great deal of stage realism. The great ancient Jewish historian Josephus reports that a 'great quantity of artificial blood flowed down from the one crucified.' The great Roman historian Suetonius records a performance in 41 AD at the close of which a number of mimic fools 'so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency at dying that the stage swam in blood.'
If we want to get the true impact of what Paul is trying to tell us about who he is, who Christ is and the salvation that the cross truly brings, we would do well to take a deep breath and delve into the world of "blue" comedy. Even if the material turns us completely off, the impact of what the comic is doing and why can bring us a bold new understanding of the milieu in which Paul spoke and struggled to find footing.
And, at the end of the day, found himself the last (and first) comic (Christian comic!) standing…..