Archives For Monty Python

If you are like me, you could benefit from a rich, genuine laugh right about now. Las year was stressful on all of us, and many are wary the new year may not be dramatically better.

For many of us, humor is an integral part of our lives. In our extended family, it is an ever ready tool for lifting the spirits of others. Just the other day our son and his six-year-old son dropped by, and as they entered the front door I said, “enter, most welcome king and prince.” Without missing a proverbial beat, my grandson responded, “I’m the king, and he’s the prince.” It was a hilarious, spontaneous moment. My wife and I are deeply blessed because our lives are filled with these moments.

We have all heard about the healing powers of laughter. One Mayo Clinic article on the subject, “Stress Relief from Laughter? It’s No Joke,” lists a number of short- and long-term benefits. For example:

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. . . . [It can] improve your immune system. Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity.

By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses. [And laughter can] relieve pain . . . by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.

Since laughter has indisputable mental—and physical—benefits, promoting it is a worthwhile avocation. That effort is complicated by the fact our individual sense(s) of humor differ significantly. For example, some people find slapstick humor wildly funny. I find it funny (in the sense of “odd”), that they consider it witty.

On the other hand, some people appreciate the “subtleties” of so-called British humor. Many of my relatives have never understood how much I have enjoyed Monty Python. To them, the Python approach is bizarre and unpalatable. Meanwhile, they enjoyed the clumsy stumblings of Jerry Lewis.*

Ricky Gervais, an English comedian who has met great success on both sides of the pond, wrote an interesting piece for Time. He offers very thoughtful observations on “The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Having lived in the United Kingdom, and counting some Brits as friends today, the following comment rings true with me.

There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is, of course, not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits.

We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly [verbally assault] people we like or dislike basically.

And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.

Perhaps my affinity for British humor comes from a flaw in my personal psyche, I mean, an innate appreciation for irony.

Another consideration is whether laughter is genuine or feigned. The latter presumably produces no positive results. Researchers in Japan conducted some laughter studies. One professor noted that honest laughter reaches down to a person’s diaphragm. He devised a machine to measure it.

Sensors placed near the diaphragm transmit waves to a computer screen, and these waves apparently reflect not only the intensity of a subject’s laughter but also its sincerity. A genuine laugh, straight from the heart, weighs in at 5 or more “aHs” per second –the “aH” (read “aha” in Japanese) being the unit of measurement Kimura devised in his quest to quantify laughter. Fake laughter makes no waves. The sensors ignore it, and the graph-lines on the screen remain unmoved.

Most of us, I suspect, can usually tell the difference between sincere responses, be they simple chuckles or raucous belly laughs, and the fake stuff. Fortunately, the inauthentic laughter is rarely malicious. An interesting dissertation entitled “The Meaningless Laugh,” explores laughter’s use to ease tension and “cover-up,” or mask, true opinions. It seems to me that insincere laughter has much in common with “white lies.”

Humor in the Life of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis had a healthy sense of humor. Laughter abounded at gatherings of the Inklings. In light of Gervais’ comment about the British propensity for “teasing our friends,” check out “C.S. Lewis Compared J.R.R. Tolkien to What?

Our sense of humor is shaped and refined (or dulled) throughout our lives. An interesting letter from 1914, before Lewis was scarred in the trenches of the First World War, reveals his entertainment preferences as a young man.  

Last week I was up with these people to the Coliseum: and, though of course (which by the way I see no prospect of) I had sooner have gone to some musical thing, yet I enjoyed myself. The Russian Ballet–and especially the music to it–was magnificent, and G.P. Huntley* in a new sketch provoked some laughter.

The rest of the show trivial & boring as music halls usually are. At ‘Gastons’ however, I have no lack of entertainment, having been recently introduced to Chopin’s Mazurkas, & Beethoven’s ‘Sonate Pathétique.’

The mature Lewis made a profound observation about humor in Reflections on the Psalms.

A little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be. (In my own experience the funniest things have occurred in the gravest and most sincere conversations.)

I have found this to be true in my own life and ministry. In the words of the Mayo Clinic piece, “Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people” even during the most trying of times.

Can Laughter Be Dangerous?

We all recognize that when humor is pursued at the expense of others, it is often destructive. Sarcasm is a dangerous, and often cruel, weapon. Healthy laughter, though, possesses a divine quality.

Laughter can, in fact, be such a positive thing that even the Tempter Screwtape⁂ warns his protégé to undermine it. (Remember, when reading Screwtape, that since Screwtape, the fictional writer of the infernal advice, serves the Devil, and thus the language is reversed.)

I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made [your patient] acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the [infernal] record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards Our Father’s house.

You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention. I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.

You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell (The Screwtape Letters).

As to whether or not laughter can nudge a person towards a negative end, Screwtape singles out flippancy.

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.

If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (The Screwtape Letters).

Forewarned about the potential pitfalls of unhealthy humor, we can choose to avoid it. Meanwhile, we can rejoice with laughter that our Creator has bestowed upon us the ability to laugh.

C.S. Lewis celebrated this gift in his echo of our own creation in the story of Narnia’s birth. From the very first day, laughter was meant to resound throughout the world.

“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself. The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so.”

“No, Aslan, we won’t, we won’t,” said everyone. But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, “No fear!” and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be—say, at a party.

The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it were going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their ways of laughing and which, of course, no one has ever heard in our world.

They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan said: “Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said: “Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Laughter is a gift from God. I believe it is one of his best.


* The warm appreciation of comedian Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) by the French has always been a mystery to me. Talk about different ways to view humor. An interesting discussion of that enigmatic fact is found in “Why France Understood Jerry Lewis as America Never Did.”

Jerry Lewis was always a subject of a deep trans-Atlantic misunderstanding, one that triggered sarcasm in the United States, and bewilderment in France. While some Americans felt embarrassed by this contortionist comic, the French embraced Mr. Lewis’s humor as both an abstract art and social satire of American life.

Americans mocked the French for falling for this crass clown, while the French couldn’t understand why Mr. Lewis’s genius was not obvious to his compatriots.

⁑ George Patrick Huntley (1868–1927) was an Irish actor, known for comic performances in the theatre and the music halls.

⁂ The fictional author of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, the senior Tempter serves his master, the Devil. He refers to him as “Our Father Below,” accordingly.


The graphic above comes from the blog of a very talented writer and producer. Mitch Teemley included in a recent post at The Power of Story. I agree with my friend that “laughter has healing properties.” If you believe the same, you absolutely need to spend a few minutes reading his hilarious post.

A Trivial Windstorm

November 29, 2015 — 10 Comments

bellsIt’s amazing what we can accomplish during a multi-day power outage. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I learned a few new religious tidbits you may find interesting as well.

Several years ago I obtained a copy of Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®. While the power was out, I read all 1,000 trivia questions. It proved to be an interesting diversion.

The question of whether or not considering trivialities is a waste of time was addressed by C.S. Lewis at the outset of WWII.

Every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. (The Weight of Glory)

Lewis’ point is well made. When we contrast the matters which occupy our minds and energies with the things we ignore—including our eternal destiny and whether we are drawing closer to our Creator or drifting farther from him—the things of this world grow dim.

Perhaps that will be slightly less true in the case of trivia gleaned from the history of the largest denomination in the Christian Church.

Test Your Knowledge

A few questions were dated, not surprising I suppose, since the game was copyrighted in 1991. What was surprising is why they would choose to include questions about the names of prominent American archbishops of that decade, knowing it would date the product.

Question: Who is the Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas?

Answer: Archbishop Patrick Flores

Comment: He was historic, being the first Roman Catholic bishop of Mexican American heritage, and service as archbishop was lengthy (1979-2004), but the question as posed has passed its expiration date.

Name the Native American woman who may soon be canonized.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was canonized in 2012 and led a tragically short but interesting life. She was an Algonquin-Mohawk, the first Native American to be canonized.

Most other questions remain valid.

What is the name of Emperor Constantine’s decree that legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.?

The Edict of Milan

Bravo. As a student of ancient history and a Constantinian numismatist, I am pleased to see this vital moment in church history acknowledged.

Was St. Francis of Assisi a priest?

No

Good one! Most of us who’ve studied medieval history would probably get that right, but I assume the majority of Christians (Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox) would likely err on the side of ordaining Francis.

Which pope authorized the use of torture during the Inquisition?

Innocent IV

The irony of his chosen papal name is almost torturous. Admittedly, it was an improvement on his given name, Sinibaldo Fieschi.

A fair number of questions about ecclesiastical paraphernalia appear. To advance in the game, it helps to know your patens, piscina, and cinctures from your purificators, pyxes and cruets.

Is a “stermutatory” a piece of furniture found in a church?

No. A stermutatory is something that makes you sneeze.

That said, if some of the pews have grown so musty that they aggravate worshipers’ allergies, wouldn’t they qualify?

Some of the trivia provides arcane information sure to surprise one’s peers.

What is a cardinal who observers believe may have a chance of becoming pope called?

Papabile.

Nice to know . . . Now I just have to think of a way to work that into a typical conversation.

Seriously, using a word like this to show off one’s knowledge of obscure things reminds me of a passage I read many years ago attributed to St. Hereticus.* It offers satirical advice on how to upstage others in religious conversations.

The Superior Knowledge Gambit (not for beginners). Easier to illustrate than explain:

Opponent: I think my interpretation of the church has full historical precedent in Augustine.

Self: (starting hesitantly, but gradually gaining assurance until the final words are spoken with complete authority, in an ex cathedra tone of voice): But surely, much as I admire your exposition, really now, which interpretation of Augustine’s do you mean? There are at least five (eyes to the ceiling for a brief moment of counting), yes five . . . (pause, then confidently) There are at least five interpretations of the church in Augustine’s extant writings. (Give ever so slightly more emphasis to the word “extant.”)

. . .

Help from St. Augustine. A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of Opponent. Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and that not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine.”

Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .

Or,

Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.

Self:Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate your point has been made.

Well, that is enough trivia for one day. In my next post I’ll discuss some more substantial literary and theological concerns that emerge in the questions. Until then, one final trifle to entertain.

What 1975 film tells the story of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail as a comedy?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Some Python humor is too irreverent (or even blasphemous**) for my tastes, but this historic fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I especially love the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog which can only be dispatched by the “holy hand grenade of Antioch.”)

_____

* The Collected Writings of St. Hereticus by Robert McAfee Brown. An irreverent look at many aspects of ecumenical life in the mid twentieth century.

** Some (perhaps much) of the Python corpus leans towards vulgarity, but if you still enjoy the humor—and you are offended by blatant blasphemy, avoid reading the lyrics to their song, “All Things Dull and Ugly.”

There is a more positive connection between Monty Python and C.S. Lewis, however. John Cleese recorded The Screwtape Letters in 1995, lending his voice to the devilish “author” of the correspondence.

poetsWhen does our appreciation of a particular writer border on literary idolatry? Well, not idolatry proper, since even shrines like Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey don’t endorse “worship.”

We naturally appreciate the memory of those whose work has contributed to our lives. And that’s fine. But when we begin to focus more on them, than on the real, breathing people around us, our priorities are skewed.

In 1989, Hollywood released a film entitled “Dead Poet’s Society.” It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and ironically won the Oscar for Best Writing. In the movie, an English teacher awakens his moribund students to literature, and the more reflective aspects of life.

At last week’s writers meeting, we were introducing ourselves to a visitor, and as part of that process, mentioned the type of writing each of us pursues. I listed several genres and concluded with the words “but I’m not a poet.”

A member of the group immediately “corrected” me, since I have, in fact, written several poems during the past couple of years. Well, I guess I should get used to saying something like, “I don’t consider myself a poet.”

Poetry, some poets insinuate, carries a more artistic air than other, pedestrian genres. Fiction, of course, has its own advocates, and they too occasionally look down on folks like me who typically muddle around in the nonfiction worlds history and religion.*

In the following paragraphs, C.S. Lewis offers some provocative thoughts about how we should rightly feel toward departed writers. His argument is really about how we must not neglect our duty to living humanity by focusing on those who are “gone.”

A special treat in the selection is his coining of the word which inspires the title of this post.

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little.

It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious. You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify.

Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you.

He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come. I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace.

If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour. Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy).**

Lewis alleges our emotional “bonds” with departed writers are fruitless, imaginary, and perhaps even detrimental. I agree that when they displace our connections with living people, it is tragic.

While I rarely disagree with the Magister Lewis, I will in this case. I would make an exception to his argument—in a single sense. For Christians, our filial affection for a departed Christian writer, is a unique case. The distinction being the fact, that in light of the resurrection, and the gift of eternal life, we are not talking about others who are permanently severed from a genuine relationship with us.

On the contrary, there are many other disciples of Jesus living today who feel a powerful connection to writers like Lewis himself. And, with all eternity ahead, there should be ample time for each of us to enjoy his company, and thank him for the blessing he bequeathed to us through his work.

Postscript:

I recognize that it may be in questionable taste, but the subject of departed artists reminds me of a humorous song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s called “Decomposing Composers,” and the modestly disconcerting lyrics are rendered in a somber, classical manner. If interested, you can listen to it here.

_____

* I intentionally refer to “religion” as nonfiction, since I regard it to be just that. (And also because I know that pushes some people’s buttons.)

** Last year I approached this same passage by Lewis from a different perspective. If you would like to read some thoughts related to pet fads, check them out here.

Another Creative Outburst

March 11, 2012 — 1 Comment

…well, maybe not quite an “outburst.” Anyway, creating that “poster” for my last column proved a little too fun, and I had to revisit the website to invest a few more playful minutes. It took less time to draft the images below than it did to find the right graphics for each. Enjoy.