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Deep Comedy

Peter J. Leithart
Published by Canon Press in 2006

Peter Leithart’s Deep Comedy is an excellent example of interdisciplinary skill at work, calling upon history, theology, philosophy, and literature to paint a panoramic picture depicting a distinctly Christian worldview of history. This worldview stands in sharp contrast to other non-Christian worldviews, both ancient and (post)modern, that ultimately cave into tragic conclusions. Following the advent of Christ and the kerygma, there is a stark difference between non-Christian tragedy, in which the tragic is all the more tragic because it fails to apprehend the available “deep comedy,” and the Christian tragedy, which is informed inevitably by “deep comedy” as a recurring motif. In many ways Leithart’s treatment of historic Christianity’s intersection—or lack thereof—with cultures and history is quite reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live, though certainly not a repeat of such material.

The book is divided into three primary sections: Tragic History, Tragic Metaphysics and Theology, and Tragic Literature. Though his methods of interdisciplinarity are broad and competent, admittedly he neglects to venture into fields of anthropology or sociology, which he says, could have corrected some weaknesses. The author proves himself to be well read in the primary sources and interactive with the recent secondary sources, though at times the reader may feel saturated with extensive and frequent quotations by a limited number of these secondary sources.

Initially Leithart delimits his parameters broadly by defining tragedy as that which ends disastrously, while comedy is defined as that which ends triumphantly. Leithart does not state naïvely that only Christian stories produce comedies and that there is in secular literature a void of comedies; rather, he states that only Christian literature, the Bible and other noted derivatives, produces deep comedy. Deep comedy is defined by two distinctive characteristics: the happy ending is uncontaminated by any fear of future tragedy, and the characters do not only return to the pleasant state in which they were before the crisis but rather they flourish far beyond previous measure and circumstances.

Though Leithart claims this work to be more of an impressionistic essay than a formal academic treatise, its academic demeanor invites further discussion, exploration and debate. In fact, the author boldly and humbly states as a peripheral goal of this work its service as an impetus for other scholars to advance the suggestions offered in its pages.

With this in mind, I would like to offer some reactions to certain statements and themes. Leithart states that the classical world knew nothing of eschatology, and therefore nothing of deep comedy. This statement could be challenged by some who believe that Persian Zoroastrian apocalypses preceded Jewish apocalypses. Even if we believe that Jewish apocalypses predate Persian apocalypses, still the Persian and Hellenistic apocalypses are dated to the ancient and classical periods and perhaps were influenced by Jewish ones. Jewish and Christian apocalypses bring together both the tragic and the comic. In classical apocalyptic, the eschatological crisis can be summarized as such: things are looking bad for the faithful, only to turn from bad to worse, until the God steps in to settle the score and establish his kingdom forever. The apocalyptic notion of the eschaton is quite similar to our idiom “darkest before the dawn.” The idea that things get to be at their worst stage just before the triumph of the eschaton serves to make the contrast between the apparent and almost inevitable tragic ending and the glimmering hope of deep comedy all the more striking. Without fear of compromise, Leithart should emphasize tragic elements in Christian works more highly so as to create a greater dissonance with its own deeply comic conclusions.

While Leithart’s statement that a biblical picture of history is neither degenerative nor cyclical may be generally true, it is not an assertion that should remain unqualified. Consider the state of affairs in Judges, which narrates a degenerative and cyclical storyline. Take, for instance, the works of Samuel and Kings; both speak of a degenerative state of the nation with some use of cyclical language, calling to mind a comparison of a given king to either David or Jeroboam. Leithart does admit that certain “tragic” elements are expressed in prophecies such as those of Lamentations and Jeremiah, but these are not simply exceptions to the rule; they represent themes that are far more common than Leithart admits.

Tragedy is an absolutely necessary component if comedy is going to be enjoyed to its greatest extent. The darker the tragedy, the brighter the comedy, but unfortunately, the tragic element in Christian literature in his treatment is downplayed. Both Paul and Malachi speak in terms of the dawning age to come, the final eschaton. While it is still dark, they write, we see the light rays of an unbroken dawn coming and need to get busy doing the work we are commissioned to do. The Gospels certainly have that bent toward the tragic as Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem” to accomplish his (temporarily fatal) mission. This could easily have been intersected with a later dealt-with Heideggerian motif of being-toward-death. In other words, Heidegger’s Dasein is Christ’s cross, but in the case of the latter, this is only to pull off the deepest comedy, that through death and then resurrection, death itself is conquered and swallowed up, not by mundane life but by eternal life. He could have used this contrast to state that Jesus sets his face beyond Jerusalem, while Heidegger cannot move beyond his inevitable Dasein.

The author pinpoints accurately that deep comedy moves in reverse order of common-sensical assumptions, in that tragedy exposes the natural degeneration from life to death, but deep comedy begins with (spiritual) death and moves toward a life that is not or cannot be experienced even in the height of life in tragedy. The golden age is always before us rather than behind us, and any supposed golden age of the past is both unattainable and unwise to be desirous of recapturing. In contrast to biblical portrayals, Leithart’s general premise is that most literature moves from the greatest point to the worst in the course of human history. Instead the Bible moves from the greatness of creation to the worst conditions of depravity of fallen mankind to great promises of restoration through the resurrection of Jesus to the greatest end in God’s eternally established city, certainly without fear of any contamination, and hence the deepest comedy. Leithart concludes his discussion on the metaphysics of death by saying “Apart from the gospel, what other story is there?” yet does not take the time to explore the rich intricacies of the manners in which the Gospels play out this nuance literarily (71).

Leithart moves from assessing Plato—and the philosophers that take their cue from his foundations—to Derrida, whom Leithart claims rightly as the most influential thinker of our contemporary world with respect to “tragic metaphysics.” The author offers an assessment of Derrida with respectful criticism, but at times his interpretations seem convoluted. Similarly, Leithart moves from discussing Derrida’s theories to the incarnation of the second member of the Trinity by contrast, but does not stop to mention or address the strong objections that post structuralists have against the very idea that “the word became flesh.” Again, this would have been an excellent opportunity to make the contrast all the more glaring as well as to offer an apologetic for the biblical doctrine over against many poststructural critics, at least in this respect.

The final task Leithart undertakes is revealing the change that occurs in tragic and comic literature after the advent of the Christian message. He begins with Greek drama that demonstrates proclivity toward the tragic; even the comedies ultimately include the tragic since all is still moving toward the finite. I found conspicuously absent a discussion of the concept of irony. In fact, it is almost “ironic” to dig into the nuances of ancient Greek drama without a serious investigation into irony. Some discussion on comic and dramatic irony could have made for an interesting support for his point. For instance, we could go so far as to say that Christians, aware of the inevitable conclusion of the deep comedy, live as insiders to the comic ironic plot. While the world is slipping downhill and while the outsiders are extremely worried about the case as such, we can have overt and inner joy while God winks at his people privy to the irony. Other specific cases of irony could have been explored to bolster his points as well.

Leithart does an excellent job reading Shakespeare on a more profound level—particularly King Lear—discovering deeply latent Christian principles that most readers might not find so obvious. By reviewing the plots of King Lear, a tragedy, and Twelfth Night, a comedy, Leithart reveals certain biblical principles not present in pre-Christian tragedies or comedies. In tragedy, for example, man himself, not fate or the gods, ultimately is to blame for the bad ending; in comedy, happy endings happen despite man’s uncanny ability to spoil the good. His keen insights are thorough and intelligently presented. Certainly Leithart offers far more nuggets than space here permits.

Without hesitation I recommend this book sincerely to all my fellow Christian colleagues as a good read personally or professionally. I also think that it would make for a good supplemental text in a variety of courses such as early Western civilization, classical or postmodern philosophy, survey of Western literature, and of course, interdisciplinary studies. It would certainly be useful as a springboard for many healthy class discussions in these contexts. In the end we are challenged to be deeply comedic philosophically, historically, literarily and theologically in particular, and in our outlook of life in general. In his Afterward, Leithart hints at the need for a supplemental book devoted solely to deep tragedy. As readers we can hope that this is a venture that Peter Leithart will undertake in the near future.

Cite this article
Aaron Hebberd, “Deep Comedy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 384-386

Aaron Hebberd

Reviewed by Aaron Hebberd, Theology and the Arts, Imago Dei College, Com-munity Christian College