On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).

C.S. Lewis, Imagination, and Discipleship

Kevin Vanhoozer, in his 2013 Desiring God National Conference plenary message Saturday:

Let me state, in my own terms, what I think I’ve learned from Lewis.

Theology ministers understanding, so that we can live out our knowledge of God. Theology is practical, it is all about waking up to the real, to what is, specifically to what is ‘in Christ.’ For Christ is the meaning of the whole, the one in whom all things are held together.

And disciples demonstrate understanding by conforming to that what is ‘in Christ.’ It’s all about living out our knowledge of Christ. There are no armchair disciples. You cannot be a disciple in theory. So doctrines tell us what is ‘in Christ’ and that’s what we live by.

What is ‘in Christ?’

Incarnation, Trinity, atonement are not abstractions to be thought but meaningful patterns to be lived and entered into. The imagination, then, helps disciples act out what is ‘in Christ.’ Theology exchanges the false pictures that hold us captive with truth, disciplining our imaginations with sound doctrine.

Discipleship is a matter of the indoctrinated imagination.

Now, of course, we have to beware of having our imaginations taken captive by other things. Many of Screwtape’s things have to do with capturing the imagination for Satan’s purposes. If you control the metaphors and stories people live by, you’ve got them.

Imagination is where God gives creative form to his thoughts, and literary forms to his word. Jesus used what we could call the ‘parabolic imagination’ to give story form to his thought about the kingdom of God. And similarly, disciples need this ‘parabolic imagination’ so we can live in that kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus doesn’t describe what the kingdom looks like, he tells us what kinds of things happen there. The metaphors the disciples live by are those that awaken them to the kingdom things God is doing ‘in Christ.’

How Do We Defend Biblical Authority in Postmodernity?

This relatively tricky question increasingly appears in contemporary debates like the reoccurring debate over complementarity and mens/womens roles in the home and in the church. It simply isn’t possible to dismiss NT roles and also affirm the authority of the Bible at the same time. So then, how do we defend biblical authority in this age?

Kevin J. Vanhoozer helps answer this bigger question in his books The Drama of Doctrine and Is There a Meaning in This Text? and Everyday Theology and probably everything else he’s written. But he wrote the following in his article “Exploring the World; Following the Word: The Credibility of Evangelical Theology in an Incredulous Age” [Trinity Journal 16/1 (1995), 20–21]:

Biblical interpretation involves performance. Think of a pianist who interprets a Beethoven sonata. We speak of Alfred Brendel’s interpretation as opposed to Glenn Gould’s. Can we really “perform” texts? Can we put prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative into practice? Can we perform doctrine? psalm?

Certainly! We do so all the time: the fundamental form of interpretation is the way we live our lives each day. Our behavior is the true index to what we believe about biblical authority. The Bible lays claim to our whole being. Some of God’s words require our intellectual assent, others our pious submission, others our moral obedience, and others our cultural faithfulness.

Christian life and thought alike, then, are interpretations of Scripture. Our doctrine is our theoretical interpretation of the Christian story; our life is our practical interpretation. In the postmodern world, the best way to defend biblical authority may be to create a kind of community life in which the Bible functions as authoritative (and liberating).

No contemporary theory of the authority of the Bible can assume that a person will be convinced of the Bible’s authority apart from participation in the community of faith. To repeat: the fundamental form of Christian biblical interpretation is the corporate life of the Christian church. The church embodies the Word of God—this, at least, is its task, its privilege, and responsibility. In Lesslie Newbigin’s words: the church must be a “hermeneutic of the Gospel.” Think of the congregation as a living commentary. Biblical literacy—“following” the Word—should lead to Christian discipleship, to practicing the letter in our lives.