NPJ Book Review: Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by M.A. Screech


Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by M.A. Screech (1997)   My take: A metaphorical gem in the literary theological rough. It’s a work that offers literary insights into humor as it relates to the darkness of what was known as the hanging tree or cross. In ancient Judea the hanging tree was considered one of the most repugnant and humiliating forms of punishments for cultural and religious misdeeds conjured up in the human mind’s lust for blood revenge on individuals. (Though today we have come along way in our thirst for blood and over the past century have moved toward mass killing/murder through apocalyptic scenarios of genocide, nuclear, biological and environmental warfare.)

This work in my view is about the role of laughter amid our fears, insecurities and arrogance. Screech is brilliant in his essay narrative format. Each short chapter is a journey through the centuries offering a literary context to how people perceive and are caught up in the sweep of events from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance, from Aristotle to Rabelais and Erasmus, about the meaning of laughter particularly in light of the horrible death of Jesus (and symbolically others) who is mocked by not only the crowds and others hanging on the crosses besides him. The crowds laughed, berated, chided and quietly bemoaned. Laughter is beyond religion.

The laughter was painful and brutal but such is man, not because of sin, that was invented by man and then placed on an invisible God’s tongue, for no one has ever seen God according to the writer of St John, but by man’s animalistic nature and his desire to ridicule that which he doesn’t understand. In that sense such was the power and the presence of this “man” hanging in agony. Such a death directly pointed to those who watched in blood lust. Laughter was a way of dealing with shame, fear and conceit on some level…suffering is a form of entertainment especially when it’s someone else.

Christianity as a philosophy taught men and women how to practice dying. Men and women laughed at beliefs other than their own. The man who was called Jesus Christ on some levels was considered a lunatic. He was mocked while bleeding to death; he was mocked as being weak – if you’re “God” then save yourself. Their laughter was a “release” perhaps of a deeper emotion or lack thereof to be witnessed within historical and literary contexts.

Screech writes about Diasyrm, which he defines as “harsh, railing satire” combining “disparagement and ridicule.” The basic meaning is “tearing a man apart”…it became interwoven within the Judeo-Christian mind and experience. To understand the meaning of laughter at the foot of the cross is to look at it through various literary eyes over the centuries.

Screech reminds us in summing up his thoughts that,” Not all laughter is directed at enemies. Charity can open the floodgates of joy, and joy can lead to ample laughter.” Perhaps it is laughter and our ability love thy neighbor that makes us human more than any other traits in spite of pain and suffering.

Belief is a leap of faith, in the words of the Danish philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. It’s an abstract trying to become a reality. Laughter may be a natural release of an insecure human body and brain trying to craft meaning to the nonsensical. Laughter is placed in categories whether literary, theological or philosophical as humans come to grip with their own existential angst perhaps even when they don’t perceive it as such. Laughter is human.

Where does that leave us? I suspect deep within each of us is the potential realization the universe was not created for human benefit alone. Still, as Voltaire’s Candide suggested, we must cultivate our garden. This piece of earth is all we have. And laughter and love are essential seeds while vanity; greed, hate, narcissism and the winner and loser mentality obliterate those seeds created/grown within each man and woman.

This work is eminently readable and could be used as a reference as its index allows for quick searches.