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G. K. and the “Second Shepherds’” pious tomfoolery

We know that it was once okay to smile while praying in this vale of tears where people sometimes laugh until they cry.

Detail from "The Annunciation to the Shepherds" (c. 1400) by the Limbourg brothers. []

“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” — G. K. Chesterton                                                                                           

Long before I came along with a story about a bishop who smoked cheroots and played poker, G. K. Chesterton confronted a nuisance, and true to form found a bit of practical wisdom in it. He noticed the aggravating tendency of printers to mistake the word comic for cosmic. Upon further reflection, he found something profoundly agreeable about this common misprint plaguing journalists of his day.

Chesterton surely sensed that the absence of the comic from the cosmic is the cause of a lot that is haywire with the world. He intended as much when suggesting that God conceals his mirth from humankind, perhaps hoping that discovering it on our own is the better way. This conviction is ever so evident in his wondrous and wandering biographies of St. Francis, St. Thomas, and Charles Dickens. Its spirit permeates The Ball and the Cross, The Man Who Was Thursday, and practically everything he wrote. It also has something to do with my card-playing bishop and a vexing question.

Why is Catholicism so often mirthless today, in an age absorbed in a great revival of interest in Chesterton’s thought? Why is a genial G. K. smiling beneath a processional cross while his followers resemble what novelist Sinclair Lewis described as men of measured merriment –the woefully self-absorbed; the furtive looking both ways at every cultural crossing; the nervously giggling careerists; the pop-theologians more and more sounding like sportscasters with their earnest post-game analysis of the latest theological dust-up?

It was not always this way. There was a time when writers and artists of all sorts felt free to find whimsy in religion and the foibles of religious folk. No better place to explore this than in the great cycles of medieval religious drama, the Miracle and Mystery Plays celebrated as part of festivals in the English cities of York, Wakefield, and Chester until snuffed out in a puritanical backlash against pious tomfoolery. That Chesterton knew about the comic mingling with the cosmic in medieval religious drama is clear in his extensive writings about Shakespeare (see The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on Shakespeare, edited and with an introduction by Dale Ahlquist).

It might be said of medieval religious drama that it made the men and women of Bible stories more laughable, and that in doing so made them more believable, and that this in turn inspired faith in Christianity. It may be that instead of pondering what a particular prelate thinks, we would better off knowing what he eats for breakfast or whether he has a comic book collection. I can well imagine Chesterton thinking so. It is the sometimes whimsical incidentals of our lives that define us as human beings and invite us to be taken seriously.

And so it is with wondrous medieval dramatizations featuring, for example, Noah perplexed by a nagging wife as he builds his ark; and St. Joseph, an old man, being ribbed for marrying a young woman heavy with child.  Of course, a fifteenth century audience knew the Annunciation story. Those heckling St. Joseph suggested Christ’s true paternity lay elsewhere. This was precisely the point. Thus a simple fifteenth century play became an amusing New Testament lesson about the Holy Spirit, the Virgin birth, and the patient stoicism of St. Joseph.

Chesterton could not have failed to admire the ‘Wakefield Master’, an anonymous fifteenth century playwright who penned perhaps as many as forty short plays including the greatest of them all, The Second Shepherds’ Play.

Lucky anyone who has seen a performance of The Second Shepherds’ Play, notably absent from Christmas programs, and yet so simple that school children could perform it: Three shepherds despair of a reprieve from nagging, cruel taxation, and thievery, all the while tending their flocks near Bethlehem. Their raucous litany of universal, timeless complaints, both comic and cosmic, takes place the very evening Christ is born. Later, that same night, the infant Christ becomes symbolically confused with a stolen lamb, and a likable rogue thief gets tossed in a blanket. The whole world laughs and worships beneath a chorus of angels and the promise of a world made better. This masterpiece, as transcendent as Christmas itself, can be seen reenacted all over the world on Christmas Eve where over glasses of beer and cups of mulled wine people echo the shepherds’ complaints while choirs rehearse for Midnight Mass.

Chesterton might have speculated that the world will end with a poor man’s mirth rather than his whimper. In his words, “Whatever is cosmic is comic.” The last trumpet call may begin a joyous parade. I have no idea whether G.K. ever witnessed an enactment of any of the majestically merry, and yet somehow devotional, Miracle and Mystery plays. Their performance revival is almost strangely recent, for example, in the Cathedral City of York.

There, an evening many years ago, I sat shivering with a crowd of locals, assembled in a sort of makeshift amphitheater with an ancient monastery ruins part of it. It helped little that hot air balloons faded from view as the sun went down and chill moonlight replaced it. A stage set version of the fires of hell burnt beneath a platform holding some ragtag shepherd sorts attempting to keep warm while discussing St. Joseph’s paternity problem.

The playful irony was as rich as the wine we sipped from paper cups, spellbound and quiet with heaven and hell above and beneath. We clapped to keep our hands warm while envying the actors assigned to play devils, nearest a warming blaze of course.

Where and when did seriousness and mirth part company in matters religious?  It’s tempting to think of it as a notably post-Reformation development, the banishment of tomfoolery along with popery given the toxic blending of politics and spirituality. Beheadings, stake-burnings, and witch trials are sufficiently serious to wipe smiles off anyone’s face.

Nevertheless, we know that it was once okay to smile while praying in this vale of tears where people sometimes laugh until they cry. It is evident in stained glass windows, tapestries, and altar screens. It can be seen in cathedrals throughout England and Europe where comical critters peer from the folds of pious drapery.

In noting the presence of the comic in the cosmic, G.K. was affirming something that had long existed, the pearl of laughter in the oyster shell of seriousness.

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About James Casper 5 Articles
James Casper was born and grew up in southern Minnesota. Apart from living in various Minnesota locales, he has resided in Boston, St. Louis, eastern Tennessee, and London, England. He and his wife of twenty-four years have traveled extensively. Rome is one of their favorite places. He is happiest walking from lock to lock along the Thames in England. His first novel is Everywhere in Chains. You can find more of his writing at his website,


  1. Many years ago, and for many years but never adequately, I tried my hand at teaching Confirmation classes. For a fresh angle I sometimes quoted Chesterton, especially this about righteous anger and about mirth:

    “…Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet, he restrained something. I say it with reverence, there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked on our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth” (the final lines in Orthodoxy).

  2. Jesus’ caustic humor, the mirth of the cognoscenti is found in Luke 18, 4 “For some time he [the unjust judge] refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or Man, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and do me harm!’”

  3. No offense, maybe you ought to lay off the alcohol. I see nothing amusing in rewriting the Gospel or finding comedy in the begetting, birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Or wondering about His paternity. Maybe I’m just an uneducated fool incapable of grasping humor in life and death situations. This article is offensive to me in that it reduces God to our level, a carnal level. I sincerely doubt that Jesus was skipping merrily through the desert, hanging with His good buddies the Angels while sacrificing Himself for all of humanity. Read and study your Bible, sir. Your soul is at stake. Let me know how funny it is to burn eternally with the likes of the condemned. Jesus didn’t come to earth to generate a heap of mirth. As I recall, He stated He came to destroy the works of the devil. Point being if you have ever encountered pure, malicious personal evil, I truly doubt you would laugh. And anyway the true Joy of living in friendship with God beats a belly-laugh any day, is much more sustainable for our souls and will get us through the rough patches more than a rip-snorting one-liner. Laughing has its place. But not at the expense of debasing the Sacred.

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