A Few Suggestions Towards a Christian Response to Mark Twain

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  1. Twain's humor at its best exhibits a playfulness and a creativity, which are character traits and actions that the Christian can affirm that God created us for. God's playful creativity is expressed in the universe, and our human dominion of creation is also playful. Surely, then, we can affirm that we were created in part to enjoy the whimsical and ironic.  Local color writings, such as "The Story of the Old Ram," "Buck Fanshawe's Funeral," and "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," all have a kind delight, even if they touch on human failures, too.  This can be seen as well in Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and playful pieces like " A Double-Barreled Detective Story" and "A Cat's Tale."

  2. There is even a sense of wisdom and wonder in such pieces as Old Times on the Mississippi or "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed."  In these places, Twain affirms the joy of the world, and he is willing to have a good laugh at himself.  There is a noble humility here.

  3. Twain's humor is also helpful in the way that it practices the virtue of truth-telling. Humor reverses our expectations, showing the wise to be foolish and the foolish, wise.  This is a good thing, for we should always be about the pursuit of truth and honesty.  Twain can uncover human pretensions like few other authors.  The way he exposes political expediency in "Cannibalism in the Cars" or "A Presidential Candidate" should be appreciated.

  4. Peter Berger suggests that a comic debunking of society actually allows us to love our enemies because we take them less seriously than they do.   Perhaps only the early Twain will allow this possibility to us, perhaps not even then.  Yet we still may do so despite his emphasis otherwise.  We may learn to love the political braggart or the boasting literary type.  We may have compassion on the hypocrite.

  5. Twain's hearty stress on the burly, eccentric bodily world is a worthwhile emphasis.  God's creation of the world and Christ's incarnation remind us that God created the physical, bodily world and called it good, even if it is now also subject to sin and corruption.  The Christian is one who exists in this world with its eating, defecating, and procreating. Christian comedy, then, should affirm and laugh at human life.  The  nature of Huck Finn or Buck Fanshawe is always one of being at home in their bodies.

  6. Twain also provides for us a dissenting voice on Christianity.   He is especially good at pointing out society's, including Christian society's, hypocritical actions.  It of course behooves us to be honest about the sin of so much Christian past, as well as our own sin. 

  7. Robert Roberts suggests that comedy's perception of incongruity arises from the "perspectivity" of the perceiver. There must be a vantage point from which something appears incongruous. He goes on to distinguish 1) "having a perspective," which is "to be capable of adopting" the perspective since it is "available or accessible" to you, from 2) "owning a perspective," which implies a tendency towards regularly adopting the perspective, and from 3) "adopting a perspective," which implies the actual activity of having a perspective present in oneself.  In this sense, one can temporarily experience another perspective through humor without necessarily being convinced by or abiding by it in any habitual way.  Twain's non-Christian voice is a way for us to understand his perspective, one that stresses the strange claims of Christian faith , as well as our noticeable hypocrisy.

  8. Twain's humorous world, whether kind, satiric, or sardonic and full of invective, raises the issue of audience response.  Not all laughter is equally virtuous.  There are moments when an audience should respond with sympathetic laughter, a stronger sense of righteous judgement, or perhaps even in a few occasions, with prophetic invective.  yet one can also respond with a self-deluding sense of superiority that believes that one could never be guilty of such things and a sense of smugness that is self-congratulatory rather than wise.

  9. Yet we should also beware that  comedy may work to subvert good social and moral standards of accountability.  Twain's relativism and later cynicism can be a corrupting force if it is not read with discernment and a balance of other voices.  If the underlying tone of "The Christmas Fireside" is one of playful discovery, its hint at a relativistic world has become more jaded and doubtful by "Seventieth Birthday Speech," yet even here, Twain has not lost a sense of fairness, however bleak, such as his political satire in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" or The Gilded Age.

  10. Roberts also argues that this disassociation that humor produces makes humility possible, for the person who finds his or her own behavior funny is able to see its dangers. More specifically, for the Christian, there is always the incongruity between one’s sinful, current self which will only be complete in the eschaton, and one’s positional, justified self, the self that God sees us as in Christ.  If Twain helps us to laugh at Christian sin, then we can be the better for it.

  11. Reinhold Niebuhr argues that our "provisional amusement" with the world’s incongruities must either move to faith and joy or bitterness and incredulity.  Humor has its limits; if laughter seeks to deal with ultimate issues, it turns bitter because it is overwhelmed.  Humor alone cannot find a way to deal with human sin and wickedness.  This may in part explain why Twain's humor becomes increasingly bitter and sardonic.  After the laughter, he has no place to turn for solutions.

  12. Twain's later writing is especially subject to a sense of relativism and hopelessness.  Even in Twain's early humor, there can be a distrust of human virtue or human hope, but a wonder still remains.  In his later work, especially "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "Eve Speaks," and the fragments that make up The Mysterious Stranger, Twain has lost hope in human reason and rages against a God he doesn't believe exists.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding