Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis
Terry Lindvall, Ph. D.
Thomas Nelson, 1996
Terry Lindvall’s Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis is a brilliant title. What? The serious doctrinarian, the weighty theologian, delving into the realms of grief, repentance, conversion and evil, for goodness’ sake, has a funny side? I wish I had written it.
No, I really wish I had written it. Lindvall’s writing stumbles all over itself and the title puts the bar way higher than the reality can ever reach. And there is nothing funny about that.
You kind of know you’re in trouble when he writes in the acknowledgements, “This book owes itself to the merry band of friends, colleagues and guides who contributed generously to my seeing and thinking and to my learning and laughter.” Who writes like that? Oh, that’s right. C. S. Lewis does. Lindvall’s continuous slipping into the “voice” of Lewis is like hearing a soft chuckle turn into a series of snorts and gasps. Not really laughter. Not really good writing.
“Flippancy is the laughter that keeps one out of the kingdom of God. For those who would feast on tainted laughter, and not be satisfied with daily bread, it is the sad, cotton-candy taste of death. Flippancy does not nourish, but devours and even cannibalizes others and eventually the self. And yet at the table of this earthly life, when one is hungry for a laugh, it appears the tastiest and most tempting dessert and the easiest to make.” (p. 431)
I’ve read nearly all of Lewis’ works – several times. There was a touch of this malady in Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy as he describes his correspondence with Lewis. There was even a touch of this voice plagiarism in the recent Surprised by Oxford by Barbara Weber. Lindvall’s insistence of adding homilies in the voice of Lewis are a huge distraction. And not funny.
The book does a good job of presenting material from the Lewis catalogue into various types of humor, such as “Humor of the Self,” “Joy and Suffering,” “Laughter as Thanksgiving,” “Humor and Humility,” “the Fun in Nature,” and the “Sword of Satire.” Within these various chapters are examples from a range of works and then a discussion of the use of humor by others close to Lewis, heavy on G.K. Chesterton. There are extensive examples of what is NOT funny – examples of laughter mixed with pain, laughter mixed with longing, even laughter mixed with sarcasm or meanness.
The book is a serious, scholarly tomb. It has thorough information packaged in a way so Lindvall gets to indulge his Lewis-like, advice from a great-uncle using archaic language – type commentary. Getting past that annoyance, it’s a good summary to counteract the characterization of Lewis as a heavy-handed, serious doctrinarian. But the audience for this book, those who have read and enjoyed Lewis’ works, already know that.
That’s the joke.