Theology of the Bawdy

In any decent education there should be a place for the indecent. Students should read stories like “The Miller’s Tale,” see plays like Romeo and Juliet, and learn songs like “Drunken Sailor.” The inclusion of low, lewd themes sometimes attracts curiosity and criticism in the realm of classical education, and especially Catholic classical education: How could any school justify material that involves roguish romances, drunkenness, or crude behavior? Though the shadow of the proverbial millstone might seem to hang about the necks of teachers who do not shy away from the unseemly, the bawdy, base, and burlesque are vital elements in the rearing of any Catholic worth his salt. Without an experience of earthiness—be it through song, story, or celebration—it is difficult to live on earth in a manner that merits heaven. Though prudence is ever necessary, the risk of the bawdy is one worth taking in the art of education for it bears the potential of providing a very particular theological sanity.

There is a venerable custom of vulgar humor in the annals of good folklore and great literature: Aristophanes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes are a few authors famous for portraying the coarser sides of life. These themes deal with the rude, rock-bottom, and ribald characteristics of human nature, portrayed in straightforward, comic fashion without shame or apology. The boorish in folk tradition and art deals with things that most people avoid acknowledging in a manner so direct they become delightful. In so doing, the bawdry helps expose those deviant aspects of nature that can paradoxically draw man closer to God—to theology—by demonstrating with humility and hilarity how much he needs Him.

Bawdy and tawdry educational devices are not intrinsically evil, but rather little winks at wickedness, acknowledging the reality of evil—which is the first step in avoiding it. The bawdy is distinct from pornographic depictions of excess and extremism insofar as it does not intend to elicit erotic or errant reaction. On the contrary, the only thing the bawdy seeks to stimulate is laughter in a fitting response to the ridiculous. The bawdy is not titillating or degrading. Classical crudities are not provocative or malicious. They are merely mischievous. Though, objectively, they depict sin, or at least sinful nature, they retain an element of innocence and playfulness, providing a momentary and recreational escape from the law. One may even surmise that the bawdy is a bizarre return to the Garden of Eden, where a lack of shame regarding the body dominates without the sense of sinfulness. The bawdy is undeniably more intellectual than passionate, turning on puns, absurdity, double-entendre, and counter-pointing, while pornography is never clever.

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Though care must be taken that lines are not crossed, the bawdy creates an atmosphere of moral relaxation in a spirit of festivity for the sake of moral fortitude, having conceded and cautioned against those lower inclinations and foibles that man must bear. Festivity, however, tends toward abundance, where the danger of excess can rear its head. In the same way is the body prone to corruption; but the bawdy presents that tendency without guilt or shame in a laughing pedagogy rooted in realism, rather than lackadaisical hedonism. It is more ontological than moral, recognizing human fallibility and feelings without condemnation or consent. Ancient bawdiness is a rebellion against modern Gnosticisms that hold the body as insignificant or insidious. Allowing the crude and crass to occupy a lively corner on the horizon of a Catholic worldview fends off the heresy that the body—and therefore the bawdy—is evil and must be held at bay and at all costs. God gave man a body, though, and the bawdy not only emphasizes this, but also admits the fact that the body is actually a comic thing, rather than a corrupt thing. Though there are natural human comforts that are good that can become unnatural and harmful if given into in excess, the bawdy presents a vicarious experience of such temptations that is both celebratory and cautionary.

Bawdy stories and songs about real temptations and errors that real people fall into reinforce the all-too-easily-forgotten fact that people are just people. Catholics are people and are called to work with people, and all manner of people. The reality of the Church is that it is comprised of every type of Chaucerian pilgrim with their particular faults and flaws. In short, the Church is comprised of sinners, not of saints. Another factor in this consideration is that, though perilous, people can come to know and embrace virtue by encountering vice. The bawdy is a happy and un-sanctimonious reminder that men and women are weak and in need of self-correction and divine redemption; and that among the best responses to sin is to laugh at it and treat it as the specious thing it is. When sin becomes the subject of jolly and silly songs and tales that revel reservedly in a complete picture of the human condition, it becomes conquerable. When sin is taken lightly, it cannot enforce. The bawdy, brash, and brutal strains of vaudevillian imagination are frank about foibles, which, again, can be the first step in avoiding the pitfalls they make fun of without compunction. These do not glorify sin, but present it as a matter of fact and not something to be overly alarmed about, let alone paralyzed by. Sin should not inspire fear, for then it claims victory through scrupulosity.

In the end—and especially regarding the education of youth—there has to be some calculated and controlled hazard. Some, unfortunately, will fall if introduced to the bawdy and the brazen. Some will be Icarus, and it is tragic. Some, however, will keep the middle course. The risk is worth running, for there must be a balance struck between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Otherwise wisdom is not wondrous and the farcical is not funny. Much Catholic pedagogy, though certainly pious and certainly well intentioned, produces an over-solemnization of things like sex. To be sure, the human person is holy; but the human person is still spiritual and physical; and the physical is something to be taken with levity and gravity at the same time. It is both serious and ridiculous, but neither characteristic should dominate. If all is silly, people become cynical. If all is para-liturgical, people become puritanical. If both are recognized, then there is room for the sacred play of creation and the festive humor of the bawdy.

Everything should be taken with common sense and a sense of humor. Humor sustains sanity, for it provides the relief and balance required to avoid insanity. It keeps men level. It keeps them healthy. People are refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than by academic analyses. Everyone needs the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is the basis of Christian humor: that man is both king and jester. It is true that people will not always like what they see when they hold up the mirror. But when they see something there that disturbs, one strategy to remedying the situation is to have a good laugh over it. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it,” and the same can be said of the human condition that God called good—which is a theological lesson worth learning and especially if it can be learned through laughter.

Editor’s note: The scene above depicts con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields) kissing the hand of gold digger Flower Bell Lee (Mae West) in the 1940 western “My Little Chickadee.”


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