Seven Books of Fools & Sacred Folly

or, I don't think that word means what you think it means.

“Happy April Fool’s Day!” Maybe you’ve heard — or said — this knee-jerk phrase today. We spit out such easy phrases every time a festival comes around (“Happy Mother’s Day!” “Happy Birthday!” “Happy Halloween!” “Happy Veteran’s Day!”) , but what does that even mean? What makes a fool’s day happy?

In Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools, Max Harris argues that we might we wise to reconsider the meaning of fools in our history and culture, and the origin of this strange day. We’ve long thought of April Fool’s day as being rooted in a riotous, disorderly, profane mockery of respectable society, especially the hierarchy of the church. Not so! says Prof. Harris. By returning to original historical documents and carefully untangling fact from rumor, Harris uncovers instead a reverent liturgy that was in fact an alternative to wild misrule. Celebrated in only a few Cathedrals and churches in northern France at the turn of the thirteenth century, the feast used role reversals in liturgical worship, with minor clergy taking leading roles, to give thanks to God for choosing the foolish and humble, rather than the great and powerful, to accomplish His purposes, and especially for humbling Himself to take human form as the Suffering Servant. This idea, that the Good News was an act of God that turned the world upside down, confounding our notions of honor and propriety, is an ongoing Biblical theme.1

It didn’t take long for the rest of the church to imitate the world, taking offense at God’s topsy-turvy notions. By the fifteenth century, church leaders who has heard unflattering rumors and distorted accounts of this form of worship were writing attacks against it, sometimes exaggerating or even deliberately lying to make their point. Later generations believed those false accounts all too readily, mixed them up with other festivals, and obscured the understanding of the original liturgy & it’s meaning.

Exalting — respecting, honoring, loving — worthless people was an offensive thing in Jesus’ day, and to call someone a worthless fool is still an insult today, one we use frequently. But perhaps we’d be wise to rethink that practice, too:

This almost throwaway line usually gets short shrift in many Christian circles. And it’s true that this same chapter in Matthew’s Gospel raises issues that are seemingly more important. Jesus talks about himself as the fulfillment of the Law, for example. That’s pretty important. He talks about adultery. He talks about divorce. He talks about lying. All these things are significant statements. But almost in the same breath, he talks about speaking kindly to one another, not slandering one another, not calling one another’s names, and does so quite in the strongest terms.

Why do we overlook this? Probably because we do it so often.

“Whoever says to his brother raca will be answerable to the Sanhedrin [the Jewish court],” Jesus says, “and whoever says ‘you fool’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”

That’s strong stuff. If you engage in name-calling, you’ll go to hell. Pretty surprising, given what Christians usually focus on. When’s the last time you heard a Christian in public life speak in such strong terms about name-calling?

–Rev. James Martin, S.J.,  Matthew 5:22: The Forgotten Gospel Passage on Name-Calling

So it seems our notions of fools and foolishness could use some close examination. Here’s a list of seven fools to help us out:

  1. Seven Samurai It’s been called “the greatest film in Japanese cinema.” My boys & I can believe it! Layers of fear, friendship, justice, respect, heroism, and tragedy make Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece a film to watch over many times. Toshiro Mifune as samurai-wannabe Kikuchiyo shows that even the lowest fool can have virtues unseen at the surface.
  2. King Lear Shakespeare’s play of family and foolishly placed loyalty, and a fool that speaks the truth to a tragic king.
  3. Mimus Lilli Thal’s grim, complex medieval story of growing up through coping with pain and defeat, in which captured Prince Florin is apprenticed to Mimus the Fool, “a bundle of contradictions as victim, victimizer, and possible savior.”
  4. Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories Isaac Bashevis Singer’s brilliant stories of folks who may be fools, but don’t let that hold their hearts back. (Great to read aloud!)
  5. God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assissi A look at a young man who wanted what every young noble wants: glory and honor in battle, fame and fortune at home — and of what happened when he abandoned those dreams for a foolishness that changed the world.
  6. Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther We are fools for our hearts, seeking meaning, seeking love, and sometimes finding only grief. Barry G. Webb takes us through the “five scrolls” to wrestle with the way life makes fools of us, and offers us garments of love, kindness, suffering, vexation, and deliverance.
  7. How to Read Proverbs “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom — but only fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Leading us through explorations of the cultural context and the setting in Scripture of the Biblical Book of Proverbs, Tremper Longman III doesn’t let us get complacent with a shallow understanding of wisdom.

  1. See, for example, Luke 1:46-55 or Philippians 2:1-11

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