In Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, Anthony Esolen argues that Christianity introduced into European literature a new understanding of irony, an understanding found neither in the classical literature of the pre-Christian West nor in the various strains of post-Christian literary theory that infect the academy today.  Rejecting self-contradicting and self-devouring notions of irony that lead to relativism or even nihilism, Esolen posits three forms of Christian irony—of time, power, and love.

As Esolen states in the Preface, these ironies depend on

the Christian mysteries of incarnation and transcendence, free will and design, sin and redemption, blindness and vision, freedom and submission, and, most of all, the subtle strand that links human love to the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Such ironies, as the reference to the closing lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy indicates, are dependent on a “disjunction between planes of knowledge”—the difference between what God knows and what we know, a disjunction evident in the placement in Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven of persons whose earthly status often differed greatly from their place in eternity, and also in the story of the ram that God unexpectedly provides Abraham to sacrifice in place of Isaac.  Postmodern irony rests on the statement that all is relative or absurd or indeterminate, which is put forth as an absolute in logical violation of its very claim.  Christian irony does not leave us with a world deconstructed into a meaninglessness that consumes yet also rebuts itself.  Rather, it discloses a deeper and happier order (worthy of the “laughter” of the book’s subtitle).  As Esolen says,

[Christian] irony arises . . . from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order  . . .  from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth.

True irony begins in “the humility of wonder,” which Esolen finds in authors such as the anonymous “Pearl” poet, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Hopkins, who put God, Creation, and others—not themselves—at the center of their works.

Esolen’s survey of examples of the ironies of time, power, and love in European literature is wide ranging.  As an illustration of the irony of time, Shakespeare’s Tempest demonstrates that God governs the desires of evil men and restores the just to power in His own good time.  Ending with a harvest dance, The Tempest also demonstrates that “For Christians the rhythm of the seasons reflects God’s order: it is nature’s prayerful office of the year.”  In Tolkien’s story “Leaf, by Niggle,” a picture of a tree by a negligible artist, though unfinished, holds within its one finished portion—a leaf—what in eternity is revealed: an image of the entire tree.  The leaf also suggests the ancient mythic image of the cosmos as world-tree.  Esolen is surely right in saying that we cannot know whether the purportedly great events that make up our chronicles are, in God’s eyes, really the most important events in human history.  Niggle’s leaf, like Blake’s grain of sand, contains eternity within itself in a way that whole shelves of naturalistic fiction can never hope to do.  What kind of man would Augustine have been, Esolen asks, and what effect, if any, would he have had on Western civilization but for the faith of his mother, Monica?

The irony of power is beautifully examined in Esolen’s commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which sterile feminist notions of equality and the virtual interchangeability of the sexes are contrasted with the Christian concept of an egalitarianism within a hierarchy of submission—Eve to Adam, and Adam to God—in which the servant-leader, Adam, is charged to lay down his life for Eve if need be, just as Christ as the New Adam would lay down His life for all humanity.  Indeed, throughout this book, Esolen reminds us repeatedly of biblical examples of the irony of power, bringing to mind God’s use of the younger son, the defeated people, the last faithful prophet, Gideon’s band, the flawed man (Moses, David, Peter), and the ironic reversal of expectations—the Messiah born as a helpless Child Who will one day enter Jerusalem not with sword and shield but on the back of an ass, to die as a criminal, on a cross, yet thereby to establish His Kingdom.

The irony of love is shown to inform such works as George Herbert’s “Love (III),” in which the poet’s soul arrives in Heaven as a patron comes to a tavern, yet not, as the soul expects, to serve Love (Christ) but to be served by Love in the form of a tavern waiter.  Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti reveals the subtle interplay of eros and agape, or, as Spenser says, addressing the woman he will marry, “So let us loue, deare loue, lyke as we ought, / loue is the lesson which the Lord vs taught.”  Such redeeming love often comes by way of a child.  Examples Esolen considers include Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, who transforms Scrooge into a childlike man (“I’m quite a baby”) so as to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven by loving others more than money; and, supremely, the daughter who dies at two in “The Pearl.”  By having the dead child meet her inconsolable father, “The Pearl” brings together all three Christian ironies that Esolen examines, revealing that, from God’s perspective, all of time is providentially ordered; that a child, even a dead child, has the power to take her father’s grief and make it into an agent for his spiritual rebirth; and that the love of Christ as seen in her will lead the father to desire not a return of his dead child but union with the Christ Child, Who made the daughter and to Whose heavenly bosom the child has been recalled.

Esolen has tried to show “that the teachings of Christianity give to irony a richer constellation of possibilities than the pagan world could have supposed existed.”  In the end, he believes, “The Christian faith teaches that the last laugh is on the world.”

Anthony Esolen’s Ironies of Faith is a much-needed Christian response to radical contemporary theorists whose corrosive irony can only destroy itself; by teaching us how to read the great works of the Christian imagination, he helps to save them from those who seek their annihilation.


[Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, by Anthony Esolen (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 412 pp., $28.00]