PSR graduate clowns around for tolerance

March 31, 2010

Gisela MatthiaeIn 1990, while Gisela Matthiae was a student at PSR, she participated in an event for the school president. Far from being a stolid affair, Matthiae took advantage of the lighthearted occasion and festooned the president with a crown of balloons. From that moment, her career path—and spiritual path—changed. “The most striking part of the experience was how I could get in touch with everybody through that clowning,” Matthiae (Certificate of Special Studies, 1991) remembers. “This is how I feel most in my clowning ever since: the direct way of communication, contact without bluff, sharing emotions, clarity, and honesty.”

Matthiae, who is German and lives in her home country, now works as a clown and comedian within her church. She also teaches clown ministry and feminist theology. Although humor may seem out of place in sacred spaces, Matthiae maintains that humor has a revered role—and a special ability to promote personal and communal growth—in Christianity.

“Sometimes we take ourselves, our services, our theology, our ways of thinking and believing too seriously,” Matthiae says. But she points to prominent church figures, such as Paul, who refer to humor as a way of expressing faith. After all, she says, “Humor takes the cross seriously but not too seriously, because death does not have the last word to say about God’s incarnation in Jesus. I owe so much to Doug Adams who taught me this other perspective on the Bible.” Adams, who pioneered the study of art and religion at PSR, also drew on humor in the many facets of his work.

Rather than simply provide a quick laugh to break up an otherwise serious service, Matthiae uses clowning to illustrate deeper ideas and connect with congregants. “Clowning works like an instrument of analysis. It is a perception which looks through and beyond ritualized and often restrictive forms of communication and open other ways of thinking, acting, and attitude,” she says.

What’s more, clowning can encourage change by gentle joking rather than authoritative injunctions. “Clowns mirror us critically without blaming us. They invite us to see and act differently in a very friendly and charming way,” Matthiae says. Ultimately, the German clown sees humor as a way to inspire tolerance and open-mindedness.

“Dogmatism and fundamentalism are without humor and, I dare to say, can never be Christian,” Matthiae says. “Christian faith is dialogue, not monologue. And I think we definitively need more dialogue and more respect for diversity.”