A few weeks back, over on EsoterX, I was reading about circus oddities. Perceptive as always, EsoterX notes that the carnival or circus used to be disturbing. Before being commercialized and sanitized, otherwise civilized folk crept out of town to gaze at the bizarre and troubling aspects so effectively hidden from 9 to 5. Among the most disconcerting of the carnies was the clown. Horror writers and film makers have long focused on the ambiguity of the clown—faces are our clues to the intentions of another person. A face painted is opaque and we feel as vulnerable as in the presence of the false evangelical smile that hides a spiritual deadness in hardened eyes. You are about to be victimized. It is no wonder that small children—and not a few adults—are freaked out by clowns. At times they make us laugh, but mostly they make us tremble.
Those who know or read me may have a difficult time believing that I once was a clown. Not a professional one, of course—it is even more difficult to believe I’ve ever been a profession anything—but part of a campus clown ministry. Beyond simple titillation, I state this fact because, like most things in my life, I researched clowning before I became a part of it. Those books are, of course, packed away with other forgotten bits of personal marginalia but I remember bits and pieces. The origins of the clown are religious. In fact, in the most ancient of societies clowns were most often played by priests. Their early bungling, which may go back to the third millennium BCE, was perhaps a way to indicate that even the somber role of the cleric could be taken too seriously. Like modern concepts such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, that which is sacred builds such pressure that normal people become a little unhinged. We erupt into frivolity while the divine turns a blind eye. Or secretly smiles.
Clowns for Christ was a Grove City College organization that I revived in my Junior year, serving as president and acquiring a campus charter. Based on 1 Corinthians 4.10, we declared ourselves “fools for Christ,” reprising, unknowingly, an ancient pagan custom. We visited nursing homes and mental hospitals and other campus events, bringing the good news in the form of silent skits. The clown traditionally does not talk. Even today when I hear a clown in makeup speak I give him or her a glare—clowning is physical, not audible. As I left college I left behind my childish ways (at least some of them). And the years since have taught me to be afraid of clowns, as any reasonable person should be.