Life's busy, read it when you're ready!

Create a free account to save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

Browse thousands of RP articles

Articles, news, and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians.

Get Articles Delivered!

Articles, news,and reviews with a Biblical perspective to inform, equip, and encourage Christians delivered direct to your inbox!

Create an Account

Save articles for later, keep track of past articles you’ve read, and receive exclusive access to all RP resources.

Advertisement

Hot Topics



Most Recent


Humor, Theology

Humor and the life of faith

"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God"  – G. K. Chesterton

*****

Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:

As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).

All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).

Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."

Humor, Theology

What is humor?

What is humor? It seems a simple question, with a very obvious answer: humor is whatever makes us laugh or smile. But then what of all the cruel pranks and the sacrilegious gags that make so many laugh? Even the crudest of comedians can get big laughs. The fact is, we laugh at a lot of things that just aren’t funny. So we aren’t interested in simply what makes us laugh. Instead we’re going to explore genuine humor, the sort of humor that gets laughs but can be shared without shame – we’re going to explore Christian humor. DEFINITION OF HUMOR Humor is a term used in English since the early eighteenth century to denote a type of writing or speech whose purpose it is to evoke some kind of laughter. So laughter is a key element. But we want to go deeper – we want to go beyond the knock knock joke. Instead of being something merely light or superficial, the best humor depends upon profundity. "A humorous rejoinder, " said Kierkegaard, "must always contain something profound." For example here’s a joke about a person getting their just deserts (as described in Galatians 6:7-8):  While doing his daily rounds a prison chaplain stopped in on a prisoner who had been assigned the task of making pillowcases for the entire 5,000 inmate prison. “Good morning,” said the chaplain, “Sewing, eh?’ “No, Chaplain, “ replied the prisoner with a grim smile. “Reaping.” Elton Trueblood observed that humor takes intelligence: "It is not possible to have genuine humor or true wit without an extremely sound mind, which is always a mind capable to high seriousness and a sense of the tragic." THE NEED FOR HUMOR Sometimes humor is dismissed as being trivial but genuine humor is an important and effective tool in many settings. Properly used, it can allow us to see our lives in more realistic proportions, restrain an explosion of anger, and deliver us from pessimism and despair, and do so much more. For example, it can be a wonderful educational tool and a means to restoring order in a classroom with a smile. It can even be a way to ensure better parent/teacher relations as a wise Grade 1 teacher was said to have done by sending the following note home on the first day of school: "If you promise not to believe everything your child says happens at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says happens at home.” Humor is a necessity within the church as well. When we lose our sense of proportion and humor, controversies in the church become battlefields. We look for "heretics" in each corner and even tend to look under our bed before we dare to go to sleep. We can be so busy with controversies we can no longer hear the footsteps of our approaching Lord, whose coming is at hand. And how sad it is to see people spend time and energy to paint their position in bright colors and put others in worse light than warranted. We may not build bomb-free shelters where criticism cannot enter. Humor should not be overlooked in evangelism either. It is easy to visit people who are with you, but it is hard when they are filled with bitterness against the Lord and His church. With tact and humor we can make contact with people who are filled with criticism against church members, and especially ministers. Real humor blossoms only where God's Word has taken root. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones," says Solomon (Prov. 17:23). So a Christian remembers that he is always in the presence of God, and his speech is the gift of the Creator. As Augustine put it: "Speech is not simply our possession; it is God's gift to us. To recognize and acknowledge this gift in truthful words is to offer grateful praise to the One from whom it comes." LAUGH AT YOURSELF All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself shows we understand some of our imperfections. A Christian who understands he is living his life under the judging eye of God does not boast about his moral achievements. He understands that is pride and folly. One of the qualifications of a missionary is a sense of humor - while learning a new language and new customs it is easy to make embarrassing blunders. When we were serving in the Philippines, I made my share, and a good laugh at myself helped me survive. But there is another side to laughing at oneself. If we keep laughing when we have done something wrong, if we cannot recognize the real evil of sin, laughter turns into folly. If we continue to laugh after having recognized the depth of evil we have committed, our laughter becomes the instrument of irresponsibility. DISTORTED HUMOR It is easy indeed for humor to be distorted. A.D. Dennison, a Christian cardiologist, says in his 1970s bestseller Shock it to me Doctor that he recalls one man who sped up to a drugstore and asked the druggist if he had anything for hiccups. The druggist, without a word, hit the man between the eyes and knocked him to the floor. The man slowly got up and graciously asked again, "Sir, do you have anything for hiccups?" The druggist replied, "You don't have them any more do you?" The man responded, "No, I never did, but my wife out in the car does." This may be a clever joke, but it’s is devoid of compassion and respect for others. Is this Christian humor? A type of humor often used during war is called "gallows humor." Soldiers are known on occasion to engage in hysterical laughter when nerves are tense before the battle. They speak flippantly of the possible dire fate which might befall this or that man of their company. "Sergeant," a soldier is reported to have said before a battle, "don't let this little fellow go into battle before me. He isn't big enough to stop the bullet meant for me." The "joke" was received with uproarious laughter by the assembled comrades. But when the "little fellow" died in battle the next day, everyone felt ashamed of the joke. At any rate, it was quite inadequate to deal with the depth and breadth of the problem of death. But as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out: "If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problems of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy, we also reduce it to meaningless. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy." HUMOR IN THE BIBLE If we are going to investigate true humor, then we must not overlook the Bible. The Bible deals with very serious subjects – heaven, hell, sin and salvation - but that should not cause us to overlook its literary beauty, and the humor in the Bible. There are critics who regard the Bible as deficient in the sense of humor and they can point to the fact there is little laughter in the Bible. But the Bible is filled with humor. Humor in the Bible appears especially when idolatry is mocked. One powerful example occurs when Isaiah pokes fun at a man who carves an idol from wood. In chapter 44:15-17 he describes in some detail the absurd process: "It is a man's fuel for burning, some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares a meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.'" GOD LAUGHS  The only instance in which laughter is attributed to God occurs in Psalm 2:4, which says, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” This is not a happy image – God is pictured laughing at man and having him in derision because of the vanity of his imagination and pretensions. God mocks kings who plan to divide the world amongst each other, while God says to the Messiah, " I will make the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (vs. 8). But the humor in the Bible is not limited to that of derisive laughter. Throughout Scripture God reveals a real sense of humor. When the human race wanted to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves, "the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building (Gen. 11:5). God acts as if the tower of Babel is so small that He can't see it from heaven – He had to come down to see it. And when Israel is threatened by the Philistines, God uses a most unlikely means to save His people so that the Messiah could come in the fullness of time. What does He do? God writes history with a small stone from a brook. Young David with a small stone smites Goliath and Israel was rescued. JESUS AND LAUGHTER The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the eternal Son of God took to himself, “a truly human nature so that he might become David's true descendant, in all things like us his brothers except for sin” (Q&A 35). So when we speak about Jesus and humor, we are not disrespectful, We accept His incarnation as real. He was seen as the carpenter's son. Christ's characteristic humor depends, for the most part, upon a combination of ideas rather than upon a combination of words. But it is very important to understand that the purpose of Christ's humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. When Jesus teaches His disciples about being light bearers in this dark world, he uses sly humor about where to put light. The message is about the necessity of witness, but the failure to be a witness is rendered laughable when Jesus asks, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushes, or under a bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21). Since the lamp mentioned has an open flame, and since the bed is a mattress, it is easy to see that in this situation the light would be suffocated or the mattress would be burned. The appeal here is to the patently absurd. The sensitive laugh; they get the point. When Christ said not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), He was again employing the patently absurd to make His point. Christ tells us that we are not to waste precious words or time or effort on those who chronically resist the Gospel. We must remember, of course, that the joke about casting what is precious before the pigs was even more preposterous for a Jewish audience than it is for us. The rejection of pork was deep-seated in their consciousness. Christ's major weapon against the Pharisaic attack was laughter, and He used it fully. The point at which they were most vulnerable was their manifest self-righteousness. There is no one more ridiculous than the sinner who claims to be perfect. Jesus asked the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting demons in the name of Beelzebub, "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?" (Matt. 12:27). Jesus pokes fun at the critics, since everyone who listens will realize that the subtle question has no possible answer. Christ's question really means, "By what demonic agency do you perform your miracles?" It is easy to see that the humorous question is a far more effective rejoinder than a serious argument about demons. The severest critics of Christ could not stand ridicule, for seriousness was their central strength. CONCLUSION What then is the secret of true humor? The answer is found in the Gospel. It is to know that you are a forgiven a sinner, to have no illusions about the self, and no inclination to appear morally better than you are, either in the sight of man or of God. Our release from bondage of sin gives joy. This joy expresses itself in an exuberance of which laughter is not the only one, but certainly one, expression. Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections....