October 19, 2017

Can Christians Share in the Joke?

carlos-mencia.jpgFirst, a letter from an IM reader, then some thoughts on humor.

Greetings.

First, let me say I have thoroughly enjoyed the last year or so since I came across your website. It has been a blessing for me. You’re probably thinking I’m setting you up for something. Not really. I do have an issue to kick around with your Why Do They Hate Us? article. And I will keep reading your blog and listening to the podcasts. They are a blessing.

The thing I wanted to kick around with regards to the moral issues that oftentimes put Christians in a bad light is the way sin is treated so casually. You say we should not get uptight about a funny song about divorce. Okay, that’s fair. But for the kid who is going (or has gone) through it may not find it so funny. You say,

“These incidents show something that evangelicals need to admit. We are frequently unable to see humor, absurdity, and the honest reasons for humans to laugh at themselves. What very normal, very healthy people find laughable, we find threatening and often label with the ridiculous label of “the devil.”

I have no problem with humor done right. But for the group of men looking at pictures of naked women and carrying on and such. They laugh, they invite others to join. (This kind of thing has actually happened in the office where I work.) But to say that this kind of thing is wrong puts you at odds with those who indulge. These kind of people are very normal, very healthy people who find this kind of thing laughable. In their mind there is nothing wrong with this kind of thing. Now, I don’t go so far to say this kind of thing is “of the devil”. But there is definitely a place for a Christian to make a stand.

I don’t want to make this a long email. I’m wondering where you draw the line between the kind of thing you talk about in your article and the scenario that puts the Christian in a compromising position between good harmless humor and crossing the line to cause himself or another?

Bob

Bob raises a great issue that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Today seems like a good day because I both received this email and I taught about Humor and Irony in my AP English IV class.

Humor seems to be a uniquely human capacity. I am sure there are corollaries in the animal kingdom, but so much of what we as humans find humorous has to do with uniquely human capacities of intelligence, reconstructing reality, communication, the perception of incongruity and so on. So I want to start by saying that we have a holy responsibility to display God’s glory in humor, as it is certainly related to what it means to be made in the image of God.

The report that Jesus never was humorous is quite misplaced, in my view. We may not have a report of his laughter, but his ability to make others laugh is obvious. This is rooted in many places in the Bible where humor is used prophetically, pastorally, didactically and pragmatically. (See Proverbs, for example.)

Humor has a diversity of uses, ranging from the harmless to the destructive to the good. For example, a fat joke can hurt someone deeply, while another example of humor featuring the obese might move someone to be more gracious or sympathetic, actually increasing compassion. Humor has a tremendous humanizing potential, but that humanizing process will reveal what we mean when we say we are “human.” We may elevate that definition or demean it with humor.

Humor is something we perceive in reality but it is also a way of retelling, remembering and reconstructing reality. Humor is a shared perception of reality brought to light with the particular skill of the comic. Of course, our creation of humor is a subtle and dangerous path. My father taught me that people are funny, but it’s my depravity that find ways to laugh at people as beneath me. Humor often precedes horror, and they are not unconnected.

Christian conservatives and fundamentalists (including those who will continually deny being fundamentalists) are obviously ambiguous about humor, and not without some good reasons. For example, these types of religionists will carp about a mild joke using sexual content, but they will hold their adversaries up for endless ridicule based on physical characteristics and caricatured theology, and even defend the practice as loving.

More importantly, many Christians are unclear on when they can join in the laughter that other people may find in a particular situation. Put a group of conservative Christians into a movie surrounded by unbelievers. You’ll soon notice Christians making an attempt not to laugh, even at what they know is funny, because of their belief that to laugh at some things unbelievers find humorous amounts to compromise. Others will be compelled to appear offended, and some genuinely are, while the majority of the audience laughs. Perhaps the minority is in the right, or perhaps they are seeing and hearing something quite different in the humor presented.

For example, I find Carlos Mencia side-splittingly hilarious, but some of his humor crosses lines that I would not cross as a Christian communicator. For example, Mencia will plainly lampoon the stereotypical behavior of various ethnic groups. I can’t think of many more effective ways for someone to see the truth of their behavior than to have it made the object of skillfully revealing humor. Who can say what the humor of Richard Pryor did to help many of us finally see ourselves as “white people.”

But is the humor approving of what is sinful? Is it approving of all the kinds of language used in the description? Is the end result the normalizing of what is wrong? These are important questions, and they must be asked in the context of a Christian witness. In looking toward a Christian approach to humor, C.S. Lewis has proven helpful to me.

C.S. Lewis divided humor four ways in his book The Screwtape Letters. (Chapter 11): Joy, fun, the joke proper, and flippancy. Joy is the air of heaven and Screwtape finds it rare and mysterious. We’ll pass on it and look at the other three categories.

Fun, according to Screwtape, is all fizz and not of any real use to demons because it is insubstantial. I wonder if Screwtape missed a number of rich possibilities of perverting fun into idolatry and addiction, and not just meaningless diversion. Perhaps contemporary America would inspire him. (Perhaps the current evangelical “worship revolution” would inspire him.) We live in a culture where entertainment is an unquestioned good, and this has tremendous potential for evil. While God has created us with the capacity for fun, there are questions about how those capacities can be exercised morally and in a God-glorifying way. Much about human life is both fun and funny, and need not be avoided, but what is fun is not necessarily a gift of God.

What Screwtape called the “joke proper” is humor based on incongruity, and as such as great capacities for common areas of truth. But unbelievers and believers have varying attitudes toward truth. Screwtape sees contemporary humor having the great potential of removing shame, thereby making all sorts of thing that are wrong, evil or shameful to be acceptable.

Here Christians do have to make judgments, and those judgments are not simple or always predictable. Elsewhere, Lewis says that it is not a good thing when someone insists that all persons exercise total abstinence in an area where temperance is appropriate. So it is with humor. Complete abstinence seems like the easier route, but I am convinced that temperance, which will risk some participation that the teetotaler refuses, is the better route. So I prefer to risk engagement with humor rather than to avoid all worldly varieties of it.

So if I imagine a joke being told in the office about sex between an elderly married couple, there is the possibility of an insight into humanity, grace, acceptance, the true nature of sexuality, even knocking down some of the sexual idolatry of our culture. Or one can abandon the entire topic because it touches on sex.

There are things that are sacred, but whose sacredness does not preclude humor. In fact, in some cases, it is humor that upholds sacredness that is generally despised. Shakespeare often used the “Fool” to be the court prophet, especially in King Lear. It was the light of humor that actually was the light of truth.

Lewis’s fourth kind of humor is flippancy, which he defines as sheer derision for the sake of mockery, with no actual humor at work. This is the incessant humor of our age that laughs at nothing, laughs at everything, has not a hint of the true intelligence, compassion or truthfulness of good humor, but simply stands over a subject with a leer, insisting on the recognition of its own superiority. Bob’s description of men looking at naked women and laughing seems flippant to me, not funny. The song “I’m Gonna Miss Her” seems like a good humorous shot at the absurdity of our values in America.

Sadly, this kind of scoffing is common among those Christians who incessantly and cruelly deride others with no good will or actual humor, but with the club of their own superiority and the applause of the in-group.

I cannot guide Bob in how to navigate his own office or friendships. I agree that lines must be drawn, but I believe Christians are called to be funny and that it is often a sin to be too serious. It is a lack of grace that cannot extend charity into humor. It is a lack of humanity that cannot laugh at what we all are or what we all may become. We should not try to laugh like the world, but we can laugh with the world where truth, love, grace and other virtues are heard in the laughter.

Comments

  1. For my 31st birthday my parents gave me a card that said (with a picture of some sort of a rodent standing next to a bunch of kinds of cheese on the front), “Have you accepted cheeses into your life?”

    I found it absolutely hysterical, considering the context of the recent iMonk posts about Rev 3:20.

    I know that several years ago nearly all Christian humor would probably have been off-limits to my mind, and I still cringe when I hear jokes that truly trivialize or vulgarize Jesus(I don’t find them funny at all, although I could see perhaps why an unbeliever might).

    I was told about a t-shirt that says, “What would Jesus do– for a Klondike Bar?” I do still think that’s funny.

  2. This is the incessant humor of our age that laughs at nothing, laughs at everything, has not a hint of the true intelligence, compassion or truthfulness of good humor, but simply stands over a subject with a leer, insisting on the recognition of its own superiority.

    i.e. The Seinfeld Sneer, with its curled upper lip and accompanying ironic quip.

  3. Good points all.

    Although I wish you hadn’t passed over the best sort of humor: joy. I think it’s best shown in P.G. Wodehouse–that strange mismash of surprise and wonder when magically, inexplicably, things suddenly go terribly right, and all we can do is laugh.

    Not terribly appropriate to your essay, but worth pointing out.

  4. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    It’s interesting to consider the possibility or frequency of the four types of humor in the Bible. Flippancy appears most often in prophetic literature directed at the concept of idolatry but the tone changes when prophets address idolators. The tone is less flippant and more mourning. There might be a lesson there that Christians don’t get about how and when humor can be used. Mocking worldliness and foolishness has a place but mocking flesh and blood sinners themselves is a good way to win enemies for life. When Jesus found people in sin and they knew it He showed them mercy, when he found people who were in sin and claimed to be holy was when He mocked them.

    I suppose for me, as a watcher of cartoons this gets to the distinction that I have, at a purely personal level, between Family Guy and South Park. I hate the former and greatly enjoy the latter because the latter, though often profane and brutal, is about characters, characters we are invited to sympathize with and not JUST laugh at. It seems the best humorists understand relationships and how humor is relational, the worst humorists (or simply the ones we don’t like) don’t understand that, or have humor that is based on an assumption about relationships that isn’t shared.

    I suppose (since I lurk at BHT) we could say this is not about “worldview” grounds for humor because I’m a Christian and it hardly means I think the guys who made South Park share my view of the world but they see the things I see and in many cases we can laugh at and with about the same stuff, which is why I keep watching. I’d almost write them a thank-you letter for “Christian Rock Hard”.

    But when I visited my parents and they suggested I watch the show because it was on I don’t watch it even though I know and they know I enjoy it. Their conscious is hurt (severely) by watching the show. So even when they tried goading me into watching it at their home I refused because I said it wouldn’t be Christ-like of me to hurt their conscious even if they goaded me to watch a show they know I like that they find offensive. Ditto the Simpsons. It seems that a good humorist understands his or her audience and what is relationally appropriate. I guess we could point to something like the Michael Richards snafu a while back as an example of how a snarky remark said at the wrong time to the wrong people stops being a joke and starts being a ripe opportunity to make yourself just look bad.

  5. You find Carlos Mencia hilarious? That’s about as startling to me as if you’d said you find Joel Osteen inspiring. To each their own, I suppose, but… good gracious.

    Okay, before i get completely off subject… About two years ago, in the middle of my pastor’s sermon, I realized that Jesus had made a funny in John 2.

    It’s Cana, the middle of a wedding — a multiple-day festival in honor of a marriage — and they’ve run out of wine. Jesus’s mom went up to Jesus and told Him, “They have no wine,” implying, “You need to do something about this.” He replied, “What has that to do with us? My hour has not yet come.”

    For some reason “My hour has not yet come” struck me odd; I quickly looked up other instances of Jesus saying it and realized He only said it when He was in danger of getting killed. So, it’s the middle of a wedding, the guests are expecting wine, Jesus has been assigned the job of dealing with a wine shortage and the resulting riot — so Jesus says this.

    Of course, if you have to explain it, it’s less funny….

  6. I think Lewis has it figured out pretty well. As long as we avoid flippancy we’ll be okay.

    I wonder if one reason some Christians are uncomfortable with humor is that laughter requires surrendering control. It’s an admission that some other human said something that altered your emotions and made you react without you planning it. Maybe they believe that they’re supposed to be in a perpetual state of perfect happiness anyway because of their relationship with God, and laughing would admit that their happiness is at least partially dependent on the circumstances.

  7. …the distinction that I have, at a purely personal level, between Family Guy and South Park. I hate the former and greatly enjoy the latter because the latter, though often profane and brutal, is about characters, characters we are invited to sympathize with and not JUST laugh at.

    Whereas Family Guy does whatever gags the manatees pull out of the bingo-ball tank.

    To me, South Park has about a 50/50 hit rate. They are at their best when they’re doing social satire instead of only going for the grossout — Kyle’s Mom, celebrity skewering, lawsuits, 9/11 Truthers, Sweet 16 Bashes, Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow, the Mohammed cartoons… (Might be stretching the comparison, but do you remember some of the stuff Ezekiel and Isaiah pulled? Like the one about “you think you’re so hot, well God’s going to pants you in front of everybody and show them your equipment swinging in the breeze; where’s all your Greatness now?”) You know Parker & Stone are on target when you have difficulty telling the difference between CNN and South Park.

  8. Bob Sacamento says:

    I really appreciate,

    Here Christians do have to make judgments, and those judgments are not simple or always predictable. …. Complete abstinence seems like the easier route, but I am convinced that temperance, which will risk some participation that the teetotaler refuses, is the better route.

    The older I get, the more it seems to me that we just aren’t going to have a formula, or a “principle”, or whatever, ahead of time for every situation we come to. Alot of things are just going to require sizing up the situation as it comes, and using judgement.

    Also, in your original post, in the paragaph after humor, you said, When I see Christians trying to rob young people of the right to be normal, ordinary and human, it angers me. As a victim of precisely this type of robbery, I really appreciate your saying this. I was almost thirty before I realized that I had really been screwed over by the counselors, Bible study leaders and writers, “disciplers”, and on and on who told me they were teaching me the gospel, but were really just teaching a kind of trinitarian Phariseeism. (Is that a word?) It’s taken another decade or so to undo some of the damage they did.

    And now, as they say, my best years are behind me.

    Thanks for nothing, fundies. But I’ll pray for you just the same.

  9. Nicholas Anton says:

    As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, likewise is humor. It tends to be a personal thing. The use of humor, like exclamatory adjectives have much in common in that both express the conditionings of the mind. Therefore, to some degree, different people and cultures use different terms and adjectives for exclamations. Why do the Englishmen call everything “bloody”? Why do the French tend to say holy this and holy that interjected with four letter words? Why do the Germans tend to use earthy, vulgar adjectives?

    My ethnic tradition is a composite of the Low German Mennonite and Schwab. Both groups tend to be on the “butt” end of jokes in the German tradition, and both have a very good sense of humor. Generally speaking, both groups enjoy making fun of themselves, which I believe is very healthy. Though traditional Low German Mennonite speech can be very vulgar or crude, it is generally not obscene. I can not make the same claim for the Schwabs. Nevertheless, many anecdotal stories bring out the idiosyncrasies of life in a refreshing way. Maybe it is time to look at the lighter things of life briefly.

    This true story as related by my father took place in the twenties or early thirties, well before telephones and automobiles were in common use in the area. In a Mennonite village sixty miles east of us, lived a man who was known for telling very convincing untruthful stories. One day, an acquaintance met him in the store while shopping. Let us suppose that the man’s name was Isaac, and his acquaintance was John. John tapped Isaac on the shoulder and said, “Well, Isaac, tell me a lie today that I will believe”. Isaac slowly turned around with a shocked, very sad expression on his face and said in a pained voice, “You expect me to tell you a lie while I am trying to make final arrangements for my wife’s funeral?”, slowly turned back to the counter, finished his business, walked out with drooping shoulders, got in the wagon and slowly drove home. John’s conscience smote him for his insensitivity. When he got home, he related the incident to his wife. They decided that they would go to Isaac’s to comfort him. When they arrived, they found him and his wife enjoying a hearty supper together.

    As another Mennonite friend stated about another habitual Mennonite liar, “He is such a seasoned liar that he blushes every time he tells the truth”.

  10. This is the incessant humor of our age that laughs at nothing, laughs at everything, has not a hint of the true intelligence, compassion or truthfulness of good humor, but simply stands over a subject with a leer, insisting on the recognition of its own superiority.

    i.e. The Seinfeld Sneer, with its curled upper lip and accompanying ironic quip.

    I’ve given up drinking, chewing, smoking, drugs and a few other things for Jesus I will not mention. But I’ll be darned if I’m gonna give up Seinfeld, sneer and all.

    Actually, I think the whole premise of the show is that people are laughing at the casts supposed superiority. That was the theme of the closing episode. If you don’t get that I think you don’t get Seinfeld. We are supposed to be in on the joke.

    Which ties into the post–Christians often have trouble laughing at themselves.

  11. Jeremiah’s comment about flippancy/prophets/idolatry struck me as backwards at first, as the first thing that came to my mind was 1 Kings 18:27, which seems pretty flippant to me. But I see what he meant.

    I realize it was a small part of what you addressed, but the whole Jesus-was-humorless thing (that you refuted) grates on me significantly, as it’s a product of my hyper-fundy upbringing. There seems to be a tendency in fundamentalism to strip all humanity from everyone who populates the Bible. In Jesus’ case, that borders on blasphemy; in everyone else’s case, it borders on insanity.

    Or put more crassly — 13 guys (including some fishermen and probably a teenager or two) hanging out together for 3.5 years — somewhere in there, somebody had to make a fart joke.

  12. I love Screwtape’s remarks about jokes–it’s on a slightly different aspect of this issue, but still good:
    Cruelty is shameful–unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as ‘Puritanical’ or betraying a ‘lack of humour’.
    That’s a loaded passage.

    I’ve only recently developed an appreciation for South Park, and it is precisely because of the afore-mentioned brilliant satire(the episodes on Scientology and Mormonism, and the episode “Free Hat” all fall into this category). Family Guy’s humor is pointless, but it’s irresistible to me because of ALL the pop culture references. But I’m not sure there’s anything edifying about it.

  13. And let’s not forget the subjectivity of it all based on our own histories…

    Case in point: Napoleon Dynamite. Not one profane utterance in the whole thing. Appreciated by nerds (and others) the world over, myself included. Friend A and I shared the love; Friend B thought it derisive. Big Fish–same situation but friends’ opinions were reversed. Friend B thought it was creative and gave dignity to the father-character; Friend A thought it glorified lying. In both cases, the reactions were influenced by previous experiences.

  14. Yes. I’m the one who wrote to Michael about this. I do fall on the side of being more sober than most. But I will have to deal with that. I have a scenario for Michael and others to hopefully gain a little wisdom from those who also follow Christ. What would you do in this circumstance? (This actually happened yesterday.)

    (Some of you may have seen this.) An email came to one of our customer service reps and she just had to share it with everyone. So as everyone gathered around her computer screen, the scene begins withe 2 stuffed animals (a bunny and a puppy) are in the back window of this car. And as the music roars up the animals begin to bounce around due to the heavy bass. And they eventually come together with one on top of the other. You get the picture. Now with the 2 in a missionary position, they bounce up and down and up and down. That should be enough for you.

    Okay, there you are, a Christian. What would you do? I’ll tell you what I did later. What are your thoughts?

  15. For example, I find Carlos Mencia side-splittingly hilarious, but some of his humor crosses lines that I would not cross as a Christian communicator.

    You realize Carlos Mencia is a comedy-thief:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_5LlOJUvMM&mode=related&search=

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDmaG1-H25M&NR=1

  16. OK, I’m not gonna denegrate this meta into an argument, but since Michael let the last comment through, I’ll respond:

    Sage said: “You realize Carlos Mencia is a comedy-thief”

    You realize that that’s a bunch of hooey. Read this article. It’s pretty long, but just search for “thief” and you’ll find the relevant part. Warning: language/content advisory.

  17. If one relies on one’s mind to decide how to act then one will always be misled. The heart is the real seat of actual intelligence.

    If it’s funny … laugh at it (unless you are at a solemn occasion, then can it till later). If you don’t find it funny, don’t laugh at it.

    Be yourself at all times. Offer this to Jesus rather than to be duplicitous, pretending that it’s not funny just to uphold some kind of fake, social profile.

    I am not a Christian per se, but I realize that God is not an evil dictator, who punishes us for trifles when, in the long run, we are making an effort to understand how to be His true friends and to have real, actual love for Him based on our understanding of how attractive He really is as a PERSON (for how can anyone love a mere ideal or a concept?).

    To be loving towards another person implies a willingness to accept them as they are and to wish for their welfare. If I hear funny jokes about God that I think are funny, I laugh at their wit. If I find something derisive, wherein some person with little intelligence assumes that they are greater than God then, out of compassion for the poor soul, I cannot laugh.

    I have an 18yo old daughter who sees the smutty side of almost anything. If it’s witty it deserves a giggle otherwise not.

    Just do as YOU see fit and above all LOVE as much as you can.

    Your servant and well wisher
    tarunkrsnadas