I’ve recently been reading The Theology of Jonathan Edwards by McGlymond and McDermott. It is a very good, very dense, and very long book getting into the theology of one of America’s home-grown, organic theologians. I am an Edwards fan. For the most part I love his innovative approaches to faith and experience and reason fueled by an astounding intellect and a deep passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has been a joy to get into the brilliance of such a profound thinker. Yet while reading and learning more about Jonathan Edwards, I came across a little tidbit – Edwards did not believe that it was appropriate to laugh on Sundays. He felt that humor had no place on the Lord’s day and felt that jokes and laughter in general were better left for those other, godless days of the week (I’m looking at you, Thursday!). Needless to say, this news was devastating for me. I was shocked, hurt, and distraught. Here was a theologian that I had been following for years, I have been styling my hair and clothing after his very forwarding thinking fashion sense, and now I find out that Edwards was not a funny person, or at least not on Sundays. What was I to do with all of the sermon jokes that I have been saving to share with my congregation each week?
Now, some may say that I am overacting and blowing things out of proportion. After all, the primary purpose of worship is not to have a good laugh; that is why we go to the comedy clubs on Saturday nights or listen to very funny, and yet insightful, podcasts during the week (like the great and little-known podcast Twelve Enough). Hopefully visits at such places and listening to such things can get the giggles out of our system. Worship is supposed to be a time of praise and celebration, not a time to make jokes about St. Peter at the gates of heaven. It is supposed to be a time when we bring God our hurts and pain not a time to joke about God’s golf game with Moses and Jesus. It is supposed to be a time to be contrite about all that we have gotten wrong in our life and to beg for forgiveness. How can one look to God for forgiveness when one is laughing and giggling? How can one find space for God in the midst of silly jokes? How can one praise God when people are joking about God’s heavenly home? Maybe Jonathan Edwards and my Great Aunt Louise were right; there is no room for laughing and humor on a Sunday.
Here we have yet another gift from the Puritanical stream of Christianity. Along with the great buckle confusion, Puritans offered us the tradition of no purple socks on Sunday, no going to the movies, no reading the funny papers on Sunday (not even Ziggy), and no laughter. Maybe this approach to faith is the best in our efforts to be pious and right in our relationship with the Lord. Maybe this is a part of the Puritan tradition that we should not be quick to dismiss. I should be clear, the Puritans are not alone in their crusade to wipe that smile off your face. There are threads of evangelicalism, pockets of Baptists, gatherings of Methodists, and committees of Presbyterians who are working to keep laughter out of the religious arena. A humorless Christianity has pervaded through time telling people that salvation and damnation is no laughing matter.
But I still cannot help but grin and chuckle.
Let me be clear, I take my faith and my relationship to God through Christ very seriously. I take the work I do very seriously because I understand that people can be and have been hurt, damaged in the name of faith because others are sloppy, malicious, or just do not care. I believe that there is a hope and a salvation that is found through Christ that cannot be found anywhere else, and this life-saving news needs to be shared with the world. The ministry of the church is very important work, the call of Christ to enter into ministry is very serious, and because of that I have to laugh.
I am sure that there are volumes of dry, analytical, philosophical, and psychological works looking at the role, nature, implications of humor in humanity and I will not attempt to join those ranks in thought or tone. A joke is a very complex act holding many different implications, and nuances. It can be liberating and cathartic or damaging and needs to be taken very seriously (while laughing). Humor is a very powerful thing that needs to be taken seriously, especially in the religious context. With all that said, here are some of my thoughts about humor and faith:
· Humor lifts up the stupid.
Or perhaps I could better say that it lifts up the flawed, limited nature of humanity in which we all live and often try to ignore. We get excited about things that are really not that important (like the color of the new hymnal). We get worked up and angry about disagreements like where the children are going to sit during the service. We expend a lot of time and energy over small things and this can drive someone insane. We could either get angry, rant and rave, kick and scream over what are not major, life-altering issues, or we could laugh. We need to point out those things that are flawed, that are silly, and give them voice – humor can be a healthy way to do that.
· Humor lifts up the doubt
There are a lot of jokes about what happens when someone goes to heaven. Some people don’t even make it past the pearly gates before a wise is cracked. There are not as many jokes about the return of Christ and there are a couple of good jokes about Jesus and Moses either walking on, or parting the waters, or playing golf around water. We have jokes that poke at the supernatural, the unknown and unexplainable, and they are giving room for our doubt. Our doubt can make us uncomfortable because certainty is something that many find a solace in. We like to know that the ground we stand upon is firm and solid. Yet we do not know what heaven is like, we do not understand what happened when Moses parted the sea (actually, when God parted the sea) or when Jesus walked on water. We are not at all sure what it is going to be like when Christ returns. There are many other places of doubt that creep into our daily lives and just like our flaws, to ignore them can lead to bad things. Eventually we will have to face the unknown, the uncertain, and come to some sense of peace with the unknown and our attempt to get through each day. Humor gives a moment of release; it allows us to look at those beliefs that are beyond understanding and laugh in the face of the absurdity and the mystery. It gives us room to doubt, to look squarely at the complexities of our faith, laugh, and then continue to wrestle with them.
· Humor speaks truth
It could be the truth that I am not as great of a speaker as I would like to think, or that I do not have a certain level of “coolness” because I play the bassoon. Or it could be the truth that Sunday morning traditional worship service may not be as exciting and riveting that some may think it may be. Or it may be that it is actually difficult to be serious and pious all the time and that only someone with something very wrong about them can pull something like that off all the time. A joke, a laugh puts us at ease and off guard and then we can speak and hear a truth that may be difficult to hear in other times. The Emperor may be wearing new clothes and they may be difficult, but it is funny to look at and laugh at his paunch through those brilliant new clothes. Sometimes it takes humor to start to speak about those hurtful and harmful truths of our world. The jokes that we laugh at and then squirm over are powerful and at times necessary. For example, the humor that forces us all to look at the ways that people are oppressed, marginalized and neglected is necessary and can be the entry point to a very serious discussion. Sometimes that truth is difficult to hear and to speak to, but humor disarms one to a point where the truth can be heard.
I am sure that there are other places and ways in which humor can be good and effective, but this is a good start.
We do need to always be careful. Humor can be used to cut someone down, to make someone feel uncomfortable, to make light of a situation that needs to hold onto a level of seriousness. Humor can speak to a truth in a way that is harmful and void of any compassion, and this is not good. Yet humor can also ease those walls that divide us, that keep true community from happening. Humor can be a way in which relationships form and God is found. We need to be careful and deliberate with our humor and always have readiness for humility. Whenever we make an attempt at humor in a religious context (or any other for that matter) we are taking a chance. It is possible that someone may be offended and it is possible that such feelings of offense is beyond what is ok and an apology is necessary. Humor should never be used to break a community, but instead to help it to grow.
Overall, it is important to laugh and smile especially when we are faced with the absurdities of life and truth that has yet to be spoken. I hope that God laughs with (and sometimes at) me, and believe that sometimes God does. Or God groans. Either way, smile, chuckle, tell a joke, and laugh at a joke – especially mine.