Theology of laughter

I first began thinking seriously about the theology of humor (pun: ha, ha) upon hearing this interview with Barrett Fisher on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Having been exposed to a lot of fairly humorless Christianity, I was intrigued by the topic. A few thoughts that have rumbled through my brain since:

1. At its core, humor exposes our human limitations and shortcomings. It makes us laugh at ourselves; it refuses to let us take ourselves too seriously. A caricature, for example, blows up some odd physical feature until it becomes comical: “Look at that preposterous chin,” says Tigger, looking in the mirror; and we laugh, not only because his chin really is preposterous but also because there is something preposterous in all chins.

2. Humor, then, is a playful way of embracing finitude, of accepting the fact that we are not the measure of all things – that we are small and more than a little silly – and that this is okay.

3. However (and this is quite important), humor’s very nature makes it prone to cruelty. Artfully employed, it is always communal in nature: it makes us laugh at ourselves (at all of us) in the quirks and predicaments of another. We chuckle at Laurel and Hardy falling downstairs with a piano, because we have all had experiences more or less of that kind. We howl at Bill Cosby’s dentist chair routine, because we, too, have tried to enunciate through Novocain, and drooled into a “miniature toilet bowl.” The guy with “IBS” in Ladykillers has it act up at the most inopportune times, and we giggle hysterically because we’re right there with him. But let this communal sympathy once fall to the side – let us start laughing at some unfortunate soul rather than at ourselves – and ere long we are simply tormentors. Captors who laugh at the weaknesses and struggles of their victims have left humor for sheer sadism.

4. Now this is not to say that irony (which is generally at someone’s expense) has no place in humor. We laugh when Ehud’s sword disappears into fat Eglon’s belly, because the pompous tyrant who thinks so highly of himself and gorges himself at others’ expense has, quite literally, swallowed the sword. Righteousness has prevailed, we laugh, and rightly so.

5. If humor is, in a sense, viewing ourselves at the common human level, putting ourselves in our place with all of its finitude, ignominy, predicaments, and puzzles – if humor is acknowledging that we are not so godlike as we might be tempted to think – then it follows that humor which imputes our human weaknesses to the true and living God is simple blasphemy. It is one thing to laugh at the foibles of the false gods of Olympus (and we should); it is quite another thing to think of the true God in irreverent terms and find it amusing. Such is not humor, but hubris. One thinks here of films such as Bruce Almighty.

6. What about sexual humor? I happen to believe there is a great deal of room for sexuality in Christian humor. After all, sexuality is part of our createdness, and one of the more comical parts, in my view. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves (I’m paraphrasing), if you can’t laugh at sex, then you’re taking it way too seriously. But, of course, just as humor must always be bounded by sympathy and reverence, it is must also be bounded by chastity and good taste. The disgusting attempts at shock value that characterize so much contemporary “comedy” are, to put it bluntly, not funny. For one thing, they are entirely too transparent, too explicit. To chuckle about what might be happening behind closed doors is wholesome in its place; to drag it all out onstage is a profanation, to say nothing of juvenile taste.

We might go on and talk about the political power of humor, and various other things. Another time, perhaps.

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