Every parent is in great haste to have his child grow up and mature, to become serious, and often impatient with the carefree, playful world of childish impulse. Children have the remarkable talent for not taking the adult world with the kind of respect which we are so confident it ought to be given. They refuse to appreciate the gravity of our monumental concerns, while we forget that if we were to become more like the child our concerns might not be so monumental. There is a certain refreshing element of profanation in the child’s world of naïveté and mischief, which blows like a gentle breeze through the stuffy pomposity of adulthood. Often with a simple question or a completely honest remark, perhaps with a quizzical smile or a whimsical laugh, a child can call into doubt the sanctimonious façade and sacrosanct presuppositions of an entire civilization. (M. Conrad Hyers, “The Dialectic of the Sacred and the Comic,” in Cross Currents, Winter 1969)
Category: Belly Laughs
“Jesus welcomed children because Jesus was and is fun. Some of you don’t know that. Some of you are not fun. Repent and be fun.” (Mark Driscoll)
I’m a great fan of the work of Anthony Esolen. Today at First Things he heaps derision on one of my favorite objects of scorn: the modern journalist. Hard to believe this class of storytellers is considered a serious source of knowledge about the world.
One of the things I love about being a parent is that you never know what’s coming. Never. Today I’m drying my four-year-old’s hair after his bath. Nothing profound going on in my head. The same couldn’t be said for him.
“Dad, I can’t wait to go and see Jesus.”
“We’ll see Him, son, very soon.”
“But He doesn’t have a body like men.”
“Oh, yes, Jesus has a body, son. He kept His body after God raised Him from the dead.” [Hanging up the towel, wondering where this is going.]
“Then He’s not God?”
“Yes, He’s God, He’s the second Person of the Godhead, but He kept His body when He sat down at the right hand of the Father.”
“Then we serve two Gods?”
“Well, no, son, we serve one God in three Persons. The second Person, the Son, took a body, and He still has it. As God He doesn’t have a body like men, but as the God-Man He has a body.”
“So Jesus is God, and He has a body, but God doesn’t have a body.”
“Something like that . . . .”
“People are gonna get messed up, Dad. They’re gonna think we serve two Gods.”
“Good questions, son. I’ll have to think about this some more.”
[Four-year-old exits bathroom to go play. Dad reflects that it was not his finest theological hour.]
My youngest son, on why I rather than he should request a lollipop from the barber:
“Because people which are kind of small are kind of shy.”
Be it noted.
Real exchange today among my three children about their baby sister:
“Maybe she’s talking like a human.”
“No, she isn’t. She’s talking like a baby.”
“Babies are humans.”
“No, they aren’t. Some are boys.”
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
(A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner)
Sitting in a service establishment today, reading a book and minding my own business, I suddenly registered something my ears had just picked up from the radio: [chirpy female voice] “. . . and if your psychic reading’s not the best you’ve ever had, it’s free!”
Ponder that one. It gets weirder the longer you think about it.
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.
“The last year of the nineteenth century began on January 1, 1900. The ‘civilized’ world, less numerate than it thought it was, celebrated the beginning of the twentieth century on that New Year’s Day . . . .” (William Everdell, The First Moderns, p. 159)
I guess the civilized world wasn’t any more “numerate” a hundred years later, when it celebrated the new millennium a year early!