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Beyond a Joke? The Place of Humour in the Christian Life

“The Christian…ought not to indulge in jesting; he ought not to laugh or even to suffer laugh makers.”
– Basil of Caesarea

For Basil of Caesarea, humour was no laughing matter. Citing the prohibition against eutrapelia (vulgar wit) in Ephesians 5:4, the famous Cappadocian Father reasoned that laughter was antithetical to self-control and unfitting to anyone desiring to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.[1]

And yet the same Scriptures that exhort us not to make light of what is impure and ungodly also declare that “a merry heart does good, like medicine” (Proverbs 17:22, NKJV). How, then, should Christians conceive of the nature and purpose of humour? What does it mean to bring our laughter, like every other part of our created humanity, captive to the law of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)?

With the St Basil school of comic appreciation now largely obsolete, another viewpoint has begun to gain traction: namely, that humour must be fundamental to Christian living because the Bible is so funny. Enthusiasts of Biblical humour are convinced that irony, absurdity, satire, innuendo and slapstick positively leap off the pages of both the Old and New Testaments. Many are seemingly intent on prising Christians away from the near-unpardonable sin of taking themselves—or God’s word—too seriously.

Laughing Flickr Anaxolotl

Enthusiasts of Biblical humour are convinced that irony, absurdity, satire, innuendo and slapstick positively leap off the pages … Yet there are many parts of Scripture that do not so easily fit

Undoubtedly there are some amusing incidents recorded in the Bible. We might think of the story in 1 Samuel 5, where the statue of the Philistine god Dagon bizarrely overbalances (twice!) and falls prostrate before the ark of God while it is stored in his temple. Yet there are many parts of Scripture that do not so easily fit into this category of purposeful wit, and which leave us searching for a broader and more satisfying “practical theology” of humour.

A better starting point is to consider the significance of paradox, which is defined as a concept or event inconsistent with common experience or having contradictory qualities. Much of our humour trades on paradox, exposing the incongruous and unexpected occurrences that permeate our daily existence.[2] In its various guises, humour often leads us to a more authentic encounter with truth. G. K. Chesterton wrote that when a person laughs, it is “as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.”[3]

Sound familiar? Chesterton was making the point that Christian faith, just like humour, is grounded in profound paradox. Beneath the visible realities of our mortal world lies a divine surprise: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26).

Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God broke into history with a series of (at times quite literally) earth-shattering disruptions to the known world order. Incarnate deity, crucified Messiah, resurrected body: the gospel is paradoxical to its very core.[4] The message it preaches is, humanly speaking, filled with contradictions. The impoverished are blessed (Matthew 5:3); the foolish teach the learned (1 Corinthians 1:21); persecution is privilege (Acts 5:41); to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).

Our paradoxical gospel validates humour in a way that even a literary analysis of the Bible’s “funny” parts never quite will. What’s more, it prompts us to look beyond the entertainment value of these passages to the redemption truths they reveal. The incident of Dagon and the ark would be quite serious if only an expensive statue had got broken. Yet we laugh—knowingly, and from a position of safety, because we see afresh the glory and supremacy of God in the face of human pride and false worship, and are reminded that by grace we ourselves have ‘turned from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Three guiding principles may help us as we consider how the paradoxical realities of our redemption enable us to live and laugh with the paradoxes of a world turned upside down by the saving work of God.

A New Way of Understanding Ourselves: Humour as Humility[5]

The Christian gratefully acknowledges the paradox of 1 John 3:2—that we are children of God, yet what we will be has not yet been made known. Though regenerate, we remain imperfect until Christ returns to translate us from mortality to immortality. In this context, humour—and perhaps especially a readiness to laugh at ourselves—keeps a check on our pretensions and vanities, thrusting us back on the grace and wisdom of God.[6] If we are not humble enough to embrace the humorous aspects of our finitude, then we risk becoming ungracious and unteachable, and at worst undermining the unshakeable security and significance we have in Christ.[7]

A New Way of Seeing the World: Humour as Honesty

The redeemed Christian life moves us towards a right and honest perception of the world around us, and particularly the paradoxical reality that we are living in the “now but not yet.” We are caught up in the groaning creation of Romans 8, glimpsing on the horizon our liberation and promised rest. An honest sense of humour wryly acknowledges the absurdities, contradictions and limitations of our present existence even as it keeps one eye on the full and final renovation of the created order, when all such things will be done away with.[8]

A New Way of Doing Relationships: Humour as Hospitality

Christ’s death unites believers into an eternal fellowship in which pride, fear, rivalry and bitterness are eclipsed by mutual grace and service. “Owe no-one anything,” the apostle Paul wrote, “except to love each other” (Romans 13:8). The paradox of Christian unity is that we are at the same time fully liberated from, and yet wholly obligated to, “the other.” Used well in community, humour has the capacity to strengthen the body of Christ, contributing to a sense of belonging and safety, and encouraging a shared openness to the paradoxical realities of life in the last days.[9]

A Caution

There remains a risk that all three strands of humour can be used to destructive rather than edifying ends. Jovial self-deprecation may give way to careless trivialisation of personal sin. Wry observation of the world’s oddities can become jaded cynicism if left unchecked. And humour that sets out to “include” others can all too easily alienate or even demean them if it is delivered without discernment and sensitivity.

Conclusion

What is the “medicine” that a merry heart provides? More than just a rush of endorphins, laughter keeps us attuned to life’s paradoxes and in turn points us to the greatest paradox of all time and eternity, our reconciliation to God through his Son. Our humour becomes captive to the law of Christ when it flows out of an understanding of ourselves, the world, and other people—an understanding that looks back with thankfulness to our Saviour’s first coming, and forward in expectation to his second. With the Spirit’s help, humour has the powerful potential to keep us humble, honest and hospitable as we walk the path of the redeemed life towards our eternal home.


Photos: Al King; anaxolotl (inset), flickr.com

[1] Basil of Caesarea, Letter 22: On the Perfection of the Life of Solitaries. Cited 9 May 2016. Online: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202022.htm

[2] Steven B. Jackson, ‘What’s Funny?’ Psychology Today blog, 18 May 2012, accessed 9 May 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-conscious/201205/whats-funny

[3] Cited in Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Lost Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015): flyleaves.

[4] Doris Donnelly, ‘Divine Folly: Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor’, Theology Today 48 (1992): 391.

[5] The categories of ‘humility’, ‘honesty’ and ‘hospitality’ are borrowed from Duncan Bruce Reyburn, ‘Laughter and the Between: G. K. Chesterton and the Reconciliation of Theology and Hilarity’, Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics 3 (2015): 24.

[6] Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (London: Libra, 1964), 38.

[7] Donnelly, ‘Divine Folly’, 393.

[8] Walter G. Moss, ‘Wisdom, Humor and Faith: A Historical View’. Cited 6 May 2016. Online: http://www.wisdompage.com/WisdomHumorFaith.pdf28.

[9] Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 35.

Susanna Baldwin completed a Bachelor of Divinity at Moore College in 2016 and is preparing to serve overseas with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

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