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Christian Humor
An oxymoron?

Given how serious, stodgy, and even self-righteous Christians often are, the phrase "Christian humor" may strike some as being a logical impossibility. Unless, of course, one is making fun of Christians, or satirizing the often silly things that are said or done in the name of Jesus. But as for Christians having an edge on humor ... some readers may require some evidence to support this notion.  For the past several years I've been collecting examples of Christian humor found on the Internet, and as you can see from my collection, there is plenty of it. The issue isn't quantity, it's the quality or lack of it. Much of this is pretty silly stuff. Still, I propose that a good a sense of humor is an essential ingredient of faith itself. 

To begin with, I would point out that the Bible contains the story of the birth of laughter. God promised Abraham that a son would be born to his wife Sarah, but Abraham, being 100 years old at the time, fell on his face and laughed. "What! Shall a child be born to man who is 100 years old?" When three mysterious strangers repeated the promise to Sarah, she laughed too. Theirs was a laughter born of scorn and derision. But when the baby was actually delivered, Sarah said: "God has made laughter for me. Everyone who hears my story will laugh with delight. Who would have said that Abraham and Sarah could have children, yet I have born him a son in his old age." And they named the child Isaac, the Hebrew word for laughter. That was how laughter was born.

The first reaction to God's promise was the laughter of doubt and derision, the sneering laughter of a people who have seen too many dreams defeated. But finally theirs was a laughter of pure joy, for Isaac was the realization of their wildest dreams.

Likewise, our laughter wears many moods and faces. It expresses every shade of emotion and feeling. Just as there are experiences so foolish, so terrible, so tragic that we can only laugh in helpless frustration, so there are experiences so wonderful that laughter brings tears of joy. Our moods can be measured by the quality of our laughter. In fact, you can weigh the condition of an entire people by observing what makes them laugh. And in this respect humor is no laughing matter. It is one of the most important tools we have in coping with the serious problems of life.

Humor touches upon the most important topics under the sun; it touches upon politics and science, sex and religion, life and death, good and evil. Comedians, like ministers, must wrestle with the most elementary questions. Commenting upon the importance of humor, one writer put it this way, "Life is serious all the time but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in everything important you must have mirth or you will have madness."

In fact, mirth may be one of the most effective ways of defending ourselves against the madness of life. The best humor not only touches upon the deepest problems of life, humor helps us to cope with those problems. The Peanuts cartoons of the late Charles Schultz illustrate the point. Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy, these simple cartoon characters mirror the comedy of our lives. Like the famous one in which Charlie Brown is out there pitching the first fast ball of the new season. As always, he tries on his brightest positive thinking. "If you throw a fast ball right across the center of the plate ..." And as usual, Lucy drills one out of the ball park. "POW!!!" Charlie Brown is blown away once again, but somehow undefeated; he is swept off his feet, but is somehow triumphant. These simple cartoons mirror both our courage and our vulnerability.

In another scene, we see Charlie Brown giving his sister some brotherly advice. "Lucy I think it's disgraceful how you and Linus fight all the time! You're really lucky to have each other! Brothers and sisters should learn to get along..." All the while, Lucy's expression is filled with rapt attention; she seems to be absorbing Charlie's advice completely. "You're right, Charlie Brown, your little speech has opened my eyes; we must really try to get along...."

Charlie can hardly believe his ears. Is that Lucy, the pest? "Well, I'm very glad you feel that way about it," he says cautiously. But then in the quick of the eye, Lucy turns away and opens her mouth wide with the laughter of derision: "HA! HA! HA! HA!"  Again Charlie's faith is dashed to the dust. Here is the derisive laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they first heard the news that a child would be born in their old age; this is the cynical laughter of our age too, when the idealist appears foolish and the hard nosed pusher is triumphant.

Because humor is tied so closely with everything that is important in life; it has a religious dimension.

Much great humor revolves around the contradiction between our potential and our actual accomplishments. Humor reflects the tension between our professed ideals and our behavior, the disparity between our vision of ourselves and who we actually are. Great humor is based upon the natural contradictions, the real and everyday conflicts which are part of human nature itself. For while our minds explore the mysteries of the universe, our bodies are firmly attached to earth. While our souls explore the nature of God, or the meaning of life and death, we are engaged in such basic necessities as eating, sleeping and the like. Life is full of embarrassing reminders that while we are only a little lower than the angels, we are also only a little higher than the worm.

Charlie Brown says that brothers and sister should learn to get along, but Lucy's laughter reminds us what Christ learned so painfully on the cross, that in fact, brothers and sisters often get into the most serious conflicts.  Charlie Brown says that brothers and sister should learn to get along, but Lucy mocks him with the same laughter Christ heard on his way to the cross, the same laugher that is used by soldiers and partisans of every age to put the enemy down. There is the humor or derision we use as a weapon in our warfare, that's an easy kind of humor, a tawdry kind of humor that makes fun of those who are different. Humor can be a vehicle for the nastiest human impulses, crude racism, prejudice or simple ignorance.

But in the best of humor we learn to laugh at ourselves. For while it's perfectly human to deride ones enemies, it's divine to see the humor in oneself. One of the very first steps on the road to salvation is learning to laugh at one's own mistakes. Only when we are in touch with our own flaws can we truly open ourselves to the saving power of God.

Consider the dog Snoopy in Peanuts. Snoopy is an incurable dancer. Even when Linus and Lucy stand on the sidelines yelling, "EARTHQUAKE! WIND! FIRE!" trying to get his attention and disrupt the dance. Still Snoopy keeps on dancing. For he knows that to dance is to live. Snoop is, in this respect, the very incarnation of faith.  To be aware and fully alive in this world requires a deep sense of humor, for without it one loses the ability to dance, to have hope, or to engage in any meaningful activity. 

That's why the Italian poet Dante titled his great poem of the Christian life, The Divine Comedy, and Soren Kiekegaard, the Danish theologian said that the Christian faith is the most humorous point of view a person can take. Why? because once you're confident of God's presence and power, once you've seen this world as the creation of God, once you know that life at its root is joy and not fear, then your sense of humor is guaranteed.

There is a sacred humor ...

And when I use the word humor in this context, I do not mean the ability to pun or tell jokes or entertain at parties, I mean the sacred humor that sustains the spirit even in a time of terror. There is a sacred humor that is equal to the wisdom of the wise because it sees how silly we human beings can be. There is a sacred humor which pokes holes in our posturing, pretension and pride. There is a sacred humor that is equal to the courage of the brave because it knows that even death does not spoil the dance or kill the drama of life. There is a sacred humor that equals the love of the saints because it sees that all people are one in their folly and in their dignity. The tragedy is that far too few of us live with that kind of humor. Rather than living with a buoyancy of spirit that would free us from fear, we instead follow the dull and deadly habits that have far too often replaced genuine faith. Instead of living the divine comedy, too often we make of our religion a silly farce. Therefore let us learn to laugh at our own faults, instead of condemning the faults in others.

O God, grant us a deepening sense of humor, that the tragedy of this world may be swallowed up in the joy of a graceful and godly life.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.