A Theology of Humour (part 1)

laughingJust over 25 years ago I submitted my degree dissertation about God’s sense of humour. By way of marking that I have decided that I will release it into the wild by posting it in instalments on my blog. Please bear in mind that this is an undergraduate dissertation – if I was to write it today I would definitely change some bits, especially the last section which I feel is definitely the weakest. Maybe one day I will! Please be aware that the footnotes have not carried across with this text so references are inadequate. I apologise to all those I have quoted but I will include the Bibliography at the end.

A THEOLOGY OF HUMOUR – A SERIOUS LOOK AT THE LIGHTER SIDE OF GOD

An attempt to establish whether or not there is humour within the character of God, and whether our response to him should be changed as a consequence.

Introduction

“Humour distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthy pedestals”

In the tradition of the Christian Church, God has been portrayed as a God of wrath and judgement, love and mercy, authority and power, but rarely (if ever) as a God of humour.  This paper will seek to establish whether that is an omission that needs to be corrected, or whether God is a god without humour.  We will examine the structure and content of humour and look at the biblical revelation to establish whether humour is part of the Divine character.   In the final section, we shall seek to draw conclusions from this about Christian theology and practice.

Humour Dissected

“Humor (sic) can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

The problem with humour is that it is not funny once one delves beneath the skin and finds oneself among the academic entrails.  However, the study of humour is an integral part of this paper, even if it is not an in-depth study.  Whilst it is true that a full dissection is not necessary to identify a frog, at least a study of the frog’s anatomy helps in sorting out the frogs from the toads.  In this section of the paper we will attempt to discover the essence of humour, and attempt to identify the various forms of humour.

The essence of humour

The Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines humour as “a mental quality which apprehends and delights in the ludicrous and mirthful: that which causes mirth and amusement.”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “a. That quality of action, speech, or writing which excites amusement; oddity, jocularity, facetiousness, comicality, fun. b. The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of a subject.”  These definitions are dry and tell us very little about the components of humour, concentrating as they do on the funny side of humour.   This must not be played down.  However there is more to humour than merely being something that makes us laugh.   Humour has a darker side to it as well, but both sides share the components of humour: they merely make different uses of them.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition hints at this, by referring to oddity.  It is within the realms of oddity that we find the distinctive components of humour.  Arthur Koestler provides two graphs that help us to see this more easily (see below).  In Fig. 1a we see what happens in a tragedy; Koestler uses Shakespeare’s Othello as an example: the tension increases in the play until the climax when Othello strangles the unfaithful Desdemona; then it ebbs away in a gradual catharsis.

Koestler uses an anecdote to illustrate the difference between this and humour.  In the story a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV entered his wife’s bedroom to find her in the arms of a bishop.  He walked to the window, threw it open and started blessing the people in the street.

“What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife.

“Monseigneur is performing my functions,” replied the Marquis, “so I am performing his.”

In this episode there is also an increase in tension, but it is brought to an abrupt end as the Marquis’ unexpected reaction relieves the tension in an explosion of amusement and even laughter (Fig. 1b).

humour graphs

Koestler was attempting to illustrate what causes laughter, however, in so doing he has put his finger on the essence of humour – it arises from an incongruity.   John Drakeford reaches this conclusion in his book ‘Humor (sic) in Preaching’.  He goes on to list the various types of humour that arise, and we shall examine these below.   Dr Jonathan Miller hints at this when he writes concerning humorous discourse and describes it as like a “sabbatical let-out in one part of the brain and one part of our competence to enable us to put things up for grabs; to reconsider categories and concepts so that we can redesign our relationships to the physical world, to one another, and even to our own notion of what it is to have relationships.”  It is the concept of humour as a sabbatical from reality that is profoundly attractive.   The concept assumes a deviation from reality in order that a sabbatical let-out can be taken from that reality in the brain.  Once again the foundation of humour is the concept of oddity, incongruity or deviation from the norms of reality.  (The concept of humour as a sabbatical from reality is one to which we shall return in chapter three).

This suggestion that humour arises from some form of incongruity or deviation from that which is expected is given substantial weight when one examines the origins of the word.  It arises from its medieval use to describe any of the four cardinal body fluids – blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy (black bile).  It was thought that the relative strengths of these fluids determined an individual’s physical and mental condition.  When any one fluid predominated, then a person’s character would be dominated by that ‘humour’, and that person was said to be in a ‘humour’.  An example would be Molière’s Misanthrope, Alceste, who has a superfluity of melancholy and finds it impossible to see any positive attributes in anyone, even his beloved Celestine.  We would probably call such a person eccentric today, but that does not obscure the fact that the origin of the modern concept of humour clearly has links with incongruity and deviation from the accepted norms of reality.

Now that we have discovered what seems to be the essence of humour, it will be instructive to examine the various forms of humour and see whether they have this essence as part of their essential ingredients.

The various forms of humour

In this section we shall attempt to provide a summary of the main forms of humour that will provide the basis for our exploration into whether God does have a sense of humour and use humour in the revelations of himself that he has given us.  One of the difficulties that we face is that there is no universally accepted list of the main forms of humour.  We shall commence by looking at John  Drakeford’s summary mentioned above.  He prefaces his exploration with these words; “[Humour] is almost impossible to define, but once we are confronted with it, there is an immediate subjective response that makes us say, “Isn’t that funny?”

Absurdity

Drakeford includes incongruity as his key concept.  This includes the absurd, which he illustrates with a story of a little girl in tears looking at a picture of Christians being thrown to the lions.  Her aunt tried to comfort her; “Sad, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” cried the little girl, “there’s a little lion not getting any.”  Here the incongruous perception is so far out of step with reality that it conjures up a situation or image that is humorous.

Bisociative humour

A close relative of the absurd is bisociative humour, in which the concluding section gives an entirely new meaning to the original thought.  For example, a gravestone reads as follows:

ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF J. MacFARLANE

Drowned in the Water of Leith

BY A FEW AFFECTIONATE FRIENDS

Exaggeration

A further example of incongruity is exaggeration or hyperbole.  It can be a form of lying if it is motivated by deception, but it is also a useful tool for enabling one to take a healthy look at oneself.  For example, comedians frequently exaggerate ordinary everyday objects and situations until they take on absurd proportions and enable the audience to laugh at themselves without feeling victimised.  The success of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can be attributed in no small part to Atkinson’s uncanny knack of observing everyday behaviour and exaggerating it to humorous proportions.  For example, the audience can  identify with someone who has problems getting a reception  on their television set, when the reception is fine when  one is close to the set, but it goes as soon as one sits  down.  Mr Bean goes to the extreme of trying to fool the television into thinking that he is close to it by taking off his clothes and putting them on a chair next to the television so that it appears that he is still there.

Exaggeration differs from absurdity because it is a distortion of normal behaviour or situations, whereas absurdity is a completely different perception of reality.   It is worth mentioning at this point that hyperbole is one of the principle forms of Semitic humour.

Wit

The next form of humour we shall identify is wit.  Mark Twain said of wit that it is “the sudden marriage of ideas which before their marriage were not perceived to have any relationship.”  This often takes the form of a statement that has a punch line that comes with a twist.  Drakeford gives the example of an astronaut who is strangely silent after walking on the moon.  When his companions ask what the matter is he replies, “I saw God.”

“You did!” they exclaimed.  “What’s God like?”

“She’s black!”

The twist comes with the unexpected description of God as being a woman and being black, cutting through the traditional assumptions that God is a white male.

Play on words / pun

This is one of the most widely used forms of humour, and exists within virtually all languages.  An example of this in the Old Testament follows the account of Samson’s slaying of 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey:

Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them”  (Jdg. 15.16, NIV)

This could be translated as ‘With a donkey’s jawbone I have made a heap or two’, since the Hebrew for ‘donkey’ sounds similar to the Hebrew for ‘heap’.  Indeed, there is a further pun in this passage as the place is subsequently called ‘Ramath Lehi’, which means ‘Jawbone Hill’.

Surprise

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, wrote that laughter is “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”  This seems to match Koestler’s theory (above).  We must  be wary of reading ‘humour’ in place of ‘laughter’, however the two  are linked, since one does not usually find laughter (save for perhaps a nervous giggle, hysteria or induced by physical  stimulation) without having perceived humour, even if that perception  is in the subconscious.  If this is so, then it is more correct to say that laughter may result from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.  The cause of that laughter is humour.

It is perhaps the surprise element of humour that Kant has perceived.  The listener, or observer, is following a sequence of events and anticipating the next one when, suddenly, it moves off in a different direction altogether.  Surprise is perhaps more than one of the different forms of humour, although it can be merely that.   It is also a form of incongruity in itself, and thus may form the basis for other forms of humour, (see for example Wit, above).

Ridicule

This is a darker and less positive form of humour.  It is usually associated with drawing attention to the inadequacies or differences of an individual, or group of individuals.  Also known as mocking, ridicule works because the majority (usually) perceive themselves to be better than the minority, perhaps in physical appearance, or in intellectual ability.  It is a cruel form of humour, and its use often draws attention to inequalities.  That a situation or behaviour is perceived as stupid, however, suggests that the observer (and ridiculer) does not see his or her own behaviour as being ridiculous.   This is a close relative of parody and exaggeration, but is delivered in a less positive manner.

Irony

The last form of humour that we shall identify is irony.   This may also be a ‘darker’ form of humour.  The humour is found not in the statement made (spoken or visual) but in the tone of that delivery.  For example, “I really enjoy studying Greek,” can have two meanings, depending on the manner in which it is spoken.  It could mean that the speaker really does enjoy studying the Greek language, or, if it is spoken with sarcasm or irony in the voice, it could mean precisely the opposite.  Of course the problem with irony is that it is difficult to portray in the written word.  It is possible with the use of italics, or with the clever use of language, but it still relies predominantly on the perception of the reader to notice the irony.  Irony may be used in a positive fashion, to draw attention to a particular aspect of the subject matter, but is best used when it is subtle and perhaps not noticed by many people, or when one first encounters it.  In the form of sarcasm, on the other hand, it is always negative, and rarely subtle: often having the same intention and effect as ridicule.

Associated aspects of humour

We have already mentioned laughter above, and we need to examine this a little further.  In this section we will look at joy and hilarity, laughter, and finally at the concept of ‘sense of humour’.

Joy and hilarity

Although these two are not strictly aspects of humour, they are closely associated with humour.  They can exist independently of humour, for example, one might feel joyful because of the weather, or because of a pleasing experience, perhaps ‘religious’, although not necessarily.   Joy, like humour has many different forms, which include exultant joy, optimism, gladness, pleasure, courage and hilarity.  These are all positive responses to someone or something.  They may be evidence of the presence of humour, either intended or perceived, but this is not necessarily the case.

Hilarity is often associated with an outburst of laughter.  It is a form of pleasurable excitement that can be caused by physical stimuli, for example tickling, or by a stimulation of perception.  This is not very far removed from the incongruity of humour.

Humour can be joyful, resulting in joy and hilarity, but one must not forget that it can also be ‘black’, causing a  mood of despondency and despair as the incongruity  highlights something in life that is hopeless or helpless.

Laughter

Laughter can be brought on by physical stimulation, as can hilarity, and may also be brought on by psychological trauma in the form of hysterical laughter.  We shall not be including hysteria in our definition of humour as it is not caused by perceptions of incongruity, rather it is a psychoneurosis, and is caused by physical, emotional or psychological imbalances.  We shall also be excluding laughter caused by physical stimulation as this physiological response is not caused by incongruity.

Laughter in response to humour is frequently involuntary.   It is an explosion of inarticulate sounds of the voice under an outside influence.  It induces a feeling of well-being as endorphins are released in the brain.   Endorphins are opiate-like substances and the release leads to a ‘high’ of emotions.  Laughter is a very positive reflex action, and in its pure (non-hysterical) form is nearly always induced by perception of humour.   The perception may be one’s own, or one may be induced to laughter merely by experiencing the laughter of someone else (who has perceived humour).  The intensity of laughter may indicate the degree of incongruity that one perceives, or it may be due to a particular susceptibility to the effects of endorphins.

Frank Muir, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose comments: “A joke has a measurable potential of laughter; there are snigger-sized jokes, guffaw-sized jokes, and hearty-laughter-sized jokes.   Humour has no such limitations.  A piece might only give the reader quiet pleasure.  On the other hand if it catches the reader off-guard and in the right mood … its effect can be violent and prolonged, inducing…  uncontrollable surges of laughter, hiccups, and a curious snoring noise in trying to regain breath.”  Hilaire Belloc has a similar explanation about laughter: “Genuine laughter is the physical effect produced in the rational being by what suddenly strikes his immortal soul as being damned funny.”

Laughter is not a barometer of humour.  It may indicate the presence of humour, but not the ‘quality’ of the humour, since the response is subjective.  Absence of laughter, however, does not necessarily indicate an absence of humour, again because the laughter response is a subjective one, and what one person perceives as being humorous enough to laugh may not stimulate the perception of another.  It should also be noted here that laughter may be a form of irony.  Hollow laughter is a means of conveying (mostly negative) ironic intent without having to use words.  Furthermore, we must again remind ourselves that humour is not always funny or amusing, and what is not funny is not likely to induce laughter.

Sense of Humour

This is the faculty of perceiving humour, usually associated with humour that is amusing.  It is commonly seen as a positive attribute, and an absence is usually associated with someone who does not find the same things amusing as one does.  In this paper we shall be looking to see if God has a sense of humour.  We do not mean in the  exclusive ‘does he find the same things funny as I do’  sense; rather we shall be looking to see if God has the faculty of perceiving humour in all its forms, as well as  the faculty of delivering or creating humour.  In other words, does God find things humorous; and does he intentionally create humour?  It must be noted that even if the Biblical revelation of God does not display all the forms of humour that we have identified that does not deny the presence of a sense of humour.

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