This is the third (and in my view the weakest) part of the dissertation. Having established what humour and a sense of it is; and (I hope) that God has a sense of humour and is the source of humour; this section attempts to apply some of that to life in church…
A Theology of Humour – The Punch-Line
“If you’re not allowed to laugh in Heaven, I don’t want to go there.”
We have seen from the Bible that God is a God of humour. We will attempt to draw certain conclusions from this humour concerning God, our relationship with him, and our relationships with One another within the Church.
God is the source of laughter
This suggests that the ability to perceive humour is part of mankind’s innate being. If God is the source of laughter, he is the one who gave it to humanity as part of the gift of creation. On particular occasions his activity leads to the laughter of individuals. We have concluded that God does have a sense of humour. If humans are made ‘in his image’, and we too have a sense of humour, it does not take much thought to see where that sense of humour comes from. If this is so, then we can surmise that before the Fall mankind’s humour was devoid of the destructive elements that it has today.
We have all experienced painful jibes in the guise of humour on various occasions. Mockery in the hands of men and women can be a weapon that cuts deeper than any blade. In the hands of God, however, it is not tainted with the desire to hurt or abuse. It is part of what amuses God to see the efforts of his enemies to frustrate him and his plans. We must be careful not to attempt to use mockery in the manner that God uses it, for to do so is to elevate one’s status above others, contrary to the ‘first shall be last’ principle that Jesus taught his disciples.
God’s humour teaches and rebukes.
God’s sense of humour educates those who experience it. The educational experience is not a painful ‘telling off’ but a warm-hearted pointer in the right direction. It would appear that this is a much more beneficial and positive use of humour than mockery.
God does rebuke us, of that there can be no doubt. The messages delivered through the prophets were often condemnatory. But God sometimes seems to use humour to help his people understand him. At this point we refer back to Jonathan Miller’s sabbatical from reality. Humour allows us to look at ourselves in a manner that is less painful than being told ‘straight’, but is nonetheless searching. Jesus used humour in this fashion, and one feels that in the hands of God, humour is a loving form of rebuke. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “True humour springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love.” In the hands of man, it has the potential to have the same effect, but also the potential to be destructive and heartless. The former use of humour is to be encouraged, particularly in sermons and Christian ‘educational’ material, as a means of communicating truth. The latter use of humour should be vigorously discouraged, and attempts should be made by all in leadership to eschew the use of humour that harms.
An example might be to mock or mimic someone in the congregation from the pulpit to make a point in the sermon, or worse still to get a cheap laugh. Such a use of humour not only degrades and humiliates the person, but demonstrates a marked lack of sensitivity and compassion on the part of the preacher who is apparently delivering the ‘Word of God’. At such times one suspects God is leaving him to it. The problem is that non-Christians see ministers and vicars in particular as representatives of God and may be offended and put off seeking him. Furthermore, if the congregation senses an opportunity to entertain others, they may pick up on the ridicule of the individual concerned, or feel that since the preacher did it, it must be all right…
On this subject, Karl Barth wrote the following words. “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison.” Barth in his theological reflections has unearthed the incongruity of preaching, and whilst one does not wish to write much on homiletics, it is worth bearing this incongruity in mind if one intends to preach: the incongruity being the lofty ambition of speaking of God and the inadequacy of our ability to fulfil that ambition unaided. All that preachers can do is seek God’s assistance, and seek to remove any potential for offence that they might give – the offence of the gospel is surely more than sufficient for the average person!
The playful God
This is one of the most important things we have discerned in the writing of this paper. God has a sense of fun, of play. In the later chapters of Job, God seems to be enjoying his Creation for its own sake. The image of a boring old man in a white robe is dispelled in the face of this revelation; the sorrowful, sombre Christ is seen as inaccurate; the God of wrath and judgement is seen with a pleasant smile on his face. It would be quite wrong, however, to throw away all these images of God. He is a God who judges, he is angry at sin and its effects; Jesus was at times sorrowful and sombre, not least during the Passion. What is needed, and what one hopes has been achieved, is a more balanced picture of a God who is sad when people reject his love, who mourned the death of his Son, yet enjoys the company of mankind, whom he created for that purpose, and has a sense of humour and fun that he is not afraid to enjoy and share with them.
Some may fear that this portrayal of God diminishes his greatness, or is even blasphemous. This is not so. Surely a God who is not afraid to enjoy himself is greater than a god who must always remain austere for fear that some might not take him seriously. God is sufficiently great that he need not fear the opinions of men – that will not diminish his greatness – and he has made us sufficiently in his image that when we see the humorous side of his nature, we are attracted to him. As William Ingo once said, “I have never understood why it is considered derogatory to the Creator to suppose that he has a sense of humour.”
The Church and God’s humour
We began this paper by suggesting that the presence or absence of the humour of God has implications for his Church. Now that we have established the presence of his humour, we need to explore the implications further.
We have already mentioned the inappropriate the use of humour in preaching, above, and we must not lose sight of that. At the same time, we must not be so serious in preaching that we put off even the most lugubrious of people. Humour is a useful tool for communication of truth: Jesus demonstrated that brilliantly. It is also a useful tool for exegesis, when used to illustrate truth and challenge with it, rather than using it to explain away the challenge.
Humour should invade the serious and weighty aspects of the Church, bringing a little levity and light. Of course there are times when humour is probably inappropriate, as it was in the passion of Christ (for example during the celebration of Communion, or Eucharist) but there are equally times when a sombre attitude would be inappropriate (for example during celebrations of the resurrection). In the same way as our perception of God needs balance, so does our worship of him. What is being advocated here is not a descent into mirthful disorder, but a recognition of the place of humour in worship. It is perhaps not surprising that many of the growing churches in this country are those that use contemporary forms of worship, and are generally described as ‘lively’. Their sense of joy is infectious to those who attend (although they are as prone to falling prey to excesses as the rest of the Church), and one wonders whether they might not be presenting the humorous side of God to the world, albeit unwittingly.
If the Church is truly to be the body of Christ, his representatives on earth, we need to reflect him in our life-styles. Again one wishes to emphasise that this is not a call to flippancy, but a call to recognise the importance and significance of humour. It is an anathema to find a Christian who never smiles, and who is never amused, who is never joyful, who has no sense of humour, for that is to deny the presence of the living, laughing, humour-loving God in the person of the Holy Spirit in the life of that Christian. At the same time, the ‘happy-clappy’ Christian who never admits to having any problems denies the serious side of that same presence: to deliberately misquote Bill Shankly’s cliché about football: Christianity is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.
Reinhold Neibuhr suggests that humour has an even more important role than we have previously suggested. “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” Niebuhr’s argument behind this startling statement is that faith, like humour, deals in incongruities. The existence of humour and laughter at it is the starting point on the journey to discovering the greatest incongruity of them all – that God should love those who rejected him, and that he would be prepared to die for them. If this is correct, the omission of humour from much of the Church’s activities over the last 2,000 years is all the more lamentable. Not only is humour the prelude to faith, it is a gift for teaching and evangelism, and the absence of it in our faith has the opposite effect.
What this paper has endeavoured to show is that the Church has missed much of the humour of God for the best part of twenty centuries, and in so doing it has misinterpreted and misapplied much Biblical truth and has portrayed an inaccurate, boring, overly-serious image of that God to the non-Christian world. Murray Watts in the introduction to his collection of sketches, ‘Laughter in Heaven’, sums this up perfectly.
“There is no place for a church which never resounds with the laughter of faith. Such a church commits a crime against humanity: it has become boring. There are many serious obstacles to spreading the gospel, but this is one of the worst. It is no good blaming the world for being blind to the truth, when we are blind to it ourselves. If we are not free, how can we liberate others? If we are not faithful to the uniqueness of the Resurrection experience, to the delight and heavenly joy which is ours for eternity, if we are dull, we shortchange our fellow men. … The laughter born on that Easter morning is a gift from heaven, which draws us closer to that day, when ‘God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.'”
The books listed appear in the order in which they were quoted in this paper, followed by those which were read but not directly quoted.
Castle (ed.) The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations (Hodder, London, 1982)
Metcalfe (ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (Penguin, London, 1986)
Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (W.R. Chambers, Edinburgh, 1985)
Oxford English Dictionary H-K (Oxford University Press, London, 1933, Reprint 1970)
Koestler The Act of Creation (Hutchinson, London, 1964)
Drakeford Humor in Preaching (Zondervan, Michigan, 1986)
Durrant & J. Miller (eds.) Laughing Matters – A serious look at humour (Longman, Harlow, 1988)
The Holy Bible, New International Version (Zondervan, New York, 1978)
W.G. Morrice Joy in the New Testament (Paternoster, Exeter, 1984)
Muir (ed.) The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose (O.U.P., Oxford, 1990)
Good News Bible (Bible Society, London, 1976)
Trueblood The Humor of Christ (Harper Collins, New York, 1964)
Wilcock The Saviour of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel (IVP, Leicester, 1979)
Morris The Gospel According to Luke (IVP, London, 1974)
Garrett My Brother Esau is an Hairy Man (Scottish Journal of Theology, (33), pp. 239-256)
Niebuhr Discerning the Signs of the Times (Scribner’s, New York, 1946)
Watts Laughter in Heaven (Minstrel, Eastbourne, 1985)
The Way, Vol. 31, no. 3 (July 1991)
Theology Today, Vol. XLVIII, no. 4 (January 1992)
Y.T. Radday & A. Brenner (eds.) On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1990)
M. Good Irony in the Old Testament (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1965)