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Volume 9, Issue 2: Thema

Love, Joy, and Spit Milk

Douglas Jones

There Christ reigns humor and laughter are sure to prevail. We shouldn't even hesitate to say that laughers will inherit the earth. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," and nothing expresses the deep triumph of Christian joy better than laughter tumbling out on all sides. Somewhere even Goethe recognized that "Men show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable." And if we are Christians, then joy, humility, and gratitude should lead us to burst with hearty laughter. And I'm not just speaking of "pious" chuckles over "polite" quips or self-righteous sneering. True joy finds humor in all the weird details of life--the curse of broccoli, the dullness of males, the cruelty of insurance forms, and the tragedy of English cooking. Humor tells us so much about our hearts.

Terry Lindvall recently said it so well,

Laughter is a divine gift to the human who is humble. A proud man cannot laugh because he must watch his dignity; he cannot give himself over to the rocking and rolling of his belly. But a poor and happy man laughs heartily because he gives no serious attention to his ego.[1]

In a similar note, G.K. Chesterton remarked,

As long as a man is merely witty he can be quite dignified; in other words, as long as he is witty he can be entirely solemn. But if he is mirthful he at once abandons dignity, which is another name for solemnity, which is another name for spiritual pride. . . . And a man must love a joke more than himself, or he will not surrender pride for it. A man must take what is called a leap in the dark, as he does when he is married or when he dies, or when he is born, or when he does almost anything else that is important.[2]

The prideful don't give in to humor. And we should rightly learn to be suspicious of people and ministries that are not characterized by genuine humor (not Toronto laugh-spasms). They're showing us their heart. The humor doesn't have to be good to be humble. Bad jokes are far more humbling than good ones. (But for your friends' sake, do remember Paul's advice, "Shall we continue in bad jokes that grace may abound? Certainly not!"--Col. 5:2.)
Laughter reveals not only joy, humility, and gratitude but also patience and mercy. Cold reason (not wisdom) demands neatly brushed and hermetically sealed answers. But tidy rationalism isn't Christian. Christians should know that mystery surrounds us, that the secret things belong to the Lord, that we see through a glass darkly, and that golf is still legal.
Laughter rejoices in unresolved problems. It doesn't seek a clean repair job but rejoices in the incongruities of life. That's why explaining a joke often ruins it. Germans can illustrate this point well. John Morreal recounts the story of a single-pane comic strip published in a German magazine in the 1940's. The strip showed two skiers, one staring in amazement at the other whose ski tracks cuts smoothly around both sides of a tree. Many Germans actually "wrote in with their `solutions' to it. Instead of being amused by the drawing, they took it as a cognitive challenge."[3]
Laughter doesn't demand a calculus for everything. It is the fruit of patience with an often mysterious world full of people at different levels skipping in different directions. Laughter reveals a state of rest within us. Flannery O'Connor observed that "Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe."[4] Laughter in no way excludes truth, careful argumentation, thoughtful distinctions, and the rest, but it won't allow you to throw a fit and break the little wagon wheels when no one wants a ride.
Is your life characterized by shiploads of laughter?--not constant, boorish laughter oblivious to the pains and fastings of life, but easy laughter from the heart? Does laughter prevail in your family? At work? At church? If not, then pride and ingratitude are probably lurking somewhere. It's worth looking into. Life is short and the days are evil. Why miss the best parts of it? Pursue laughter seriously.

Why Do We Laugh?
A barrel of snoots will always tell us that defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people. That's certainly true of individual jokes but not of humor in general. We certainly don't say that sort of thing about music. In fact we say the opposite: the more we understand about music, the more we can appreciate it. I'm sure this is false in regard to humor, but the temptation is just too great to avoid.

Three theories of why we laugh at something have held sway over the millennia, with each being snipped and qualified in interesting ways hundreds of times. In the most general groupings, the three theories are Superiority, Release, and Incongruity. I think Christianity has something distinctive which excludes the first two.
Superiority theories suggest that all laughter necessarily involves a feeling of triumph and superiority or "sudden glory" as Thomas Hobbes argued. This seems to fit with old jokes like: What do you get by crossing a Californian with a gorilla? A retarded gorilla. But though feelings of superiority cause some laughter, and Don Rickles types have made a career of it, it doesn't appear to be central to every kind of laughter. When babies laugh at tickling or a stuffed cow on dad's head, do they have deep feelings of superiority? Well, okay, maybe for the cow hat, but not for the tickling.
The Release theory of humor suggests that we laugh when we need to vent excess nervous energy. Some jokes surely do this. In its more Freudian version, laughter releases energy normally used to suppress forbidden feelings and thoughts. Release theories usually rest on passing scientific fads about bodily energies, but they also don't take into account all examples of humor. Take the following Steven Wright line: "Why is it a penny for your thoughts, but you have to put your two cents in? Somebody's making a penny." If you find that mildly humorous, where is the suppressed nervous energy in that? What forbidden feelings are we venting? And again, when infants laugh, we can hardly charge them with overactive Superegos. We could only wish.
The Superiority and Relief theories fail rather decisively I think to grasp the heart of laughter. Heaven will be a place of great laughter, and yet it will also be a place of freedom without sin. But both these theories involve sinful drives--human superiority and forbidden thoughts--which will be wonderfully absent in the future state. Nonetheless, our perceptions of incongruity between glorification and the previous life or between divine perfection and our own finitude will stand out sharply. Humor will prevail.
This bodes well for the most popular theory of laughter, the Incongruity theory--the view that laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift. In other words, we are amused when something clashes with our expectations of regularity. The world runs according to certain patterns, and then we suddenly find something out of place, facing the wrong direction. So inside we say "No, that's not how it goes!" and express this with laughter. Now not all incongruities are pleasant. If they are frightening, say, an odd bump in the night or a stranger in our bedroom, then we don't laugh but scream. Horror and laughter may not be that far apart. Puzzles in life--like the occultic incantations necessary for plumbing--are incongruities too, but they aren't usually funny (until years later). Laughter demands pleasant incongruities, and our judgments of these vary widely. That's why we don't all laugh at the same things.
Incongruity--that "No that's not right!" delight--is evident in Fran Lebowitz's observation that "Being a woman is of special interest only to aspiring male transsexuals. To actual women, it is merely a good excuse not to play football." Another case of strong incongruity occurs in Monty Python's movie, In Search of the Holy Grail, long an underground favorite in Reformed circles (yes, I know the objections; put your hands down). Consider this dialogue in which King Arthur questions some medieval peasants:

ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Who's castle is that?
WOMAN: King of the who?
ARTHUR: The Britons.
WOMAN: Who are the Britons?
ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We're all Britons and I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
[The discussion heats up more and then:]
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up! (Arthur throttles democratic Dennis)
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I'm being repressed!

Children's laughter too can be explained via incongruity. The drinking straws don't normally stick out of dad's nose. Mom doesn't usually hang upside down from the sofa. Things are out of order, and the child laughs. Of course, if you're too incongruous, you terrify children, but this is a worthy price for parental comedy. Little children themselves are the funniest things on the face of the earth. They are incongruous aliens in our world--little humans who don't know the rules or how things work. Their eyes are too big for their heads. They put electrical plugs in their mouths, and they try to brush their hair with spatulas. And when they are three, they often have ludicrous explanations of the world. At that age, my son once explained--with a deep scientific frown--that milk comes from a cow's butt.

Always the Limits
Not all comedy is pretty. Much certainly violates biblical norms (Eph. 5:4; Ex. 20:7). Contemporary, sentimental evangelicalism tends to sin in the other direction though, being embarrassed at any Christian laughter. A sinful sentimentalism also clamors against the legitimacy of holy ridicule[5] Some claim that any sort of ridicule is unloving and unChristlike. One wonders what Bible they are reading. The Father (Ps. 2:2,4), the Son (Matt. 23), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:27), and others reveal the necessity of ridiculing arrogance. Bold arrogance against God deserves ridicule. Who do the arrogant think they are to raise themselves up against God and His Christ? But you can almost hear some Christians complaining against Christ's rude treatment of the Pharisees or Elijah's harsh attitude toward the priests of Baal.

At the base of all our laughter, even our holy ridicule, stands an overwhelming joy--a joy that pushes us to laugh aloud at the glorious incongruities of life. Our joy is the joy of triumph. We were dead, but now we live! We were abandoned, but God became flesh! How can we not shout and laugh in triumphant joy? I will never forget the best picture of this sort of triumphant laughter. My wife was giving birth to our fourth child, but things weren't going well. The pain was especially bad, and the time seemed to drag. I was of little help by her bedside. I couldn't take her pain, though I wanted to. Her body became rather badly mangled in the process, but just before our new son finally made his painful entrance into the world, my wife laughed and laughed, again and again, heartily and triumphantly like one finding a prodigal son. The tears were gone, and laughter prevailed--incarnational laughter.

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