St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Taking a Humorous Approach to Spiritual Life

Years ago I put a series of notes on my office door that I called “hooks.” They were intended to make people do a double take as they passed by, and to think about the underlying idea. The most popular one I ever put up said, “Some people say it’s sacrilegious to make fun of your religion. Personally, I think it’s the only way to be religious.” I hope readers catch the humor in this.

Many years ago the Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood wrote a book called The Humor of Christ. He seems to have been the first person to explore the territory, and he drew attention to many places in the gospel that could be understood more readily if we saw them as humorous, or at least ironic. For instance, Trueblood writes about the exchange between Jesus and a woman he refuses to cure, insulting her by saying, “It isn’t right to give the children’s food to the dogs.” This seems like a shocking comment, coming from Jesus. Trueblood argues that Jesus was teasing her, however, but then the woman makes this great comeback and says, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.” One can imagine Jesus smiling or even laughing at such a retort and responding, “If you can make a comeback like that, of course I will heal you.”

There’s a certain irony, in fact, that in the late Sixties and early Seventies – a gentler time when a lot of social commentary and action was playful – there were a spate of books that explored the Gospel as comedy. Some of these books pointed out that in earlier centuries the church celebrated days like the “Feast of Fools,” when bishops became choirboys and choirboys became bishops for a day. The humorous irony showed that the arrangement of power relations on earth might not reflect anything that is true or makes good sense “in heaven,” so to speak. Here we see the church as court jester who is commissioned to stick needles in the balloons that mark our pretensions and arrogance of power.

We often use humor to deflate the pompous and to uplift the lowly. This use of humor has a great history in social and political and religious circles. So how come so many Christians look sad, depressed, and downright miserable? Do we take ourselves too seriously?

There’s a big difference between taking the world seriously, on one hand, and underlining its foibles through humor on the other hand.  Jesus seems to have done both. As the writer of Ecclesiastes might have said, there is a time for humor and there is a time for seriousness. Both have their place in spiritual life.

We need comic relief from time to time. A hearty laugh at the foibles of humanity is good for the soul. Jesus saw this when he said, humorously, about pompous religionists, “You are blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel whole!” (Matthew 23:24). Who could not guffaw at such a comparison?

Can the Gospel be comedy? Doesn’t it end with the crucifixion of Christ, one of the tragic moments in history? Well yes there is death, and we do well not to overlook it. But for Christians, the tragic note is not the end. The resurrection of Christ continues to have meaning for us. It is God’s great comic surprise that breaks history and offers new life and purpose. This may be different from ordinary humor, but it’s the sort of humor the prophets and Jesus might have enjoyed. It’s the humor of the Gospel long range.

published 03 September 2010