Laughing for the Wary

My friend told me gleefully about the church she grew up in and its rule that you should never laugh during a worship service. She especially enjoyed recounting the morning a touring drama group, whose sketches featured humor, led the service. Nobody laughed. Everyone suffered, guests and members alike.

Many faith communities have mixed feelings about humor. They want to be serious but not dour. They shy away from anything that might make fun of or trivialize their core values. They don’t trust the power of a hearty laugh, even though they recognize that humor might shape and strengthen their common life. Folks with such misgivings might well explore how humor can help, not hurt, them.

Often humor is just playful kidding around. We love to tell stories, play with words, and invent comical scenes to entertain each other and to enjoy the creativity and discovery of it all. And to good effect. Humorous play can break down barriers and help build warm, trustful relationships.

Rather than being merely entertaining or frivolous, humor can get things done. It’s playful but powerful. Advertisers know this, of course, and regularly use humor to catch our attention and sneak past our defenses, as do antagonists who use sitcoms, stand-up comedy, cartoons, and satire to undercut moral choices and lifestyles different from their own. Overdrawn caricatures attack religious people and practices effectively. After all, who wants to be “church lady”? Or a devout but goofy disciple?

Let me suggest two directions that humor and religious communities can interact. On the one hand, we can use healthy humor to clarify our thinking and action and to build community. On the other, we can let our community values shape how we respond to and use humor.

Theoretically, of course, religious communities can think and do things that are ridiculous or absurd. At least, in my years among Friends, I’ve heard stories that suggest that a Friends meeting here or there might have gone a bit silly. Humor helps us discover and reveal contradictions, awkwardness, the absurd, and the silly. It works a bit like the youngster who yelled during the king’s fashion parade, “Hey! The king has no clothes!”

When we see gaps or gaffes, humor can help us embrace our limitations and do better.

Certainly, not all of the issues we face are funny. I still struggle to find much humor in yearly meeting splits, though I do find long-ago fist fights over the clerk’s table sort of amusing, largely because it so blatantly violates our stated values. In the kerfuffle, I hope they weren’t testing each other with phrases like “over my dead body.” We do tell jokes about scrappy “peaceful” Friends, about how many Friends it takes to change a light bulb, or about how tortuously long and awkward meeting for business can sometimes be. I’ve heard jokes about how we put meetinghouses in obscure places and refuse to give any clues about how to get there (perhaps we expect the Light to brighten the path to our door?).

When we see gaps or gaffes, humor can help us embrace our limitations and do better, especially if it is offered in love. Maybe it can help us create friendly, even amusing, signs to help people find us; reduce light bulb changing to just one committee; or find more peaceful ways of resolving conflict.

Humor can also help build community as we share our aspirations and shortcomings. The gap between our hopes and our goof-ups is raw material for humor. We all do stupid stuff. (Apologies go to any of you who don’t.) I’m reassured that as I grow older, I’ll still do stupid stuff, just more slowly. Most of it is ordinary. We lock the keys in the car, wear mismatched shoes, drop the phone in the toilet (this used to be much harder), or awkwardly forget the name of a good friend. I call this the “Klutz Factor,” which simply reminds us that we humans, as amazing as we are, still have limitations. We’re made that way. Laughing with each other about our klutzy moments (and sometimes our bigger than merely klutzy challenges) helps us show love, build trust, and support each other to live as fully and faithfully as we can. We can also laugh heartily to celebrate our successes.

Personally and in community, we can use our religious values to shape how we receive and use humor. We need to stay alert to how we respond to humor that comes to us through friends, media, music, or many other sources. If we don’t pay attention, it may influence us in ways that we wouldn’t normally accept.

Often we laugh before we think. A good joke can catch us off-guard, surprise us. That’s the way humor works. Then we may blush a bit and think, “That’s not funny! I shouldn’t have laughed at that.” And we might be right. When we laugh before we think, we can also think after we laugh. We don’t have to let mean or offensive humor sneak in and make itself at home.

In the years I grew up near Chicago, “Pollock” jokes were common, but as I moved around the country I discovered different target groups: Aggies, Canucks, Portugee, etc. But a lot of the attack jokes remained the same.

We can make careful choices about how we use humor. Values like kindness, respect, and truthfulness can shape what we do. I often use a guide that paraphrases the words of Jesus: “Laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you.” That alone goes a long way to eliminate humor that attacks, demeans, excludes, or treats persons as the “other.” Frankly, some writers believe that most (or all) humor is rooted in anger and takes the form of attack. But I disagree. We can have lots of fun with humor that grows out of love and out of knowing that we’re all in this together.

Consider some examples. Don (“You hockey puck!”) Rickles made a comedy career using insults and name-calling. I’m frankly puzzled about how he succeeded. (People say that Rickles was a really nice guy, though he used this mean schtick.) I’m pretty sure that most of us won’t love or be loved if we follow his cues. Also, people use humor to make fun of folks that are not like them and to set them apart as an “other.” So you hear a lot of gender jokes (women versus men), or “dumb blonde” jokes, or social class jokes, or ethnic jokes that make fun of or demean others. In the years I grew up near Chicago, “Pollock” jokes were common, but as I moved around the country I discovered different target groups: Aggies, Canucks, Portugee, etc. But a lot of the attack jokes remained the same. In learning to “laugh with others,” I’ve tried to retire ethnic or other “group” jokes, even if they are structurally funny. And I’ve tried to eliminate gender jokes told at the expense of others. Perhaps it should go without saying that crude, rude, and vulgar humor doesn’t reflect our values either. All of these kinds of humor abound, of course, but there is still lots of humor we can share without using hurtful themes and forms.

In his book about positive humor, A Laughing Place, Christian Hageseth III offers this principle, among others: “I am determined to use my humor for positive, loving purposes only.” Not to get back, to win a fight, or to put people in their place, but to share humor for joy and building loving relationships. That idea, even without the details he offers to help it work, sets out a goal that can shape our daily practice.

What we laugh at and how we laugh with others matters. It’s never “just humor.”

Frankly, I’ve been surprised at how often people seem to set aside humor as a part of life that isn’t touched by or included in faithful living. I’ve seen folks wink at and nudge each other when I suggest that using rough humor with each other doesn’t match up to what we cherish. What we laugh at and how we laugh with others matters. It’s never “just humor.”

Another way the religious community can use humor is in its witness to their values. Because humor is powerful and a bit sneaky, it can grab people’s attention and plant seed for new understanding. Examples from the Bible include powerful satire from the prophets and Jesus’s masterful use of story and puzzling questions. Among my favorite religious writers who use humor are Frederick Buechner and Susan Sparks, not to neglect effective Quaker writers like Tom Mullen, Phil Gulley, and Brent Bill. I admire the work of editorial cartoonists like Friend Signe Wilkinson and (going back aways) Doug Marlette. Visual artists, musicians, poets, letter writers, protesters, and many others offer examples of how to use humor to strengthen our witness.

Humor is a wonderful gift to us as we live well, bumble along, and give witness. I invite Friends to embrace it and learn to use it well.

Howard R. Macy

Howard R. Macy is retired from teaching at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. He continues to write and serve in public ministry. Two of his books treat humor and religion: Laughing Pilgrims: Humor and the Spiritual Journey and Discovering Humor in the Bible: An Explorer's Guide.

4 thoughts on “Laughing for the Wary

  1. Abraham Maslow distinguished between a ‘Hostile” sense of humor and a ‘philosophical” sense of humor in describing what he termed as a ‘self actualized’ person. This has long spoken to my condition. 😕

  2. Humor is a release; it is also a vague form of testimony. I love crazy chase scenes in the Blues Brothers, It’s a Mad,Mad Word and the Russians are Coming. They are totally fantasy, but they release us from our everyday lives without hurting us, except if we fall out our chairs from laughing. Thanks for the super article.

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