Want to Hear a Bad Joke? It's a Good One.
Lately I’ve been wrestling with how to handle humor. This is a hard subject for me because my mind works fast, and it’s twisted. I revel in wit that is a little bit dark, a little bit sarcastic, and a little bit irreverent. Put me in the company of a few of my closest friends, we can turn an awkward 1970’s photo into a full-out slam party. We are masters of the zing. We love finding something deliciously bizarre, then spending an hour digging out everything wickedly funny about it.
And I don’t know that such fun is wrong in itself; however, over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about some of the dismissive mockery that seems to be running rampant in the church these days. As I’ve been noticing what some believers are doing to belittle other believers, I’ve had to also look at how I treat those who differ from me.
Sometimes humor can provide a loving buffer between opponents. It can soften differences and bring a healing levity to a tense situation. Other times, though, it can be a cover for insult and division that does harm in the body.
Let me give you an example of how I’ve done this badly. Maybe a story will help show you more of what I mean.
Over the past few years, I’ve had some weird experiences with young earth creationists. Now I’m fine with believing that God made the world in six literal days, but if he did, I really wish he would pick some different people to talk about it on the national scale. I’m embarrassed by so much of what I’ve seen emerge from champions of this particular cause.
So few of the young earth crusaders seem to recognize where they are in time philosophically. Many do not see irony in the fact that they are using post-enlightenment methods of argument built upon the same humanism that they claim is destroying America. Because our culture worships science, they want... they NEED... Genesis 1-2 to work like a scientific manual. It’s impossible to appeal to the fact that God has repeatedly revealed himself in Scripture by symbol, intuition, and poetry, because their felt need is that God would fight the exact battles they want him to fight.
It’s difficult to have this conversation with some young earth advocates, because they live in such fear that the baby of inerrancy is going to get thrown out in the bathwater of a bigger philosophical perspective. Normally I just back out of conversations when statements like these start to pop up, “If you don’t believe God made the world in six days, then that means you can’t trust the Bible, which means nothing can be proven, which is relativism, and this is why people will believe in the antichrist after the Second Coming.”
That's kind of a conversation stopper, right there. The whole thing wears me out, and over the years, as I have watched some of these crazy logical leaps start to fly, as I’ve felt the hot embarrassment of association, I’ve made some hard jokes about extremists in this camp.
I’ve made those jokes to diffuse the frustration I feel about not being heard. I’ve made those jokes to put some space between me and those who do not represent my beliefs. I’ve made them to dispel loneliness, because when I am in a situation where people don’t seem to be thinking clearly, I start to feel isolated. I’ve made them because it’s easier to just mock people and throw them to the side than respectfully disagree with those who don’t have the humility or the patience to hear what I am actually saying.
I’m giving you all of these details so that you will understand the incongruity in something that happened to our family earlier this month.
I was driving home from school while my youngest son was babbling in the back of the van, telling me about his day. He was so excited about a book that he had found in the school library.
My son has known how to read for several years, but he’s just hit that electric point in reading where books are fun for him. I was half thinking about traffic and housework, half trying to listen to what he was saying, when he pulled the book out of his backpack and nearly shouted, "Mom! This book has TRUTH in it!"
I thought that was an odd statement, so I said, "Truth? What do you mean?"
He said, "It's just full of truth about God and the world!"
Then he started telling me about how the fossils were evidence that God punished sin. I thought, "Uh oh. It’s one of those weird young earth creationist books." But I didn’t say that. I just kept quiet and listened.
M opened to the back page and explained how the consequence of sin was death and separation from God, and then he explained the substitutionary atonement with complete accuracy. He wasn’t just accurate, though, he was excited. He finally got it.
Over the past five years we've worn out at least one Children's Story Book Bible on this kid. I don't know how many times he has heard the gospel in different ways. But something about this little book (or the Holy Spirit using this book) helped him finally process the reality of Christ's sacrifice, so as I pulled in our driveway, I said, "Is this something you are interested in? You would like to have Jesus live inside you?" He was visibly eager but shy, so I crawled into the back seat beside him, and there in the driveway, my son asked Christ to reign his heart.
The book that God used, of all things, was one I would have gently intercepted and urged him to put back on the shelf if I had seen him pick it up.
After he went to bed that night, I held that book in my hands and flipped through page after page of cheesy illustrations. I was just so humbled sitting there at the kitchen table, realizing that God doesn’t need perfect theology to do what he wants in any of us.
This was difficult for me to admit, because accurate theology is one of my biggest values. Even writing this, as I consider some of the rotten teaching running around in Christendom, my stomach feels a little sick. I don't want people to believe lies!
So it was unnerving to admit that God could use even flawed methods to accomplish his ends, and that his sustenance is good news because my own theology is likely so full of blind spots, too. In fact, if I could see the whole of my present belief system, despite all of my reading, despite all of my wit, despite the fine, educated friends I’ve been given to refine me, despite the classes I've taken, if all of my strength were placed beside the blinding, vivid truth of an eternal, omniscient God, I would look like a simpleton. A fool.
I don't mean that all truth is relative, it isn't. I don't mean that we can know nothing about God, because we can. I do mean that if all of my capacity were a book, I would probably look a lot like this one my son picked. No, I take that back. In light of God’s brilliance, I’d probably look more one of those badly-drawn pamphlets you find in a public restroom.
A knot swelled up in my throat as verses like these flooded through my mind:
“One plants and another waters, but God causes the growth.”
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
“But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.“
- - -
Over the past few days I have been working back through Corrie Ten Boom’s writings, listening to this little lady who knew so much hell on earth, who tested the principles of God through grief we cannot begin to imagine. She sees right through me sometimes, warning me that childlike trust in the power of God trumps all my gifts of cultural or academic insight.
God is alive, she says. And this changes how I need to fight.
But it is so difficult for me to believe that. I'm funny, see? I'm so funny! God needs me to be funny to save America, doesn't he?
I wonder, if God appeared to me in smoke on a mountain and proclaimed, “Thou shalt not meme thine enemies,” would I ask, “Then might I Tweet them instead?”
Sarcastic dismissal is the spirit of our age, and I am a master of it. I do not want to let go of this sword. It's so good for cutting off ears.
Meanwhile I have a husband with 122 hours of graduate training in theology who never mocks or demeans sincere, simple people who are trying to do something good for the kingdom. Even if he thinks their strategy, soteriology, or eschatology are wrong, he speaks of those differences without condescension.
I have been angry with him about this in the past. I have wanted him to charge in beside me and blast apart error with me. (Shazaam!) I've wanted him to humiliate internet loud mouths and cocky church bullies. But I’m starting to see that there have been too many times in my walk with God that I have been enchanted by the glitz and glory of sharp tongues and quick minds that belittle those who love Jesus in the wrong way. I’ve done that because I have felt smart and insightful, because I’ve read more, because I have known better.
But there's no wit on the planet that can match a real gentleman's humility and depth of character. I’m starting to see that what I have disrespected has sometimes been beautiful and not weak after all.
I don’t know yet how all of this fits into speaking hard things in a world that is often too weak on truth. I don’t know where it leaves room for the sort of humor that heals and builds bridges. I do see some instances of sarcasm and ferocity in the Bible, and I need God to show me how and when those might apply.
What I do know is that my heart has been wrong at times. I have been proud. I have been impatient. I haven’t trusted God to be able to use those who clearly don't have it all together theologically. (Go back and laugh there if you didn't. That was sarcasm.) I also know that God hasn't called me to sit like Statler and Waldorf giving a MST3K play-by-play of American Christianity 2015. It's going to take me a little while to get over that, too, because I was really stinking good at it.
I’m ending this post with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which discusses four types of humor and their relative soul health. If you read it, remember, this book was written from the perspective of a demon attempting to trick a Christian into sin, so what is written must be read from that viewpoint. In this book, evil is seen as good and good is seen as evil. You're going to have to flip some stuff. If he says, "flippancy is the best of all," that means it is also most evil, see?
Let me know your thoughts. I'd like to hear what you've learned about this stuff along the way.
From The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis:
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven - a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.
Fun is closely related to Joy - a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.
The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humour, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom "no passion is as serious as lust" and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex. If your man is of the first type, bawdy humour will not help you - I shall never forget the hours which I wasted (hours to me of unbearable tedium) with one of my early patients in bars and smoking-rooms before I learned this rule. Find out which group the patient belongs to - and see that he does not find out.
The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their "sense of humour" so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful - unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it,