Humor as Theology

Humor as Theology December 31, 2019

Today, no kidding, the last day of the year, IVP releases Steve Wilkens’ new wonderful full-of-fun but also full-of-insight book, What’s So Funny About God? A Theological Look at Humor.

Gnostics and other dualists of a spiritual flavor degrade bodies and along with degrading bodies is the degrading of the common reality and value of humor. Those who think humor is out are those most in danger of degrading the embodiment of God in a human being, which is itself quite an undertaking of condescension if not also humorous, are the very ones who think humor has no place for the spiritually minded. Such spirituality borders on the gnostic, not the Bible. If you don’t think Jonah is downright funny and fun, read it again. Loosen up, buddy, because it’s very funny.

What is humor? What can it do for our theology?

It is hard to define humor itself. A dictionary definition such as ‘something that is or is designed to be comical or amusing” hardly seems to capture the richness and variety of humor. Instead of attempting to define humor, it seems more helpful to focus on how it works. Humor builds on punch-line surprises, disruption of the conventional, reversal of expectation, juxtaposition of seeming incommensurate things, challenging boundaries, misinterpretation, redefinition of the familiar, satire, paradox, irony, and other related devices. If these elements are also part of the very fabric of the Christian story—and I’m convinced they are—then reading Scripture humorously holds the possibility of opening dimensions of the faith in new ways, seeing things from a fresh vantage point, and recognizing some spiritual blind spots. God defeats Israel’s enemies with a woefully undermanned military force armed with band instruments (Judges 7), elevates Jacob the gimpy swindler to the role of Patriarch of the Chosen People, and adopts us as heirs of eternal life “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8). Doesn’t it seem possible that these incongruities and surprises share common ground with humor, and isn’t the delight we should feel at the oddity of these stories akin to the delight we experience in a good joke?

In humor we may discover life’s big topics pushed one step away but closer than most otherwise would be willing to get.

If we listen carefully, we discover what those around us are talking about through their humor. Jokes about death, sex, gates of heaven judgment, money, politics, and marriage cue us in to the fact that ultimate issues are top of mind for people. Gallows humor and quips about aging and nonfunctional body parts expose human fears and provide glimmers of hope. Insecurities and a sense of impotence are often the undertones in sarcasm directed at the wealthy and powerful. Self-deprecating humor is often the only form of confession that we will hear from friends and neighbors.

Why not think of humor as a form of communication valuable for theological reflection? In fact, humor is connected to Easter!

The Christian faith has a broad array of valid forms of expression. Sermons, heartfelt conversation, devotional thoughts, and a range of other forms all have their place and are useful. Still, I’m also convinced that one of the most potent ways of expressing, understanding, and deepening faith is woefully underutilized. Too often, humor has been sidelined, even discouraged, as a means of exploring, learning about, or growing in faith. However, Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Eccles 3:4). It seems that many Christians are overdue on finding a time to laugh, and I am convinced that our life in God’s presence warrants a lot more laughter than we’ve imagined.

We are resurrection people, and if elated laughter is not part of our faithful repertoire, I’m not sure we really get Easter.

Steve is a very funny man and a solid thinker. One of my all time favorite evenings was spent with him — and Don and Craig — outside on a street pub in Baltimore before an academic meeting. All I can say is that is quippy, witty, theological, and yet — with the humor — penetrating to deeper issues. The paper that night, one of which I read, was not nearly as penetrating.

I have a high tolerance for humor that some find objectionable (and a low tolerance for those in perpetual search of anything that could be perceived as objectionable). Out of consideration for others (and a desire to have the book published), most of the time I have stayed on the safe side, but it has been painful. When the humor and subject matter does move toward the earthy and guy-humor side, it does so to make a theological point.


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