A Good Humored Review

A Good Humored Review December 29, 2011

This review is part of Patheos’s book club for Father James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I got the book for free for review purposes.

I’d guess I’m not in the target audience for Fr. Martin’s book.  Not because I’m not a Christian, but because I didn’t think religion has to be somber all the time in the first place.  A fair amount of the book is spent refuting this ides through exegesis of specific passages, general theological philosophizing, and recounting jokes.  If you’ve already accepted Martin’s major premise, you may share my wish that he’d spent more time talking about how humor could be integrated into Christian life, instead of defending the idea of including it at all.

Most of all, I would have liked to see Fr. Martin talk more about how to distinguish between good humor from bad.  Some of his examples are easy ones (humor at the expense of others, self-deprecating humor that actually degrades you, etc), but he didn’t talk as much about humor at the expense of institution or ideology.  More than once, he cites examples of how joy and joking can be subversive.  This is one of the charges traditionally leveled by the anti-humor crowd — humor is destabilizing, and even institutions rooted in truth are not immune to this disruptive force.

Given that he acknowledges the danger, I would have liked him to talk more about how to recognize the institutions that deserve disruption and when (and how) to shield fragile truths from mockery.

Humor-as-subversion is one of the most used weapons in the atheist arsenal, but I’ve got my doubt about its utility.  A lot of humor depends on shared vocabulary — you have to the right expectation to be able to be surprised and delighted by a humorous reversal, but outside the community it reads as mockery.  Some jokes should stay private; it doesn’t mean they’re bad jokes or that they don’t point to something clever and true, just that we can’t be fluent in all private languages of  slang and experience.

Some time ago, Stephen Sondheim put his finger on one of the hallmarks of bad humor: camp-as-excuse.  He said he was frustrated by people who aimed to make so-bad-it’s-good parodies, where any shallowness was explained away thus “Oh, we’re really just satirizing bad art.”  It’s easy to find dumb things and point and laugh, but it doesn’t take much creativity or offer that much to your audience.

The greatest virtue of humor is that it can come at truth obliquely.  A well told joke is jarring and makes you think differently.  At the very small scale, puns surprise you with homonyms or secondary meanings (“When is a door not a door?  When it’s a jar!”).  At the other end of the spectrum is the Lord of Misrule (also known as the Abbot of Unreason) who presides over the topsy-turvy season of Carnival or the Twelve Days of Christsmas and offers some counterpoint to the normal order of things.

In the context of Christianity, I assume the best kind of humor is any that draws attention to the strain of “being made for another world” as C.S. Lewis would put it.  Humor rejoices in the setting up and resolving a tension, and Christianity is rooted in an awareness of a discrepancy between what we are and what we ought to be.  Perhaps, for Fr. Martin and others, the proper kind of disruptive humor is the kind that draws attention to this oddity, but doesn’t undermine confidence in its resolution, so dadaist, non-sequitur humor that mocks you for expecting a punchline might be verboten.

Over on my side of the fence, I like humor for its ability to discomfit us.  Our reason is imperfect and our biases are legion, so we don’t deserve complacency.  Humor generically is still a destabilizing force, though, so if I were coming up with safeguards, I might suggest to only joke about the things you love.  Looking carefully through the ideas you value to find doubled meanings can be instructive, and you need to have a pretty good understanding of a concept to make more than surface jokes.

Plus, it’s fun.

Say, did I ever tell you the one about the topologist who couldn’t tell the difference between her coffee mug and her donut?

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  • Joe

    In monastic life humor was often used as a means for fraternal correction. For instance if a brother made an extreme or stupid statement one of the elder monks would subtly bring up the fact that Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a devout catholic, discovered the cause of Downs Syndrome. Everyone would look at the offending Brother, usually a novice, and chuckle. A chuckle because loud over the top laughter is considered buffoonery by St. Benedict but to be honest it happened from time to time particularly when the offending brother was particularly thick headed. These kind of jokes stung quite a bit but they got the job done.

  • A poet named Billeh Nickerson once said that when people laugh at a joke you tell, they let their guard down. That’s the best time to stick in your social justice knife. I’ll interpret that by saying that humour could be used as preparation for your message as much as the vehicle of it.

    But I’ve also heard (though I credit this idea less) that humour is primarily about defining in-groups; every joke is an in-joke. The only reason jokes are funny, according to this line of thought, is that it is possible for you not to get them. If you get the joke, you’re part of the in-group, and you laugh with relief. I’m not sure if I buy that, but I can’t think of an obvious counter-example. Even puns delineate linguistic groups, and their usual lack of humour might be partly because the in-group is fairly large. This could still be used to good effect, however, along the lines Billeh Nickerson suggests: use a joke to establish some affinity, and then bring up the idea you’re worried they’ll reject.

    Did you ever get around to finish The Name of the Rose, by the way? It had some things to say about humour and religion.

    • leahlibresco

      I made sure to reread Name of the Rose before I read this book for review. 🙂

      I think the idea of using in-group jokes to reinforce comfort in community before you start a hard discussion is a good one and is the complete opposite of what a lot of religious polemics (on both sides!) do. Their mocking humor excludes the people they’re trying to convert.

    • I don’t buy the in-group idea. I think the lack of a counter-example is because all good jokes are absurd, recognizing absurdity requires background knowledge and background knowledge constitutes in-groups. But recognizing the in-group is not the cause of the funniness, otherwise a quiz will do.

      However, I will weaken my case because I want to tell my favorite Catholic joke, which actually does work that way:

      Jesus, at the stoning of the woman caught in adultery: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. In that moment a brick comes flying in and strikes the women dead. Jesus turns around an says: “Mom, sometimes you’re really a pain in the neck.”

      In addition to finding it hilarious I also like it for sorting Catholics on the pity scale. There’s a window between those who don’t get it and those who think this is no joking matter and that window marks the kind of Catholics I want to be friends with.

      • leahlibresco

        This is excellent.