Spacious Reading without Laugh-tracks
February 6, 2012
Often I crack up reading jokes, humorous essays, or collections of cartoons. Sometimes, though, what promises to be funny seems flat. Maybe I’m not clever enough to get the humor. But more often it’s because I’m reading in a hurry, superficially, or inattentively. Humor needs breathing spaces, and I’m squeezing the life out of it.
Lots of folks miss humor in the Bible because they don’t expect it. Many more miss it because they don’t read well. Students have taught me about three levels of reading: careful reading, where you dig into the text; skimming, where you do a fly-over to get the shape of the piece; and retinizing, where the image of the page merely hits the back of your eyeballs. For all kinds of reasons, a lot of modern reading is fly-over and retinizing. When we read that way, we’ll miss humor and a lot more. In reading the Bible, we’ll miss the power of poetry and the wonder of miracles. While we read about the crowds being amazed at Jesus, inside we just go “ho-hum.” Fast, drone reading or mentally mumbling our way through the text just won’t do.
We can read in more rewarding ways. We can soak in a text and create space for attention and imagination. We can take in the scene the writer has painted with words. We can let the words open and bloom and see what they’re trying to describe. We can use our imaginations, not to make stuff up, but to enter what’s already there. Many writers encourage us to read the Bible with all of our senses on alert, an old and proven practice often associated with the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.
A soaking, spacious reading helps especially with humor. Storytellers and comics work hard to learn “timing,” creating space for listeners to see the picture or move in the direction that makes the funny punch-line or surprise work. They want listeners to experience the outlandish, the odd, and the absurd, and they want them to be caught off guard by the comic twist.
This is true, too, for Bible writers. As readers, we can help, allowing spaciousness and imagination in stories that are often very compact. We can remember the set-up of the story and make the characters vivid. We can experiment with pause and vocal inflection, and allow characters to raise an eyebrow, roll their eyes, give a mischievous smile, or even roar with laughter. And we have to do it without benefit of laugh-tracks or a back-up band to add rim-shots to good (or lame) jokes.
Experiment with reading aloud and visualizing various scenes. For example, when Jesus compares and quotes two men praying, it’s easy to imagine using exaggerated voices to accent the religious stuffiness of the one and the quiet humility of the other. (Luke 18:9-14) (Frankly, at this point, I can hardly imagine that Jesus didn’t do that and get guffaws from simple folks who had had their fill of self-righteous religious guys.) Or we can see the Samson and Delilah dialogue as the kind of man/woman teasing and cajoling that frequents sit-coms. “How can you say you love me when you don’t trust me?” (Judges 16:4-21) Or we could read Laban’s apparently heart-wrenching speech to son-in-law Jacob, knowing that this was a lying, cheating, maybe even murderous father-in-law who was mostly looking for stolen property. (Genesis 31:26-30) Try it with a fake, even angry, sobbing voice. And the suspenseful story that follows, Laban searching for the stolen “household gods,” has a wonderfully comic surprise ending.
Whether we find humor or not, reading the Bible spaciously, with mind and senses on alert, will open the way to fresh understanding. And, in more places than we suspect, I’m sure we’ll find cues for laughter.