December 10, 2013
I first laughed out loud with Frederick Buechner when I read his retelling of how Abraham and Sarah robbed their retirement account to furnish a nursery for the newborn first-born they would get in their already creaky old age. I’ve grinned and chuckled with Buechner many times since. His Telling the Truth, where I met Abraham and Sarah, introduced me to him and hooked me.
I return often to his Peculiar Treasures, a “who’s who” of biblical characters from Aaron to Zaccheus. In his engaging descriptions of these “saints, prophets, potentates and assorted sinners who roam through the pages of the Bible” Buechner offers “aha” moments filled with humor and poignancy. Anticipating criticism for using humor, he objects, “All I can offer by way of defense is that the Bible itself has a great deal more laughter in it than all those double columns and black leatherette bindings would lead you to believe.” (ii)
In his vignette about Sarah, whose “high and holy laughter” captured him, Buechner shows his hand. “Nobody claims there’s a chuckle on every page, but laughter’s what the whole Bible is really about. Nobody who knows his hat from home-plate claims that getting mixed up with God is all sweetness and light, but ultimately it’s what that’s all about too.” (153)
In this season of Advent, I often return to Buechner’s reflection on Gabriel. His concluding sentences still make me catch my breath. “’You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” (39) (See Luke 1:26-35)
My book-pusher self wants to say, “Go find these remarkable books and read them.” But I won’t, and I hope you will.
November 8, 2013
My friend Dan helped me even more than he knew. Not that he wouldn’t have done it anyway. He sent me links to essays on humor from an unlikely source, one he knew I wouldn’t see. And they were pretty good, except for one by Joel Kilpatrick that I suspect a careless editor let by. It was terrific. Kilpatrick is the brains behind larknews.com, a satirical (Onion-like) Christian site where you can find headlines like “Family buys hut next to sponsored child” or “Pastor welcomes birth of second sermon illustration” or a news article about a church stuck with a worship leader who specializes in “alien folk music.” So I laughed and learned that larknews.com is still around (cheers!) and that Kilpatrick has written a fun and insightful book, God, That’s Funny.
The book will startle some readers, I’m sure, because Kilpatrick combines humor with God as foundational, not simply frivolous or decorative. “We all need to be reminded that God is funny,” he writes. “That his humor is on display everywhere and is a key to understanding what he’s doing in our lives, in Scripture and in the world around us. We all need to appreciate that comedy is one of God’s primary languages.” He challenges even more pointedly about our relationship with God: “God has never been without humor, and if we live in his presence, neither can we.”
Always funny and often poignant, Kilpatrick develops this theme out of his personal experience, his well-honed humor skills, and his reading of the Bible. He shows humor in the Bible in Old Testament stories like geriatric Abraham and Sarah having a baby, but also uses unexpected Old Testament texts. He stirs readers’ imaginations and insight when he analyzes the steps of humor in Jesus’ teaching, healing, and conversations with folks. (I especially enjoyed his take on the story of Jesus chatting with the woman at the well in Samaria.) In my case, at least, he stretched and deepened my understanding of the absurdity and upside-down character of Jesus’ “incarnation,” which he describes as “pure hilarity to me, the strongest possible satire of human power and pretense.”
Kilpatrick calls readers to a new dimension in their life with God: “This is the pattern of God, to provoke surprise and laughter, and then to invite us into an astonished, sincere, loving relationship with him that looks nothing like we expected.” Maybe it’s time here for a show of hands, even an altar call. Hum along, joyfully. If you can’t do that, you can at least read the book.
March 16, 2013
When I first met Tom Mullen, he was still asking people, “Have I told you about my pancreas?” and reminding them that not getting juvenile (Type I) diabetes until he was 35 proved that he was slow. This was probably twenty years before he wrote about “walking–nay, staggering–down the [hospital] hall a few hours after your abdomen had been savaged by a wealthy man wearing a mask while you were asleep.” With similar insight, Tom observes about aging, “As we get older, life seems an ongoing struggle to keep money coming in and teeth, hair, and vital organs from coming out.”
The last two quotations are from one of my favorite Tom Mullen books, and I remembered its title after, of course, my recent posts on loss and aging. Living Longer and Other Sobering Possibilities is only one of a collection of fine, funny books from Tom. Others include Middle Age and Other Mixed Blessings; Where Two or Three Are Gathered, Someone Spills the Milk; and Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences.
Though we lost him a few years ago, I’ll never forget Tom. As a friend and mentor, Tom taught me a lot about living well and laughter. He first taught me the phrase “being in fun,” and he practiced it in delightful and unexpected ways. He wrote and modeled that “it is possible to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances” (emphatically saying not for all, but even in the middle of disease or loss). He clearly showed how to live one day at a time, receiving it as a gift from God.
I still give thanks for the times when working sessions with Tom morphed into story-telling times when we laughed until we cried and rattled our remaining vital organs. He joked about his quirks and weaknesses in ways that drew us all into a common bond. He told harrowing stories, such as getting flown by helicopter from a cruise ship for medical care, with such delight that you could almost forget he nearly died. His preaching, teaching, and writing prospered because Tom had mastered humor and loved people.
Yes, this is a tribute to Tom. A lot of us still miss him. But because he wrote so faithfully and well, his ministry can continue. You can still buy and read his books, including the tender and funny A Very Good Marriage and Seriously, Life Is a Laughing Matter. In all of them, Tom shows how to live in joy, even through hard times. Thanks, Tom, for the laughs and wisdom. (And I think I left in an adverb that you wouldn’t like.)
January 21, 2013
The title itself piqued my curiosity: A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” And I had enjoyed reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog before. So when the Kindle store ran a special on the book, I snatched it. And read it. And liked it.
I wanted first to see how Evans used humor to carry on a serious conversation. Fans of her book bragged on her being disarming, thoughtful and witty, smart and funny, and on her showing “humor, humility, and truth.” I agree. She uses humor to expose “public tomfoolery” for what it is, prompting laughter to shed light on the absurd, the contrived, and the exaggerated. She also creates space with humor to explore difficult subjects. I found many places where Evans makes readers laugh out loud while she’s telling the truth.
I have not personally aspired to “biblical womanhood,” but a burgeoning supply of books, audios, and videos promises to help those who do. Of course, they disagree on what it means and have a hard time choosing which biblical woman should be the standard. Should it be sneaky Rebekah, or Jael, who nailed a guy’s head to the ground, or Huldah the prophet, or the women who traveled with Jesus, or the women who prophesied, taught, and were “elders” in the emerging Church? A lot of the books focus on the hard-to-find woman of Proverbs 31, sometimes shortened (embarrassingly) to “P31 girl.”
Evans, with the help of a Jewish friend and mentor, treats the Proverbs 31 woman beautifully as eshet chayil, a “woman of valor,” a woman of courage, grace, and wisdom. She rightly describes how the song of Proverbs 31 honors women without turning them into stay-at-home moms who run home businesses and knit socks. But I’ll let you read her for these insights.
As an Old Testament teacher, I’ve been puzzled by the rules-based views some hold of Proverbs 31. Let me tell you why. Lady Wisdom (or Wisdom Woman) stars in Proverbs: she helped God create the world, she calls out to everyone as teacher in the public square, she warns young men about themselves and dangerous Dame Folly, she puts on a huge banquet for all who will come and learn her wisdom, and much more. In later Jewish wisdom books, ones that many Christians include in their Bibles (in the “Apocrypha”), her prominent role grows ever greater. In the light of this, many interpreters see Proverbs 31 as a distillation of who Lady Wisdom is and what she teaches. Even as it uses the metaphor of a “woman of valor,” it continues to teach both men and women how to live well. It models lessons of Proverbs about hard work, compassion, planning, paying steady attention to what needs to be done, and more. Men, too, are to be women of valor, even if they hesitate to pursue biblical womanhood.
Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for showing so well how humor can help tell the truth. Thanks, too, for her thoughtful study and interpretation in a time of loud and mixed voices. Her book will serve women and men well, I’m sure. It’s very worth getting, even if it’s not on sale.
January 14, 2013
I’m sure that all of the Gospels use humor, including the bad-mouthed Gospel of John (see my recent blog “The Humorless Gospel”), but to me, Luke has the best sense of humor. New Testament scholar Joseph A. Grassi’s book, God Makes Me Laugh: A New Approach to Luke, pushes me even more in that direction.
Though we can see lots of humor in Jesus’ stories full of comic characters and twists in plot, Grassi shows the many examples of comic structures like surprise, reversals, the unlikely, upside-down, and backwards, features which, as Frederick Buechner suggests, make the Gospel itself comedy. In Grassi’s words, we see in Luke “…’an upside-down’ theology of surprise, grace, and shock.” (28)
Grassi’s opening chapter talks about “Divine and Human Laughter – The Roots of Comic Eschatology.” (This was baffling enough that a proofreader changed “comic” in the title to “cosmic.”) Grassi begins: “When people plan, trusting only in human power, God laughs; when God plans, working through human weakness, people laugh. In this paradox is found the roots of comic eschatology.” (14) The whole Bible includes many examples, but the examples in Luke overflow.
Luke starts with an old woman and a virgin having babies, and recalls the words to Sarah, another old woman soon to be pregnant, “nothing’s impossible with God.” He then draws a sharp contrast between the stern baptizer John and the “playful and joyful” Jesus who feasted with unlikely (=forbidden) people, much to the dismay of pious folks. Jesus commented on the difference: “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:31-35) Try the interpretive principle “Imagine Jesus smiling” here, and think of folks you’ve heard get great laughs by pointing out such huge contradictions.
In a chapter called “Miracles and Comic Reversals,” Grassi showcases the humorous paradoxes of the included becoming the excluded while the excluded are suddenly included, of the unclean becoming clean and the clean becoming unclean. Against the background of Sabbath and purity laws, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, touches lepers, and acts undefiled by contact with a woman overcome by years of continuous blood flow. He tells stories about bountiful banquets offered to the marginal and invisible folk, “the poor and maimed and blind and lame,” outcasts who can never pay you back, a “feast of fools,” in Grassi’s words.
Other chapters speak of “crazy discipleship,” “paradoxical parables,” “humor in prayer,” “foolish forgiveness,” and the notable role of women in Jesus’ mission, a huge reversal of common practice.
Luke is generally regarded as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and Grassi rightly explores how the themes and stories in the two books complement each other. They both capture the shock and surprise, the comic explosion of the Kingdom of God. Luke, sometimes a traveling companion of Paul, witnessed the joy of all of this for himself, heard the early Christians tell him what they had seen, and freely shares it with his readers.
The Good News is upside-down, exciting, and funny. Read Luke (and Acts) with eyes wide-open, prepared to laugh and smile. [Grassi’s fine book is a good read, too, and available again at Wipf and Stock.]