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.
October 21, 2013
The Old Testament story about a talking donkey cracks me up. But I have to choose how to speak accurately and politely about this animal. Apparently this is a female (a “jenny”) and also a true ass (Equus asinus), the species that brays “hee-haw,” not a half-ass (Equus hemionus). “Ass” has had a respectable history, winding its way through Greek, Old Norse, Old High German, Old English, and Middle English down to the present day. The translators of the Jewish Publication Society use the word “ass” in the story, and these people know a thing or two. But most of the rest of the English translators use “donkey” or even “she-donkey.” Maybe this is courtesy to tender ears.
So mostly I’ll use polite donkey-speak in talking about Balaam’s “donkey.” This is one of two related funny stories buried in what seems an unlikely place, the Book of Numbers. Numbers is a mishmash of lists of names, clans, numbers (!); laws about life and ritual practice; stories of traveling in the wilderness; and a bit of debauchery. But chapters 22-24 throw in high humor full of surprise and reversal.
The first of the stories frames the second. King Balak of Moab was scared of the Israelites, who were then perched at his borders, and wanted to hire a reputable religious guru to curse them. So he sent for Balaam with a lucrative offer and high confidence: “For this I know: whomever you bless is blessed, whomever you curse is cursed.” (22:6) The story is a little fuzzy on whether it’s okay for Balaam to do this, but eventually he agrees to do it with the caveat that he can only say what God allows him to say. Three times, on three different overlooks, the Moabites build seven altars and on each of them sacrifice bulls and rams. And three times Balaam blesses Israel at the expense of Moab. After the first occasion, King Balak protests, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, and you heap blessings on them!” (23:11) But he hires Balaam twice more! After the third time, “Balak flew into a rage with Balaam. He beat his hands together and said to Balaam, ‘I brought you to curse my enemies, and you bless them three times over!” Balaam is all innocence, reminding the king that he had warned that he could only say what God told him. The piling up of extravagance, reversal, and failure in face of the king’s desperation is funny storytelling.
ass donkey is even better. The story is wonderfully told, and I invite you to read it with your imagination open for business. (See Numbers 22:22-35.) Be clear, of course, that this is not Mr. Ed, the talking horse of ancient TV fame, or the sassy donkey of the movies Shrek. The donkey here has served Balaam well for a long time with never more than a true ass “hee-haw.” It is on this reliable beast that Balaam sets out on his questionable journey. As mostly a city kid, I don’t know much personally about donkeys except for participating once in a donkey basketball game. They say donkeys can have a mind of their own, and it looks like that in this story. First, she goes running off the road into a field. Then she knocks her rider’s foot against a vineyard’s stone wall. Finally, she simply lies down under him. Each time Balaam beats her with a stick, the last time so furiously that he’d just as soon have killed her.
That’s when the faithful donkey, with God’s help, starts to talk. “What have I done to you? Why beat me three times like this?” Balaam storms on that she has made a fool of him and he’d kill her if he had a sword. The donkey continues, and here you have to choose a voice or tone to interpret the sense. Is it accusing, mournful, puzzled, indignant, or ___________? I usually go with indignant sob story. Choose a voice, read it out loud, and put yourself into it. “Am I not your donkey, and have I not been your mount from youth? In all this time, have I ever failed to serve you?” (Come on, get some tears into it.) Balaam: “No.”
Now, for the first time, Balaam sees the messenger/angel of Yahweh who has been standing in the road with a drawn sword. All this time, the donkey has been seeing what the seer (“the one with far-seeing eyes” [24:3]) can’t see. The angel scolds Balaam for beating his donkey and then explains, “You’re lucky she did turn aside, or I should have killed you by now – though I would have spared her!” (I laugh every time at this tag line.) Of course, by now Balaam, even more than the donkey, is all ears. He repents and promises to do whatever he’s told, which sets up the stories of King Balak’s sacrifices and saying only what God tells him to say.
Here humor serves the writer’s larger themes well, and it invites us to enjoy it when it shows up. We don’t need to be too earnest here in squeezing out hidden meanings. A seminarian once offered me this application: “If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, then God can speak through yours.” But I don’t think we need to go there. Just let the texts live, breathe, and giggle.
October 17, 2013
Sometimes funny and ugly can show up all at once. In this instance, I don’t mean in people, but in a story. I remembered this while my pastor was preaching a very good sermon on Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. (Who preaches on Judah and Tamar?! This is the first I’ve heard.) The sermon rightly described Judah’s irresponsible and demeaning behavior toward his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and doing that even before she tricked him into using her services when she disguised herself as a prostitute. Rather than following Judah’s ugly example, our pastor insisted, we should treat everyone, women and men, with dignity and respect, as whole persons, a particularly challenging path in our highly sexualized society.
I got the point, but I also laughed (not out loud). The text uses two funny pieces to drive home, not distract from, its message. The first is the story of Judah making arrangements to hire Tamar as a hooker. He promises to pay her a goat, but she demands something to secure his pledge. In this instance, she requests and Judah gives her his seal and cord (a personalized seal used to sign contracts written on clay) and his staff. In effect Judah gives her his credit card and other evidence that will clearly identify him. Trying to deal with this discreetly, Judah later sends a goat with a friend to pay her and to retrieve his pledge. The friend’s search shows subtle humor. In recounting how Judah hired Tamar, Genesis 38:15 refers to her with the Hebrew word for an ordinary prostitute. When the friend searches for her and tries to pay her, however, he uses the Hebrew word for “shrine prostitute” or “holy prostitute.” Many modern translations capture this change.
Judah is trying to save face here, to make his dalliance a bit more respectable (even though Israelites knew that using “shrine prostitutes” was not acceptable practice). When the locals respond that they don’t remember seeing a “shrine prostitute” around there, Judah decides not to keep trying to recover his credit card, lest he “become a laughingstock.” So storytellers and listeners will laugh at Judah trying to escape being laughed at.
The seal and staff show up again in a story that explodes with surprise and reversal, a story that gets a laugh. Not from Judah, but from everyone else. When Judah is told that Tamar has played the prostitute and is now three months pregnant, he flies into a (self-)righteous rage. “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” he orders. The story continues: “As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these,’ she said. And she added, ‘See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’” (v. 25, NIV)
He recognized them; so did everyone around him. Now maybe you don’t laugh when a guy in a righteous rage gets caught with his pants down, so to speak. But a lot of us do. Laughing here doesn’t lighten Judah’s offense but, instead, puts the exclamation point on his treachery. Now Judah is laughingstock; Judah gets nailed.
He could hardly escape the truth of Tamar having his American Express card, but in some measure (half-hearted, in my opinion), he owns up to his failure. Traditional translations read here, “She is more righteous than I,” which doesn’t really award anyone a blue ribbon for “righteousness.” The sense is that in the history of their long relationship, Tamar had acted more responsibly than Judah. The Message captures it, “She’s in the right; I’m in the wrong…”
So funny and ugly sometimes go together, not news to those who watch Jon Stewart take on tough issues on “The Daily Show.” We can use laughter both to entertain and to make a point. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible does that, too.
A postscript, also with a funny twist: Tamar bore Judah twin boys. The first was named Perez, and according to Matthew 1:3, he was one of the not-quite-kosher ancestors of Jesus.
April 12, 2013
April Fool’s Day this year fell on the Monday after Easter. Perfect! I laughed to think that, on April Fool’s Monday, Orthodox Christians in Greece and elsewhere were gathering to tell jokes and enjoy God’s great victory in Jesus with humor. My colleague Tim Tsohantaridis reminds me that in Greece, at least, they celebrate every day of the week after Easter. In the same spirit, this past Sunday many American congregations observed “Holy Humor Sunday.” The Joyful Noiseletter, edited by Cal Samra, reports each year the creative variety of ways that Christians have found to use humor to delight in the story of Easter.
One early way of explaining how Jesus’ death and resurrection set things right uses a funny picture, one that uses trickery. Basically, God baits a great hook with Jesus and when Satan goes for the bait, God reels him in. (Not elegant, exactly, but the current favorite atonement theory isn’t either.) Also using humor, a modern song by Carmen, “Sunday’s on the Way,” depicts Satan after Jesus’ burial as panicky, worried that Jesus won’t stay in the tomb. So Satan keeps phoning Grave to make sure Jesus is still dead. Carmen’s audiences howl with joy and laughter when, on the third day, Grave desperately reports, “No! OH NO! OH NO…SOMEBODY’S MESSING WITH THE STONE!”
In preparing for Easter, I read the four Gospel accounts of the disciples’ experience that day. Their responses at first are what we might expect – surprised, stunned, dismayed, confused, heads swimming, full of wonder. But things change as seeing Jesus alive sinks in. For example, the King James Version of John 20:20 reports, “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” Glad. That’s pretty tame. “Hi, I’m glad to see you.” Contrast the reading in Peterson’s The Message: “the disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant.” Peterson’s reading is spot on. The Greek verb that is used here is a word for exultant rejoicing, for loud, festive joy. And this same word is used in two of the other Gospels. Again Peterson, “They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy.” (Luke 24:52) Similarly, in Matthew 28:8: “The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples.” Exuberant. Bursting with joy. Loud and festive.
Sometimes, when you get news that is too good to be true, you laugh and you cry, maybe staring in stunned silence or muttering, “No, this can’t be happening.” All at once. Jesus’ disciples on that first Easter day heard and saw the best too-good-to-be-true news ever. It puzzled them and dazzled them. They couldn’t believe it. But by the end of the day, I’ll bet they laughed out loud while tears ran down their cheeks.