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.
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.]
December 18, 2012
Surrounded by the hubbub of Christmas, one friend worried that all this busy noise would overshadow the importance of Easter and the Resurrection. “Christmas doesn’t have much to do with anything,” he grumbled, “except the Incarnation …if you stretch it a little.”
I want to assume he giggled a little as he grumbled. After all, the Incarnation, the Eternal Word becoming human, is a big deal, even if we don’t know exactly how to talk about it. Early on in seminary, Alan Richardson’s book Creeds in the Making taught me that there are lots of ways to get it wrong, and that Christians in the early centuries of the Church discovered most of them. Whatever confused thoughts we have now are usually just re-runs, though they can still stir up mischief.
Some folks focus mostly on Easter and even at Christmas sing that Jesus came to die. But the Incarnation also means that Jesus came to live, to move into the neighborhood, to show us what God is like, and to show us what being human is like. We struggle to find ways to say that Jesus entered fully into our human condition and was the most extraordinary human we’ve ever known.
Many portray Jesus mostly as a man of sorrows, one who entered into and shared our grief. As Cal Samra points out, most Christian art historically, and even now, shows Jesus as sad, burdened, morose, or, at best, with flat affect. So it’s hard for many to picture Jesus also as a man of joy, a person whose deep love and healing power takes root in joy and embodies the announcement of “good news of great joy.”
The film “Matthew,” featuring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, captures this joy better than most movies about Jesus that I know. Having read Sherwood Wirt’s stirring book Jesus, Man of Joy, Marchiano describes what he discovered in reading the Bible to prepare for his acting:
“…it became so blatantly obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never caught it before. Suddenly it was everywhere, screaming from the pages of Scripture: joy!
“Jesus began jumping off the page at me as well – His realness and strength, the sparkle in His eyes, the spring in His gait, the heartiness in His laugh, the genuineness of His touch; His passion, playfulness, excitement, and vitality: His JOY!
“Yes, Jesus smiled; yes, Jesus laughed. Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who’s ever walked the planet. It’s been revelation to a lot of people both in and out of the church, their eyes opening wide after lifetimes of misunderstanding the Lord to be an aloof, pious, and sanctimonious figure. “ (Marchiano’s, In the Footsteps of Jesus, 77)
Most of the Amazon reviews of the movie are positive, though some felt that it lacked gravitas, that Jesus smiled and laughed too much, and that this certainly would not be faithful to the Bible, even though the movie uses only the NIV text. Some reviews sounded like this:
“The actor didn’t seem at all like Jesus is portrayed in the Bible. Instead of Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of Lords, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the King of Kings, etc. it was like this portrayal of Jesus was designed to bring Him down to our human level.”
Without stretching it even a little, the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus did live fully down at our human level. It is at once the most ordinary and most extraordinary human life we can imagine. Jesus’ life among us was the most fully authentic human we’ve ever seen, full of love, integrity, joy, grace, and truth. It shows us that Jesus has shared our common life, and it shows what it possible for human life. It gives us reason, in the midst of Christmas hubbub, loudly and often to belt out “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and to “repeat the sounding joy.”
December 4, 2012
The author was doing great identifying humor in the Bible – in Genesis, Judges, Esther, Jonah, in Jesus’ life and teaching, in Acts, and more – when he made a sourpuss call that stopped me in my tracks. He called the Gospel of John “the humorless gospel.” He said that it is “a definitively unlikely source” for humor and that it had a “dedicated anti-humor crusade” even though “there’s humor everywhere else in the New Testament.” How odd, I thought! “Good News (Gospel)” and “anti-humor” don’t go together at all.
So I started looking more closely. I noticed first of all that the author himself uses examples of humor from the Gospel of John. He thinks that the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well might be “humor-tinged.” (John 4) Maybe there’s some humor, too, in the account of the woman caught in adultery. (John 8) I suspect he’s right, of course, but it’s set me to exploring humor in this gospel more carefully.
Of course, I remember having laughed often at some of the stories in John, but I tested that with my New Testament colleague Paul Anderson, who knows John inside out and backwards, to make sure I wasn’t just being perverse. Well, he thinks I’m perverse, I’m sure, but he also agrees that John has good humor. One story we both find funny is how Jesus healed the man born blind. (John 9) The conversations between the man and the people, the Pharisees, his parents, and Jesus have great banter and twists and turns. It’s a great read-aloud story (slow down and see the give-and-take between the characters), particularly in a translation or paraphrase that uses contemporary language (for example, the New Living Translation or The Message).
Serious conversation often includes playful banter, and several interpreters I have read see them working together in Jesus’ conversation with the woman who comes to the well in Samaria. (John 4) Here and elsewhere, I find it helpful to remember the guide, “Imagine Jesus smiling.” Others also notice the humor in Jesus’ first “sign” when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. (John 2) I’ll keep re-reading John to think more carefully about other texts, including the report of the disciples dragging in a net “full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.” It makes me smile to see fishermen remembering fish stories. (John 21:1-14)
At Paul’s suggestion I’m also reading a classic book about irony (not wrinkly) in the Gospel of John. (Specifically, Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel.) Defining “irony” is like catching a greased pig, or, as Duke more elegantly puts it, grabbing a handful of mist. But with its subtleties of double-meanings, understatement, of things being more than they appear, and of reversals and shifts, irony is one of the common devices of humor. Like satire, not all irony is funny. But it often is. In the Gospel of John, Paul Duke identifies “local irony” in particular sentences or phrases and irony extended though narratives, such as Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9. I’m looking forward to learning more from his book.
I’m reporting here the beginning of a journey, and I invite you to join me. Eventually I’ll identify the author who spoke of John as the “humorless gospel” because I actually wrote a hearty recommendation for his book. But in the meantime, I’ll be reading in John and about John, not only to identify humor, but also to see how humor might deepen our understanding. When you have good ideas, too, please share them with us all here at “Laughing Pilgrims.”