July 22, 2014
I love having a pro agree with me, so finding Garrison Keillor reflecting on his work and quoting Ecclesiastes made my day. “Comedy does give good value,” he writes. “There are so many discouraging facts around – e.g., half of all people are below average – and jokes relieve some of the misery. Solomon said, ‘Whoever increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ That’s a joke. And ‘The rivers run into the sea and yet the sea is not full.’ That’s a joke. And how about this one? “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor riches to men of understanding, but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ That’s the essence of comedy in less than 25 words.” (In AARP Bulletin, May 2014. Yes, I’ve received this for years now.)
Jokes do relieve misery just as they often grow out of misery. Jokes spring out of surprises, odd reversals, funny tensions and contradictions, and quirkiness in life. Their humor helps us cope, but it can also teach and guide us. Using humor, the wisdom literature in the Bible teaches us but also helps make the teaching memorable. Effective humor helps ideas stick.
Proverbs in the Bible (and anywhere else) are supposed to stick in your head, not from rote memorization, but because they’re witty, funny, short, full of word play, and spot-on true. Of course, they’re not all funny, but many are. I’ve been enjoying a “Polish proverb” recently on how to resist being drawn into other people’s conflicts: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Biblical proverbs can have the same punch. How about, “The words of a fool start fights; do him a favor and gag him.” (18:6, The Message) Or, “Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they’re smart.” (17:28). Maybe this: “The shopper says, ‘That’s junk – let me take it off your hands,’ then goes off boasting of the bargain.” (20:14) Unlike Keillor, I’ve used the modern language of Peterson’s The Message, partly to help us see funny phrases in a language we actually use. But the larger point, of course, is that humor shows up in the Bible’s wisdom literature. We should expect it, look for it, and welcome it.
I’ve chosen examples from Proverbs, Keillor from Ecclesiastes, and along the way I’ll write about humor in Job. All three use humor to nail the truth. Here’s a take-along: “Yes, there’s a right time and way for everything, even though, unfortunately, we miss it for the most part.” (Ecclesiastes 8:6) In comedy and in life, great timing is everything, but half of us are below average. You can choose your half.
June 14, 2014
For years now I have been searching for and collecting pictures of Jesus that hint that he might have been joyful, that he might once have smiled. It’s not easy. Most images of Jesus, historically and now, portray him as dour, morose, burdened, or, at best, flat affect. They seldom show him as happy, warm, or friendly. In The Joyful Christ, Cal Samra reports that the oldest picture of a joyful Jesus he could find was one commissioned for the Ohio State Fair about 1950. Between Samra’s prompt and my search, I think I now know of about twenty images of a joyful Christ, still a miniscule number, even though I’ve no doubt missed some.
So when my talented young friend Chris Breithaupt wanted to barter for an ancient (and terrific) Olds Ambassador cornet, we agree that he might create a new picture of Jesus as genuinely happy. After all, it helps to see that the person who promised us joy might actually have experienced it. Because of an earlier picture Chris had created for a mutual friend, I knew he could do it. So Chris got a fine horn, but I got the best of the deal.
I love his new “Joyful Jesus.” Because I want lots of folks to enjoy and share it, we’ve worked to make that possible. We’ve made quality prints of this image in standard sizes and at modest cost. Prints come in 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, and 11×14 sizes so they can be easily matted and framed. Prices range from $4 – 15, plus shipping and handling. We’ll eventually distribute prints through Red Nose Fun Publishing, but for now, if you want to inquire, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.