August 13, 2014
When I tease at the possibility that the Book of Job uses humor, some folks fire back, “How could Job be funny? It’s such a tragic story!” It is, of course. But sometimes writers use humor in very dark places. Flannery O’Connor uses it in her short stories. The Bible uses it, too. Darkness covers the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but the goatskins on Jacob’s arms to help him pose as his hairy brother add comic relief. Wisdom literature from the Ancient Near East, such as “The Dialogue of Pessimism,” which explores similar themes as Job, often uses humor. So I suggest that in Job, sometimes humor and tragedy mingle.
The story needs to show Job right away as the best person in the history of the cosmos. It starts abruptly: “Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.” (Job 1:1, The Message) The author not only states the premise of the story, Job’s integrity and devotion to God, but also exaggerates it, makes it bigger than life. This is caricature, an oversized way of making a point and making people smile.
Job loves God so much that he even tries to be devoted to God on behalf of his kids. Apparently his adult children, seven sons and three daughters, liked to party, feasting and boozing at each other’s homes. And after every late night party, Job would get up in the early morning to offer top-of-the-line sacrifices for each of his children, worrying that, partied out, they might have “cursed God in their hearts.” Job did this regularly. Most of us know this guy and shake our heads as we laugh and cry.
Between his impeccable integrity and his impressive wealth, Job was the best man in the whole territory. As God points out to the “Adversary,” “There isn’t anyone like him.”
The scene shifts to God holding court with the various courtiers (“divine beings,” “angels”) gathered, including the “Adversary” (or the “Designated Accuser,” or “the Satan”). This is not the Satan figure we find later in the Bible, but a courtier who has the role of saying, “Yes, but,” or challenging God. Medieval courts had jokers who did this, though, as tempting as it is, I suppose it’s not a clean comparison. Still we can read both courtroom scenes (see also Job 2:1-6) as banter between God and the Adversary. God brags on Job, “Have you noticed Job? There’s nobody like him, full of integrity…” The Adversary replies, “Yes, but he’s not good for nothing, you know.” Even in the awful challenge of these two scenes, we may still find witty telling.
The Adversary brings calamity on Job, on his wealth and his family. But the suddenness and scale of the four disasters, and the pile-up of each one’s breathless, only-survivor messengers continue the outsized storytelling. The train wreck of messengers both heightens the catastrophe and prompts a smile. As one messenger is stammering out, “I alone escaped to tell you,” the next one rushes in, blurting out even worse news.
Even Job’s response to all of this might invite both amazement and a smile. He dramatically expresses his grief, then falls face down to worship, no complaints. It doesn’t quite pass our “Is-that-normal?” humor test. In the story Job demonstrates his best-in-the-cosmos character, but then, what an odd, unusual character!
I invite you to try seeing humor in the dark, scene-setting story that opens Job. It will be easier when we get to Job’s trash-talking friends. But as the book begins, I wonder whether you might see some grins in the gloom, perhaps even some that I’ve missed.
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.