The Unhidden Revealed

January 27, 2012

The looks on their faces stick with me still. Long-time friends Kenneth and Edna had asked about my study of humor in the Bible and listened politely as I eagerly told them about the humor in the story of Abraham and Sarah being told they’ll have a baby. But my friends didn’t get it. Devout and creative, each with a great sense of humor, they didn’t get it. Puzzled, I tried a different approach. I asked how they would react, now that they were in their mid-80s, if a messenger from God would tell them they were going to have a baby. Long pause. Light in his eyes and a hearty chuckle; light in her eyes, too, a smaller chuckle, and a fleeting look that bordered on terror. That look has since helped me ponder Sarah.

In talking about humor in the Bible, I often start with the story of geriatric Abraham and Sarah because it, quite literally, has laughter written all over it. Abraham laughs, Sarah laughs, everybody else laughs, they name the baby Laughter, or He-Laughs (Isaac). But, as obvious as it is, many readers don’t get it because they don’t expect to find humor in the Bible at all. Or, more sharply, in taking the Bible seriously, they reject the idea that it might include humor.

I’ve avoided market-savvy titles like “The Bible’s Hidden Humor Revealed,” mostly because humor in the Bible is not hidden. It’s all over the place. It’s in the Old Testament stories, in Proverbs, in the Prophets, in Jesus’ teaching, in Acts, in Paul, and more. We just need to expect it and learn to see it.

Reading the Bible well requires that we pay careful attention not only to what the writers say, but also to how they say it. It requires that we stay open to what’s there, including to the possibility that writers might use humor as a powerful tool to say important things.


The Joy of Boggling

January 13, 2012

Margi and I almost maxed out on wonder when we went to an IMAX theater and put on 3-D glasses to watch a movie about the Hubble Telescope. We saw close-ups of a nursery galaxy full of baby starts. Stars spilled out of the screen towards us. At one point the narrator explained that Hubble was showing us a star 13 billion light years away, very near the beginning of the universe.

Modern star pictures fascinate me; I sometimes stare at a greeting card depicting the “photogenic Whirlpool Galaxy, M51 (NGC 5194).” Galaxy photos amaze me, overwhelm me. I’m boggled enough traveling “scenic” roads showing the Cascade string-of-pearls volcanoes, the amazing Columbia River Gorge, and the powerful Pacific Ocean. To imagine all of this as just a small dot in an expanding universe filled with billions of stars and galaxies makes me wonder with the psalmist, “When I look at the stars, who are we humans that you even give us a thought?” (paraphrase from Psalm 8:3)

It also makes me feel stupid. I need a course, “The Universe in 10 Easy Lessons,” or a book, Black Holes for Dummies. So two recent stories about really smart star experts cheered me up.

The first story reported that a Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter and two colleagues who discovered that the universe, powered by “dark energy” (!), is speeding up as it expands, rather than slowing down. Perlmutter thinks that seeking knowledge is “part of what it means to be human.” But, even as an elite astrophysicist, he adds, “As soon as you consider any of these things, your mind is boggled. I think you have to enjoy having your mind boggled.” I was comforted and amused to consider the joy of boggling.

The other expert is astronomer J. Xavier Prochaska. He, with colleagues and a basement full of computers, finally succeeded in finding 12-billion-year-old, “pristine clouds of primordial gas, conceived when the universe was a very young, dark and lonely place.” (Lisa Krieger in 11/11/11) Apparently, the primordial gas hydrogen reveals itself by blocking light that we would otherwise see. So Prochaska observes that he does astronomy “backwards,” studying “light that doesn’t get here.” What cheered me was his jest, “We get excited about nothing. When it was immediately clear that nothing was there, that really floored us.”

Perhaps being boggled and laughing a bit in the tension between grand achievement and bumbling along can help us keep our perspective and our joy. Maybe I should write a boggle.


Bible Humor: Found or Created?

January 9, 2012

Most folks know a joke or two about Noah and the ark. Maybe it’s about woodpeckers or boring beetles sinking the boat, or questions about who’s going to feed all the animals, or who’s going to shovel out the bottom of this floating zoo. Though I sometimes get to introduce younger folks to it, many people know Bill Cosby’s classic treatment of “Noah” in which God asks a grumpy Noah, “How long can you tread water?” It’s a great story to have fun with.

I still grin to remember my respectfully unnamed friend (who does not remember this, he says) telling the story of Captain White Hand, actually Naaman, the leprous Aramaean war hero who came to Elisha to be healed. (2 Kings 5) My friend relished expanding the natural humor in the story with gusto, and most of the young crowd hurt from laughing.

I’m sure that being playful with biblical texts is fine, and that we can have fun and rely on Scripture all at once. But we need to know the difference between our playfulness and the biblical writers’ intent. We need to know when we have found humor the authors have given us and when we have created humor of our own. Actually, this is a simple principle that applies to all kinds of biblical texts, not just humor. We must guard against treating the ideas that we bring to the text, whether out of wisdom or wackiness, as having authority to teach us and guide our lives. After all, we don’t want to be ventriloquists when we say, “The Bible says.”

Knowing the difference between found humor and created humor helps us read the Bible well. But showing the humor in biblical texts sometimes takes imaginative work. My still unnamed friend’s telling about Captain White Hand actually helped make the humor of the story available to his hearers as he showed how odd, clumsy, and surprising the story is. It suggests how much Israel’s bards might have enjoyed telling about a foreign war hero who came rich and proud to the odd prophet Elisha, who was insulted to be told to wash in the dirty Jordan River, and who, when healed, confessed that Israel’s God was the only one on earth. Sometimes we can guard the difference between found and created humor and still use our imaginative skills to make found humor visible.


At Least It Started Respectable

January 5, 2012

My exploring humor in the Bible began respectably enough. I was trying to teach graduate students how to interpret the Bible when it struck me that something was missing. One big principle of interpretation is to respect the ways Bible writers convey their messages, including understanding and honoring the literary devices they use. So you identify and treat poetry, parables, various types of speeches, lament songs, and other forms for what they are. Virtually all modern interpreters work that way. What I saw missing was that books about how to interpret the Bible hardly ever mention humor.

So what happens if you miss or misunderstand humor when the Bible uses it? It seemed to me that if you miss the humor, you not only miss the fun, but you also miss the point, sometimes with dreadful results. (Here we could talk about devout people cutting off body parts – their own, but we’ll leave that for another time or maybe for a how-to manual.)

Again, to emphasize that this was all on the up-and-up, I thought I could write a scholarly (!) paper about guidelines for identifying and interpreting humor the Bible writers use. That would help fill a gap, and it would help persuade my colleagues and administrators that I was a respectable scholar contributing to my academic discipline. It didn’t occur to me at the time how hard it might be to get folks to take you seriously when you say you’re studying humor, especially if you’re reading Dave Barry, Erma Bombeck, or Dilbert. (Actually, Scott Adams’ The Joy of Work has some killer and quirky insights into humor.)

I’ve been working on this started-respectable project for about twenty years now, and there have been scenic tours and surprises along the way. But I’ve learned enough that it’s time to invite you along in the journey. So I’ll try out some ideas here and you, as my dear readers, can yell, laugh, and suggest improvements as you will. Of course, I’ll take notes so that I can blame you if something really stupid goes viral. Whether we’re respectable or not, we’re sure to have fun.


Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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