The Humor of Christ

April 23, 2012

Among other delights, my recent visit to Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana prompted me to give thanks again for all that Elton Trueblood tried to teach me. My gracious hosts even let me spend time in the Teague Library, Elton’s cottage office, where we met in classes, worship, and conversation. There I recalled again many of Elton’s practical insights: Writing can expand your Christian ministry. Welcome ideas when they show up; write them down immediately before they slip away to find a more eager host. Tend your writer’s garden with its seasons of seeding, weeding, and harvest. Keep a “fuller calendar”; get to your calendar before other people do, write in what’s important to you, and honor it. Through these and other practices Elton has continued to teach me, and I’m grateful.

I’ve also remembered Elton’s storytelling and laughter while reading again his book The Humor of Christ. It was an unlikely and ground-breaking book in 1964, and it probably only exists because Elton’s four-year-old son Martin laughed at the wrong time. Elton explains: “We were reading to him from the seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, feeling very serious, when suddenly the little boy began to laugh. He laughed because he saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person’s eye, that he was unconscious of the fact his own eye had a beam in it. Because the child understood perfectly that the human eye is not large enough to have a beam in it, the very idea struck him as ludicrous. His gay laughter was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place. The rebuke served its purpose by causing me to begin to watch for humor in all aspects of the life and teachings of Christ. Sometimes this did not appear until the text had been read and reread many times.” (9)

He is an astute reader, paying careful attention to nuance, context, and humorous device. Elton argues that Jesus’ humor is both widely used and widely neglected. He shows how Jesus used a strategy of laughter to make his message vivid and effective. Actually it was pretty easy. The Pharisees who kept an eye on Jesus had self-importance and hypocrisy enough to give him plenty of raw material. Trueblood then devotes chapters to gathering examples of how Jesus used humor in irony, in parables, and even in banter in conversations.

At several points Elton explores texts that are “endlessly perplexing,” such as the story of “the unjust steward” and Jesus’ dialogue with “the Canaanite woman.” (See my earlier post, “Imagine Them Smiling.”) These make more sense (or make sense at all), he says, when they are seen through the lens of humor. I think I see a twinkle in his eye when he gives examples of interpretations “solemn commentators” offer for such texts, all the while uncomfortable in their “learned squirming.” The solemn solutions are so often embarrassing that they strengthen Trueblood’s point. An appendix lists thirty passages in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) for readers to explore on their own.

The Humor of Christ is now almost fifty years old, but it still lays a strong, thought-provoking foundation for discovering humor in the Bible. Because Trueblood pays close attention to the biblical text, many writers continue to rely on its insights. Frankly, I suspect Elton was surprised to write this book. I’m glad Martin laughed.

A shout-out: The copy of the book that I now use was given to me by Lee Nash. Lee was an amazing man – my dean, a colleague, gracious friend, traveling companion, and book-lover extraordinaire. His handwritten note still lives in the book and reminds me how much I miss him.



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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?

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