Reading Not-So-Comfy Bibles

June 29, 2012

Readers miss humor in the Bible for all kinds of reasons. One is that they don’t know themes, characters, or storylines well enough to catch the subtle play or sudden shifts that create humor. Or they may not know enough about cultures so distant from our own. These barriers take time to overcome.

Other readers miss humor because they know the Bible too well; it’s too familiar to them. So they read the text already knowing what it means and how the stories are going to turn out. I suspect this leads to superficial reading and to not noticing details and nuance. For many readers, the words themselves fit comfortably like an old slipper.

A member of a Friends meeting I served liked comfy biblical readings and snipped at me a bit when I read from translations other than the King James Version. At that time I often used The Jerusalem Bible, a new translation that was fresh, graceful, and sometimes eye-opening, even startling. Sometimes we need to hear phrases shaped a bit differently or offering slight changes in the choice of words so we can actually get the sense of the text.

I was reading recently Mark’s account of “The Transfiguration” in Mark 9. Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountain where they saw Jesus’ clothes made dazzling white and saw Elijah and Moses come talk with Jesus. Peter was overwhelmed and said, “This is wonderful, let’s make three shrines….” I’ve seen this account lots of times, but reading in the New Living Translation, I saw something brand new to me (and later confirmed by comparing other versions): “He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified.” (Mark 9:6) I’ve smiled often since, imagining Peter blurting something out, babbling, trying to say something sort of holy and appropriate (not wholly inappropriate), but having no idea what was going on and being scared out of his wits. I get it; I’ve stammered helplessly myself in the Presence.

So I suggest that you risk a few word jolts so you might see what you’re missing. Try reading translations unfamiliar to you. I’m not talking here about various marketing schemes in colors, sizes, and designs for multiple niche groups. Astonishingly enough, you can get Bibles like “Precious Princess Bible,” “Bug Collection Bible,” “Hockey Ministries Bible,” the ”Sportsman’s Bible” (in camouflage), and much more, with a choice of colors like “flutter pink,” “tropical purple,” “galaxy gray,” “glittery grape butterfly,” and “jungle green.” Get whatever color, shape, or size that you want, but try something with words that are new to you.

You have lots of good choices. A good paraphrase might help – J. B. Phillips, The Living Bible, or The Message. Something fairly recent might be good. I’ve been exploring The Common English Bible, The Voice, and N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament. The list of recent and reliable translations is long. Just play around with something that for you is not the comfy-slipper, too-familiar version. You might see things you’ve missed, including humor.

Please note this caution (I’d do this in fine print and low, fast voice if my blog software could manage it): Watch out for troubling side effects. Pay attention if your heart starts to race, or your liver quivers, or you become unusually thirsty, or you suddenly experience unstable bowels. If you suffer heightened attention for four hours or more, you may want to call a professional, or just tell all your friends. Reading a Bible you can understand can be very rewarding, but it’s risky. We don’t want you to hurt yourself, or get scared, or say something stupid.


Stand-Up Jesus

June 8, 2012

While studying humor in the Bible, one author surprised me by saying that Jesus did stand-up comedy. Even in all the years of singing the gospel song “Stand up, stand up for Jesus,” that had never occurred to me. But a lot of our great stand-up comics are Jewish, so I’ve been wondering what it would be like to imagine Jesus doing a Letterman or Seinfeld routine on the hills of Galilee.

“Hey, it’s good to see you all today! I hear there are some folk here from Capernaum. [pause, cheers] Yeah, nice town, even with Pete’s mother-in-law. [rim shot] Anybody here from Nazareth? [pause] Guess not. Now that was a tough crowd! They nearly shoved me off a cliff. [laughter]

“How about a hand for my buddies, the Pharisees? [applause, maybe a jeer] They just got here from their prayers. [In stained-glass voice]: ‘I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like those other guys.’ [laughter] They’ve been giving me some great straight lines.

“You know, I kind of hate talking about other crowds, but that one the other day over on the next hill just didn’t get it. I was joking with them about how they shouldn’t let anything get in the way of the Kingdom – you know, cut off your hand, lop off your foot, and all. And then this guy who’d been staring way too hard at Mary nearly tore his eye out. Hey, just listen and laugh and do the right thing. We already have plenty of blind folks to help.”

Now I don’t think Jesus did stand-up comedy, quite. But he did tell funny stories and create comic word pictures. He exaggerated, bantered, teased, and cajoled. His parables show off all kinds of improbable characters (or maybe the way-too-probable people we already know) – the crooked judge and nagging widow (Luke 18:1-8), the neighbor leaning on the doorbell in the middle of the night and the sleepy crank who bails him out anyway (Luke 11:5-8), or the dishonest manager trying to bail himself out (Luke 16:1-9). Pre-dating elephant jokes, Jesus told camel jokes – trying to thread a camel through the eye of a needle or, in trying to eat kosher, straining out a gnat while choking down a camel. (I’ll bet that would have worked, too, with trying to get a speck out of the other guy’s eye while you have a camel in your own.) And when the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trap him with “gotcha” games, Jesus’ easy wins surely amazed and amused the crowds.

A friend reminded me recently of the ditty, “Quaker meeting has begun. No more laughing, no more fun.” In view of such (even self-inflicted) slurs on our reputation, it pleases me that one of the earliest modern books that called attention to Jesus’ playfulness is Friend Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ. Elton argues, rightly, that we can’t understand Jesus’ teaching adequately when we fail to see his humor. Indeed, in some places getting the joke is the only way to catch on; it is the only way to take Jesus’ message seriously. Humor teaches powerfully. It’s a shame when we’re so straight-laced that we don’t get it.

Seeing Jesus’ humor also can help us get to know Jesus better as genuinely joyful, warm, and friendly, as someone you would enjoy hanging out with. That makes a big difference for people who know Jesus mostly through word and visual images that depict Jesus only as sad, sorrowful, and scolding. Best of all, getting to know the joyful Jesus can draw us all more fully into the joy that Jesus is so eager to give us.

“Hey, did I tell you the one about the guy that got beat up on the way to Jericho…?”

[This essay first appeared in Quaker Life magazine and was later collected with my other columns in the book Stepping in the Light. Friends United Press editor Katie Terrell Wonsik graciously permitted publishing it here.]


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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