Funnier than John

January 14, 2013

I’m sure that all of the Gospels use humor, including the bad-mouthed Gospel of John (see my recent blog “The Humorless Gospel”), but to me, Luke has the best sense of humor. New Testament scholar Joseph A. Grassi’s book, God Makes Me Laugh: A New Approach to Luke, pushes me even more in that direction.

Though we can see lots of humor in Jesus’ stories full of comic characters and twists in plot, Grassi shows the many examples of comic structures like surprise, reversals, the unlikely, upside-down, and backwards, features which, as Frederick Buechner suggests, make the Gospel itself comedy. In Grassi’s words, we see in Luke “…’an upside-down’ theology of surprise, grace, and shock.” (28)

Grassi’s opening chapter talks about “Divine and Human Laughter – The Roots of Comic Eschatology.” (This was baffling enough that a proofreader changed “comic” in the title to “cosmic.”) Grassi begins: “When people plan, trusting only in human power, God laughs; when God plans, working through human weakness, people laugh. In this paradox is found the roots of comic eschatology.” (14) The whole Bible includes many examples, but the examples in Luke overflow.

Luke starts with an old woman and a virgin having babies, and recalls the words to Sarah, another old woman soon to be pregnant, “nothing’s impossible with God.” He then draws a sharp contrast between the stern baptizer John and the “playful and joyful” Jesus who feasted with unlikely (=forbidden) people, much to the dismay of pious folks. Jesus commented on the difference: “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:31-35) Try the interpretive principle “Imagine Jesus smiling” here, and think of folks you’ve heard get great laughs by pointing out such huge contradictions.

In a chapter called “Miracles and Comic Reversals,” Grassi showcases the humorous paradoxes of the included becoming the excluded while the excluded are suddenly included, of the unclean becoming clean and the clean becoming unclean. Against the background of Sabbath and purity laws, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, touches lepers, and acts undefiled by contact with a woman overcome by years of continuous blood flow. He tells stories about bountiful banquets offered to the marginal and invisible folk, “the poor and maimed and blind and lame,” outcasts who can never pay you back, a “feast of fools,” in Grassi’s words.

Other chapters speak of “crazy discipleship,” “paradoxical parables,” “humor in prayer,” “foolish forgiveness,” and the notable role of women in Jesus’ mission, a huge reversal of common practice.

Luke is generally regarded as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, and Grassi rightly explores how the themes and stories in the two books complement each other. They both capture the shock and surprise, the comic explosion of the Kingdom of God. Luke, sometimes a traveling companion of Paul, witnessed the joy of all of this for himself, heard the early Christians tell him what they had seen, and freely shares it with his readers.

The Good News is upside-down, exciting, and funny. Read Luke (and Acts) with eyes wide-open, prepared to laugh and smile. [Grassi’s fine book is a good read, too, and available again at Wipf and Stock.]

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Hubbub and Incarnation

December 18, 2012

Surrounded by the hubbub of Christmas, one friend worried that all this busy noise would overshadow the importance of Easter and the Resurrection. “Christmas doesn’t have much to do with anything,” he grumbled, “except the Incarnation …if you stretch it a little.”

I want to assume he giggled a little as he grumbled. After all, the Incarnation, the Eternal Word becoming human, is a big deal, even if we don’t know exactly how to talk about it. Early on in seminary, Alan Richardson’s book Creeds in the Making taught me that there are lots of ways to get it wrong, and that Christians in the early centuries of the Church discovered most of them. Whatever confused thoughts we have now are usually just re-runs, though they can still stir up mischief.

Some folks focus mostly on Easter and even at Christmas sing that Jesus came to die. But the Incarnation also means that Jesus came to live, to move into the neighborhood, to show us what God is like, and to show us what being human is like. We struggle to find ways to say that Jesus entered fully into our human condition and was the most extraordinary human we’ve ever known.

Many portray Jesus mostly as a man of sorrows, one who entered into and shared our grief. As Cal Samra points out, most Christian art historically, and even now, shows Jesus as sad, burdened, morose, or, at best, with flat affect. So it’s hard for many to picture Jesus also as a man of joy, a person whose deep love and healing power takes root in joy and embodies the announcement of “good news of great joy.”

The film “Matthew,” featuring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, captures this joy better than most movies about Jesus that I know. Having read Sherwood Wirt’s stirring book Jesus, Man of Joy, Marchiano describes what he discovered in reading the Bible to prepare for his acting:

“…it became so blatantly obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never caught it before. Suddenly it was everywhere, screaming from the pages of Scripture: joy!

“Jesus began jumping off the page at me as well – His realness and strength, the sparkle in His eyes, the spring in His gait, the heartiness in His laugh, the genuineness of His touch; His passion, playfulness, excitement, and vitality: His JOY!

“Yes, Jesus smiled; yes, Jesus laughed. Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who’s ever walked the planet. It’s been revelation to a lot of people both in and out of the church, their eyes opening wide after lifetimes of misunderstanding the Lord to be an aloof, pious, and sanctimonious figure. “ (Marchiano’s, In the Footsteps of Jesus, 77)

Most of the Amazon reviews of the movie are positive, though some felt that it lacked gravitas, that Jesus smiled and laughed too much, and that this certainly would not be faithful to the Bible, even though the movie uses only the NIV text. Some reviews sounded like this:

“The actor didn’t seem at all like Jesus is portrayed in the Bible. Instead of Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of Lords, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the King of Kings, etc. it was like this portrayal of Jesus was designed to bring Him down to our human level.”

Without stretching it even a little, the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus did live fully down at our human level. It is at once the most ordinary and most extraordinary human life we can imagine. Jesus’ life among us was the most fully authentic human we’ve ever seen, full of love, integrity, joy, grace, and truth. It shows us that Jesus has shared our common life, and it shows what it possible for human life. It gives us reason, in the midst of Christmas hubbub, loudly and often to belt out “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and to “repeat the sounding joy.”

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The Humorless Gospel

December 4, 2012

The author was doing great identifying humor in the Bible – in Genesis, Judges, Esther, Jonah, in Jesus’ life and teaching, in Acts, and more – when he made a sourpuss call that stopped me in my tracks. He called the Gospel of John “the humorless gospel.” He said that it is “a definitively unlikely source” for humor and that it had a “dedicated anti-humor crusade” even though “there’s humor everywhere else in the New Testament.” How odd, I thought! “Good News (Gospel)” and “anti-humor” don’t go together at all.

So I started looking more closely. I noticed first of all that the author himself uses examples of humor from the Gospel of John. He thinks that the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well might be “humor-tinged.” (John 4) Maybe there’s some humor, too, in the account of the woman caught in adultery. (John 8) I suspect he’s right, of course, but it’s set me to exploring humor in this gospel more carefully.

Of course, I remember having laughed often at some of the stories in John, but I tested that with my New Testament colleague Paul Anderson, who knows John inside out and backwards, to make sure I wasn’t just being perverse. Well, he thinks I’m perverse, I’m sure, but he also agrees that John has good humor. One story we both find funny is how Jesus healed the man born blind. (John 9) The conversations between the man and the people, the Pharisees, his parents, and Jesus have great banter and twists and turns. It’s a great read-aloud story (slow down and see the give-and-take between the characters), particularly in a translation or paraphrase that uses contemporary language (for example, the New Living Translation or The Message).

Serious conversation often includes playful banter, and several interpreters I have read see them working together in Jesus’ conversation with the woman who comes to the well in Samaria. (John 4) Here and elsewhere, I find it helpful to remember the guide, “Imagine Jesus smiling.” Others also notice the humor in Jesus’ first “sign” when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. (John 2) I’ll keep re-reading John to think more carefully about other texts, including the report of the disciples dragging in a net “full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.” It makes me smile to see fishermen remembering fish stories. (John 21:1-14)

At Paul’s suggestion I’m also reading a classic book about irony (not wrinkly) in the Gospel of John. (Specifically, Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel.) Defining “irony” is like catching a greased pig, or, as Duke more elegantly puts it, grabbing a handful of mist. But with its subtleties of double-meanings, understatement, of things being more than they appear, and of reversals and shifts, irony is one of the common devices of humor. Like satire, not all irony is funny. But it often is. In the Gospel of John, Paul Duke identifies “local irony” in particular sentences or phrases and irony extended though narratives, such as Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9. I’m looking forward to learning more from his book.

I’m reporting here the beginning of a journey, and I invite you to join me. Eventually I’ll identify the author who spoke of John as the “humorless gospel” because I actually wrote a hearty recommendation for his book. But in the meantime, I’ll be reading in John and about John, not only to identify humor, but also to see how humor might deepen our understanding. When you have good ideas, too, please share them with us all here at “Laughing Pilgrims.”

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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.

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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.]

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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?

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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