Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Ten propositions on faith and laughter

by Kim Fabricius

1. Let’s face it: the Bible is not exactly a barrel of laughs. In the Old Testament the Lord laughs a few times in the Psalms – at the nations’ rulers in Psalm 2:4, at the wicked and godless in Psalms 37:13 and 59:8 – but it is a disdainful, derisive laughter. As for human laughter, the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:2 calls it “foolish” (GNB), “mad” (NRSV), even if it does have its “time” (cf. 3:4); while Job’s so-called comforters Eliphaz and Bildad console their friend with the promise of laughter if he repents (5:22, 8:21) – but we know what God thinks of them (42:7).

2. Is Sarah an exception? She laughs when God promises her a child in her dotage, but beneath her breath (Genesis 18:12). But the Lord hears her giggling – “Yeah, right!” she is thinking – and he is not amused at her doubt, so in fear she denies that she laughed (18:15a). “Oh yes you did!” the Lord replies (18:15b). We should remember that Abraham laughed too when told that Sarah will bear him a child (17:17), but evidently our (sexist?) Lord was more indulgent with the old man than with his old lady. One thing is for sure, juxtapose the two scenes and you have the stuff of situation comedy!

3. And then there is the name “Isaac” – “the one who will laugh.” Does giving the child of promise such a sobriquet suggest that God has a sense of humour after all? And perhaps we should not overlook the additional syllables that God adds to the names Abram and Sarai: they become AbrAHam and SarAH. “An onomatopoeic ‘Ha-Ha’”? (Simon Critchley).

4. There are three explicit references to laughter in the New Testament. In James 4:9 the complacent laughter-become-mourning of repentance; in Matthew 9:24 (par. Mark 5:40, Luke 8:53) the dismissive laughter of the crowd at a funeral that Jesus crashes; and in Luke 6:25 the smug laughter of the powerful – and in Luke 6:21 the eschatological laughter of the powerless. The eschatological laughter is promising, even proleptic. For if the verbal abuse of Jesus’ enemies at the foot of the cross surely included cruel and mocking laughter, may we not suggest an Easter laughter – risus paschalis – that rings out with resurrection joy?

5. Did Jesus laugh? The fictitious dispute in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose “is more than fiction. It reflects a line of tradition which really existed, from John Chrysostom through Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugo of St Victor, of the Christian denunciation of laughter” (Karl-Josef Kuschel). Nor is such a “theology of tears” limited to the world-denying, death-obsessed zeitgeist of the Middle Ages. John Wesley once disciplined a preacher on the charges (in ascending order?) of heresy, adultery – and the man’s proneness to “break a jest, and laugh at it heartily.” Here, from Beckett’s Molloy, Moran debates the issue with Father Ambrose, who sides with Eco’s Jorge (a Dominican – who is blind):

“What a joy it is to laugh, from time to time, he said. Is it not? I said. It is peculiar to man, he said. So I have noticed, I said. A brief silence ensued. […] Animals never laugh, he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said. What? he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said loudly. He mused. Christ never laughed either, he said, so far as we know. He looked at me. Can you wonder? I said.”

6. You laughed, right? Christ, I reckon, would have cracked up too! Did he not have a Beckett-like sense of the absurd (gnats and camels, logs and splinters), the ironic (calling Simon a Πετρος, telling fishermen where to fish), and even the coarse (suggesting that one go starkers in court [Matthew 5:40], insinuating that the Pharisees are full of crap [Mark 7:15]). And is anyone going to tell me that a man who likes to party, with a reputation to go with it, doesn’t like a laugh? So with many a Renaissance Humanist, Eco’s William of Baskerville (a Franciscan, one of God’s “merry men” – who can see because he wears spectacles) was surely right: of course Jesus laughed! A limerick comes to me:

    In the O.T. our God the Most High
    in his folk put timor Domini,
    but in Jesus his Son
    he earthed Word-play and pun:
    like a mushroom, he was a fun-guy.

7. The only serious theological question is not “Did Jesus laugh?” but “Did Jesus laugh in his divinity as well as his humanity?” As with suffering, the doctrine of the divine impassibility would suggest not. If, however, revisionists like Moltmann and Jüngel are right, then, if God can suffer, surely God can laugh. The resurrection event is crucial, as it identifies, even defines, if it does not constitute, the very being of God. In any case, the grammar of faith allows, and (I submit) the substance of faith demands the statement: “God laughs” – and not only with scorn for his enemies but, above all, with joy for his friends.

8. Ergo, an Easter people cannot act like lemon-suckers. Chesterton said that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly,” and no less an authority than the Angelic Doctor himself “leaves the Christian with a wide field for his fun. He does so on the authority of the Philosopher” – revelation and reason in perfect harmony – “who, we are reminded, ‘posits the virtue of eutrapelia, which in Latin we call jucunditas, enjoyment.’ His conclusion rejoices smiling Christians” (M. A. Screech). Alas, St Thomas set limits to Christian frivolity: no dirty jokes! Calvin agreed – but not scatologically-minded Luther. And Erasmus, while keen on wit, disapproved of tickling – which, in my view, comes close to advocating child abuse!

9. There is a political dimension to laughter, namely laughter as protest and resistance, disarming tyrant or terrorist with ecstatic power. “Laugh and fear not, creatures,” declares Aslan. “For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” Humour has been particularly important in sustaining the children of Moses in the wilderness of oppression, not least in the face of Christian anti-semitism. Hence the extensive corpus of Jewish jokes about Christians, doleful and yearning, yet also acerbic. Like this one:

The priest says to the rabbi: “There are three things I can’t stand about you Jews: you wander about the synagogue, you pray noisily, and your funerals are chaotic.” The rabbi replies: “We wander about the synagogue because we feel at home there. We pray noisily because Yahweh is old and hard of hearing. And as for funerals, we too prefer the Christian ones.”

And there is the Jewish character, figure of fun, known as the schlemihl: a rather weak, inept, and vulnerable guy who takes on the chin whatever goys throw at him, who gets knocked down again and again, but who always gets up, dusts himself off, and gets on with life without a grumble. There is a Christian version of the schlemihl: his name is Charlie Brown. In the schlemihl, laughter is not only polemical critique, it is also therapeutic self-critique lest the oppressed becomes an oppressor.

10. Finally, the liturgical dimension of laughter: is there a place for laughter in worship? W. H. Auden suggested that “The world of laughter is much more closely related to the world of prayer than either is to the everyday secular world of work,” and Reinhold Niebuhr actually said that “Laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But Niebuhr also said that “there is faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.” So it’s okay to crack a joke in the pulpit perhaps, but not at the altar? But who has not laughed during the scrum that can be the passing of the peace? And if there are children at the table, well, as Art Linkletter famously put it on his American TV show, “Kids say the darndest things!” And although the eucharist as anamnesis of the meal “on the night he was betrayed” is certainly a solemn moment, does not the eu-charis-t as anticipation of the Messiah’s wedding feast invite making merry? Donald MacKinnon rightly pointed to the tragic elements in the Christian story, but his mentor Kierkegaard, depressive Dane that he was, called it “the most humorous point of view in the history of the world.”

A personal anecdote. During my training for the ministry I was leading morning worship at Mansfield College, Oxford. Lesslie Newbigin was present, so I wanted to be word perfect. The Old Testament lesson, from I Samuel 14, was about Saul slaughtering the Philistines. I came to verse 15, which reads: “There was a panic in the camp.” But this idiot read: “There was a picnic in the camp.” As I prayed for the earth to open, all eyes turned to the great man. How would he respond? He laughed, of course!

St Theresa prayed well: “Lord, preserve us from sullen saints.”

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