A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.




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