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.

 

 

 

Thinking about Homosexuality in an Unchanging Gospel – An Epistemological Argument

Last night, I attended a potluck dinner and worship service hosted by the Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference (RUMTX) and attended by our new Bishop, Reverend Scott  Jones. The event represents the optimistic opening of a dialogue between proponents of full inclusion and our bishop, who—I’m given to believe—takes a decidedly conservative stance in regards to the United Methodist doctrine regarding sexual orientation. This includes continuing to bring disciplinary action against those pastors who violate the current Book of Discipline by performing gay marriages.

My experience last night has led me to share the following thoughts regarding full inclusion in the United Methodist Church, or within Christianity at large.

In his remarks during the worship service, Bishop Jones stated (I’m paraphrasing) “that the Gospel doesn’t change, but times do.” You could just as easily change out the word “Gospel” for “Jesus,” “the Scriptures,” “God,” or many other words to the same or similar effect, and it’s quite possible a different word was used by the Bishop and I’m misremembering. Regardless, though, the use of any of these words seems to intimate the same idea—a common one proffered by conservatives on the issue of homosexuality’s “compatibility” with Christianity.

The problem is that the statement of the unchanging nature of the divine doesn’t actually tell us anything. If the point is that the meaning and truth of Christianity and all that that entails does not change, that tells us nothing. It does not prove that traditional interpretations of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ are the correct ones, does not in and of itself explain the often-ambiguous meanings of the Scriptural texts, and does not even assert that we have the ability to properly interpret holy words.

As I’ve mentioned, my master’s degree is in English, focusing on medieval and Renaissance literature. My undergraduate degree is in History, again focusing on those periods. In my graduate work, I received training in the literary school of thought called “New Historicism.” The New Historicist’s approach uses a few key philosophical assumptions that are apropos to this conversation. First, New Historicism asserts that we cannot separate ourselves fully from the culture and ideologies of our own time when we interpret a literary or historical text (the Bible is of course both) and that—while we should absolutely be looking at the historical context in which something is written—we cannot fully access the context of the author or the work. This is partially because of our temporal and experiential remove from the author and partially because it is at best difficult for us to definitively discover how and where the author and work fit into the historical context with particularity. The author and her work may be fully or partially “bought-in” to the ideological context of her time, but we cannot determine this with great certitude—particularly since every text may rely on unspoken assumptions not explicit in its words.

What does this mean for us and Scripture? If you follow these assumptions, we can’t fully understand the historical context in which the Scripture is written. For all of our knowledge of Israelite and Greco-Roman culture and language, we have lost the paradigm of the people who lived through the Gospel times through the slow crush of time. We must therefore make guesses about certain meanings of the text, however educated those guesses may be.

At the same time, we cannot divorce ourselves from our own cultural and experiential biases and expectations—we cannot elucidate objectively. This makes a diversity of opinions not just desirable but necessary in our interpretative attempts.

All of this goes to say that we cannot with great confidence state definitively the Gospel message when it comes to highly complex issues such as homosexuality—we get in our own way. We have to do the best we can in interpretation, and I believe that we probably can come close to the truth of things (though logic may only get us so far). At the same time, however, we ought to be very careful about having extreme confidence in the theological positions we take when were are outside of the core doctrinal Christian beliefs (those about which we can be most secure, I think, are those found within the various creeds).

What we’re left with here is a statement without any logical assertion. Instead, it seems to me, the only value is a rhetorical one. This rhetoric taps into the idea that Christianity is under attack by mainstream secular culture—that broader cultural acceptance of homosexuality is undermining “pure” Christian doctrine. It is the same idea that causes some of us to insist that there’s a “war on Christmas,” that a secular world is actively seeking to marginalize (an uncritical and unquestioning view of) Christian truth.

Let’s for the sake of argument accept the possibility of humankind attaining knowledge of absolute divine truth. Even with this acceptance, we must admit the extreme difficulty of doing so. With that admission, we must at least entertain the possibility that Christian interpretation of the Gospel message is a process that moves closer (and occasionally farther) from the truth we seek as we discover new methods of inquiry and experience new cultural paradigms.

This development over time is something we see play out in the story of the Old Testament (and the New, but I’ll focus on the Old for these purposes). Abram is called out by what he believes is one god among many for a special covenant. The early relationship between God and the Israelites is not one of monotheism—it is one of monolatry (devotion to one god without denial of the existence of other gods). How many times do we hear the Hebrews say “Who [i.e. which other god] is like our God?”

The Ten Commandments are monolatrous and not monotheistic—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Compare with the monotheistic Shahada of Islam—“There is no god but God. Muhammad is His Prophet.” The Hebrews undergo a process of better understanding God, starting with the identification of God from the collection of supposed divine beings to a realization of God as the supreme and only divine being.

If ancient Hebrew theology progresses from a more limited to a more accurate understanding of the nature and person of God, why should we suppose that Christian theology was perfect thousands of years ago and that we could not come to a better understanding of the Living God through time and debate?

In the New Testament, we see the apostles understanding of Jesus’ message improve over time—with Jesus often lamenting the things they fail to understand. Are we any different?

If we return to the question of homosexuality in Christianity, here’s where the above points take us:

(1) Traditional interpretations (i.e. those that consider homosexuality to be sinful or “incompatible” with Christianity) should not be categorically prioritized but should—as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral would have us do—be reviewed by considering tradition alongside the Scriptures themselves, logic and reason and human experience (both personal and cultural).

(2) If honest epistemology precludes us from being absolutely sure about our theological position on homosexuality, we must make our best guess.

That best guess requires the weighing of competing theological precepts. These competing precepts are definitions of what it means to “love thy neighbor.” From the conservative position, the argument goes: “It is not loving to allow your neighbor to continue in sin.” The progressive response (to which, admitting my own bias, I subscribe): “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” For me, loving my neighbor does not mean judging them for what I might believe to be sin—I’m no better myself, and sin is, in my mind, far too complex in non-egregious contexts to be categorically defined.

In my own personal understanding of Jesus, I cannot conceive that a loving relationship between two people is right or wrong based on sex or gender. I think to categorize things along such uncompromising lines is too akin to pharisaical legalism for my comfort.

I have said in other posts that I believe that the question of homosexuality in Christianity is really a cover for an underlying argument about epistemology and the methodology, nature and bounds of interpretation of Scripture. I hope that this post adds some clarity to that assertion that I have made, regardless of where you stand on the issue or how you approach Christian epistemology and interpretation.

Like it or not, the real argument over homosexuality in Christianity is over. Today’s youth (at least for the most part) cannot fathom condemnation based on gender and sexuality issues. You might call that cultural indoctrination if you like, but I’d say it’s an example of C.S. Lewis’s natural law. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that, if youth see Christianity as homophobic, they will never open up to the opportunity to actually know Jesus. To me, that’s what’s at stake by continuing to make an issue out of homosexuality in Christianity—the longer that we even prevaricate on anything less than full exclusion, the more we push people away from Jesus.

During his speech last night, Bishop Jones said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Meaning, of course, Jesus. If my epistemology means that I have to take a guess about which theological position is best, you can bet that I’m going to choose the position that may bring more people to Christ every single time. Is that a compromise? Maybe, but it’s one I’m more than willing to accept.

 

The Honest Seeker

We sit together at breakfast this honest seeker and I, a young man who I have the great good fortune of meeting this morning, who reveals more to me than I to him. By happenstance, if such a thing is to be believed in, we have been brought together, him seeking faith, me welling up with unexpected passion to explain my own.

Our subject is honest about his position. He sees great value in the social structure the church provides, great wisdom in the moral and philosophical precepts the scriptures teach, great promise in the philanthropic work the body of Christ undertakes. And yet, he will state matter-of-factly that he remains unsure about the spiritual reality of Christianity.

On this foundation he stands, his mind open, seeking for ideas and doctrines, carefully and skeptically weighing them, patiently considering the advice and thoughts and experiences of others, ever pursuing a reality he is not sure of, unsure he possesses a spiritual inclination, intellectually fascinated by the possibility of encountering the reality he hears so much about from others, ready to be convinced but pessimistic that he can be.

As we talk he questions me with deep and thoughtful interrogatories: Why is there evil and suffering? Why do Christians see all sin as equal? What is the resurrection supposed to mean? I struggle along to provide what answers I can; he follows with more difficult queries, testing not only me but the very limits of rational thought. When I tell him that some questions are beyond human understanding, he pauses, pondering the thought, piercing it with the sharp edges of his mind, perhaps perturbed by the prospect but satisfied by my honesty (if not the truth of my assertion).

He holds my attempts at answers in his hand, turning them slowly to view them from every angle, taking the measure of them, ascertaining their boundaries and their flaws. When I tell him that faith is a truth that must be experienced, not proved, he looks back at me with understanding, his young eyes seeming older by far.

I appreciate his skepticism. He is cautious before ever finding faith. Even before he believes, he is building a tower, testing its foundations, proving it to himself before he makes it his home. His, when he finds it, will be a strong faith, well considered, conscious of the ambiguities with which one must become comfortable to maintain faith, both reasonable and beyond reason. He is honest, surely the God who sees his heart will reward such honest seeking.

We part ways after a few hours but agree to meet regularly to continue our fellowship. But I am no guide, merely a fellow traveler on a road we all must walk to its destination.