Rev Rex A E Hunt
Some liturgical suggestions are available HERE
RELIGION… AND THE NEED FOR HUMOUR IN OUR LIVES
“It is true that at least one medieval theologian, Petrus Cantor,
is known to have asked during the course of his ruminations whether Christ
ever laughed. Cantor was of the solemn opinion that he must have
if he was truly [hu]man. What disturbs us today is that Cantor
should ever have felt the need to ask the question.”
Scientists tell us, so that saying goes, that of all the creatures that live on earth,
only humans have the gift of laughter.
But not all know how to laugh.
Many, it is said, only go through the motions of laughing.
Their sense of humour is lacking,
without which laughter is merely a muscular reflex.
Religion in general and Christianity in particular
has not for the most part appreciated the place of laughter
in the human heart.
In fact, religion has often taken a pretty solemn and gloomy view of life.
At least that is the experience of many
when religious attitudes are subjected
to the so-called ‘pub test’.
Religious people are often caricatured as dry and humourless.
An article by Chris McGillion in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:
“When humour surfaces in a church setting it seems somehow awkward if not unnatural and laughter erupts as a sense of relief more than an expression of genuine merriment.” (McGillion 2000)
(Note: Back in 2000 on Pentecost Sunday, I had the following in my Sermon/Exploration…
Those who like to ‘salt and pepper’ everything with a biblical verse,
are usually quick to point out
the gospels speak of the Lord’s tears,
but do not record his smiles.
But ‘holy laughter’ in the foyer and aisles
is a sign of a healthy congregation.
Like when the Sunday school teacher who told me about the time
she told the parable of the Good Samaritan to her morning group.
After telling the story, she asked why the priest
didn’t go over and help the injured man.
A little girl answered:
“Because he saw that the man had already been robbed?”
You may appreciate this story, apocryphal of course!
The Prime Minister/President was making a public relations visit to a nursing home
and came upon a wizened old man hobbling down the corridor.
The PM/President took the man’s hands in his own,
looked into his eyes, and said:
“Sir, do you know who I am?”
The old man replied:
“No. But if you ask one of the nurses, she’ll tell you.”
And then there was the teacher who asked her third-graders
to write about their personal heroes.
One little girl brought home her essay and showed it to her parents.
Her father was flattered to discover his daughter had chosen him as her hero.
“Why did you pick me?” he asked expectantly.
The little girl replied:
“Because I couldn’t spell Schwarzenegger.”
Do you hear the sound of laughter here?)
Way back when I was in my first Congregation (in the early 1970s),
hot out of theological seminary in Melbourne,
my interest in communication saw me elected
to the local Combined Churches Media Committee.
One one occasion I was part of a team that wrote a ‘religious’ radio script
which, in part, went something like this:
“There is a man who seldom thinks about the church: but when he does
he always has a vision, and in which he sees church people.
“He shudders whenever he has this vision of church people for it is not
only their appearance that frightens him. It is also their message.
“They tell him of all the things he dare not do, and he notices
that everything they list is something he enjoys…”
And the reaction? Well, let’s say it was interesting.
From the church-goers: criticism.
From the people ‘on the street’: agreement.
The Calvinist wing of the Reformation was not known for its exuberance or wit!
Always keen to push some theological boundaries,
Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox,
in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the
“comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”. (Cox 1969:150)
Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis,
an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested:
“God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.”
Cox went on to say:
“On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?” (Cox 1987)
He had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches,
where members meet in the church - usually on the Monday after Easter
(through to the following Saturday),
and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ - for a feast and festival.
Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling.
Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way
to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan
in the resurrection.
Now that tickles my fancy!
But it leaves us with the over-all question:
Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life?
My reason for wanting to raise this question is simple.
Not just because all work, all seriousness, makes us dull and uninteresting people.
Clergy persons included!
Nor to have a go at so-called Fundamentalists, whom many believe
have no sense of humour at all! As another has suggested:
"the Christian fundamentalist has the awful fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (H. L. Mencken)
I raise it because a culture that causes people to be too serious all the time,
and lacking in humour, can be a culture
in which progress and growth and compassion
can be lacking.
To say that comedy and humour are important
is in no way to detract from the seriousness of life.
It is only to say that seriousness must be tempered with a sense of humour.
The person who can never laugh at herself/himself,
or even at their own pretensions, may easily become
the reactionary who wants to destroy everything
that does not agree with her/his narrow focus of what is important.
And ‘twitter’ us mad in the process!
Former minister at All Souls Church in New York, Walter Kring, suggested:
“I would almost be willing to subscribe to the thesis that the most serious person, if he/she lacks a sense of humour, may be the most dangerous person in the world, This is particularly true in our day when so much power can be concentrated in the hands of so few”.
In that sermon Kring went on to make two suggestions
as to what he believed made up a balanced life:
(i) Every life must have a serious purpose,
(ii) We ought to temper this serious sense of purpose with good humour.
Very briefly, let me unpack some of his commentary.
The greatest people of our earth are those who have delved the deepest
and who have found the most profound truths.
While philosophers, scientists, and religious prophets have differed from each other,
they have all been seeking to find the basic nature of all things
in all seriousness.
Thus they have highlighted the fact that the only way to truth is through experimentation.
That through the process of testing
we shall eventually arrive at some generally accepted principles
which will be felt to be true - unless
something more satisfactory is arrived at.
As people who take seriously ‘progressive’ religion, this should be particularly relevant to us.
Many people think of religion in terms of dogma - as law and answers,
or what Bishop John Shelby Spong calls “killing certainties”,
rather than as search - as questioning.
The latter are seekers.
They live the questions now.
And who knows… perhaps someday in the future,
gradually, and without ever noticing it,
they live their way into an answer.
David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy in their book Living the Questions,
write about these ‘christian’ seekers:
“These seekers are comfortable with ambiguity and understand that through difficulties, mistakes, and challenges, it’s the journey that’s important. It’s what we learn along the way in relationship to the Divine and to one another that matters most.” (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:69)
A ‘serious purpose in life’ must always be tempered with the realisation
that no matter how inspired a leader, or catechism, or book, or we may be,
in the long run, both they and we are undoubtedly
not going to have the final answers to everything.
Yes… we all ought to be serious about life.
And we ought to search with all of our being to find out what is true for us.
We ought to use our brains to the best of our ability.
But we also ought to temper this seriousness,
this serious sense of purpose, with good humour.
A well balanced life is going to be the life that truly understands the place of humour.
Because laughter can help to herald in the dawn of human hope.
Or at the very least, a hope about hope.
Let ‘progressive’ religion give long overdue recognition to the neglected gifts
of humour, comedy, play, and laughter.
May these ‘gifts of grace' be use for the healing of human lives,
for attaining balanced lives.
It would do us well to remember the words of American pastor and poet, Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:70)
The well balanced life is valuable, not because anyone says so,
but because in the long run
it is the most satisfactory life.
And may the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian,
be aired for every theological/ministry student to see, before graduation!
For where it is real, laughter is the voice of faith.
Cox, H. “God’s Last Laugh” in Christianity and Crisis, (6 April 1987)
————, The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969
Felten, D. M. & J. Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions. The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2012
Hyers, C. “The House of Laughter” in Presbyterian Survey 80, 3, (April 1990), 29 - 31
Kring, W. D. “The Need for Humor”. All Souls Church, New York City, (17 January 1971)
(Staff Writer) “Christianity: A Laughing Matter” in Insights. The News/Magazine of the Uniting Church, NSW Synod. (August 2002), 23-24