Why laughter and Christianity go hand-in-hand.
Trevor Erickson | The Clarion
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I never acknowledged it myself, probably because there was no afternoon where I dressed in black and ate cold ham sandwiches. Though I hadn’t attended a funeral, I still felt an inky blackness as though I had.
My eyebrows were sore from thinking, staring into infinite puzzles. My mind was haggard from all the dead ends and the doubts they midwifed. My throat had a lump: I wasn’t sure how to say anything meaningful at all. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked about things ‘being brought into conversation’ with another thing, which has become code for not knowing what the hell I’m talking about and being confused about mostly everything except my love of Frank’s Red Hot.
Theology had frozen me and I felt I no longer knew anything of Jesus at all.
We were talking in class about how we do proper theology one afternoon, so I brought up my struggle and how I longed to do theology like I was a poet. A few sentences in, my head felt feverish and my throat gurgled with angst. I surprised myself with emotion. Maybe my faith wasn’t dead after all.
By the time I needed to choose a topic for my gargantuan senior seminar paper, I wanted to figure out why doing theology had put my faith on life support, or at least find a way to do theology that didn’t make me completely hate myself. In other words, I wanted to know if theology had room for laughter.
Few people in the Christian church tradition think laughter is spiritual, and the ones that do think it’s bad news.
4th-century itinerant Chrysostom said the world wasn’t a theatre to laugh in, but to weep in for our sins. St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism as we know it, used Bible verses to forbid laughter. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once disciplined a preacher who made jokes from the pulpit. 17th- century Quaker Robert Barclay once wrote that sports and laughter didn’t agree with the gravity of Christian faith.
When missionaries went into Africa, the natives were marked by their big, boisterous laughter. The missionaries thought this was pagan, so upon conversion the natives developed a nervous, suppressed, embarrassed laughter later known as the “mission giggle.”
To laugh or not laugh depends mostly on what genre we think our story is. The classic definition of a tragedy story is birth, struggle and death. Aristophanes, known as the father of comedy, defined a comedy story as birth, struggle, death, and a resurrection.
Laughter depends on a comedy story. Imagine a silent film where Charlie Chaplin runs for safety into a lion’s carnival cage. As he fumbles frantically for the door, it’s funny because we don’t think there will be any real suffering. The moment he actually suffers, it’s no longer funny. Any humor depends on the assumption that Charlie’s limitations will somehow be miraculously overcome.
Far from dismissing our tragic world, true laughter actually punctures a hole in it. If we have the courage to look through the gape, a world opens up, one where brokenness is a word but resurrection is the final word and our limitations—often embarrassing, other times tragic—are somehow overcome.
Laughter thrives on the unexpected. The gospel story is God’s big, fat, unforeseeable joke and God waits on bated breath for us to get the resurrection punch line.
I still believed that story as I wrote my 25-page theology final. Still, I felt like my words were less like reflections on my Christian faith and more like trying to speak it back into existence. With each keystroke, I found myself caring less about how my faith had become so rigid, jittery, and fearful and caring more about how to find the faith I once had, a faith that was communal, vibrant and courageous.
I don’t think it’s fair to say Christians should always be joyful. I showed in my paper the long history of mopey Christians who didn’t know how to laugh. But I also know Christians who don’t know how to feel broken, who try very hard to plaster cheap platitudes onto tragedies where words don’t belong. I know them mostly because I know myself.
When I see the suffering of my brother or sister, I am bound by my humanity not to order fast-food laughter because I’m uncomfortable, or re-gift them cheap promises because I’m selfish.
Still, to be Christian is to figure out the tension of already-but-not-yet into your actual life. The already is that the climax of God’s comedy story has already happened with the resurrected Jesus. The not yet is that we wait for Jesus’ kingdom to fully arrive, and meanwhile our stories—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations—still seem pretty tragic. A kingdom community has space for both lamenting and laughing, because a kingdom community sees both the tragic world and the punctured hole with all kinds of restoration leaking out of it.
A few months ago, I was at brunch with friends when I found myself splitting with laughter, the kind where your gut gets sore and your forehead gets sweaty, and afterward you slink back in your chair with a silly and tired satisfaction.
It seemed almost sacramental, a visible symbol pointing me to an invisible reality. Laughter seems to be a strange space where God invites us, sisters and brothers, to pause and remember, remember the painless, fearless world laughter temporarily creates is a symbol pointing to a world Jesus will one day permanently establish.
This is my comedy, Jesus whispers with the beginnings of smirk, given to my screwy ragamuffin children. Laugh in remembrance of me.