God loves laughter. Humor makes us laugh because it triggers delighted surprise to hear that things we fear – being alone, being unloved, being ridiculed – aren’t as awful as it seems. And when it is awful, it isn’t as serious as we thought it was. When God gave us a sense of humor, He was telling us not to be so afraid. ~R. Trotter, The Upside Down World
I have a real soft spot for humor. It is one of the great joys of life. I’d give up sex, wealth, tasty food and reading before I’d want to give up a sense of humor. Hell, we all know old people who made just that deal; they lost all the other joys of life to aging, so now they just sit around and laugh and laugh. And they’re having a hell of a time doing it. If they have anyone to listen to them.
(Actually, that would make a great TV show. Travel the country visiting the funniest old people and record them talking. It would be like one of those “kids say the darndest things” type shows except the old people’s jokes will actually make sense. And tell us something about life.)
I was really introduced to comedy by my husband, who I still reside with largely because of how much fun it is to sit around and laugh with him. My family did not do comedy when I was growing up, largely because comedians are crude and crass and talk about sex and drugs. As if they’ve done them, even. Which, you know, isn’t an entirely unreasonable concern. I suppose.
At any rate, I’ve watched a good bit of comedy over the last however long I’ve been married. And yes, some of it has been crude and crass and fixated on the most obnoxious abuses of sex and drugs imaginable. But on the other end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of Garrison Keillor. His “Lake Woebegon” stories are masterpieces humor that doesn’t rely on offending or scandelizing anyone. Plus, he gets how religion and sex actually works.
I have this theory about humor which says that along with just being enjoyable, the primary purpose of humor is to help us learn. Researchers know that when a person is presented with information while they are laughing, they are more likely to accept that information than people who received the same information from an informational or persuasive presentation. Of course, they could have learned the same thing by observing parents with their kids. If you can get a kid to laugh, they are much more willing to admit error or change their minds.
Humor makes being wrong less frightening, I think. If you can laugh about something, it allows you to consider a completely different perspective at the same time as you are feeling happy. The possibility that the two could coexist becomes reality for a moment. Which is why I think humor has often proved to be a very potent tool for changing the way we see things over time. Although admitedly, not always for the best.
Religious people struggle with humor and not just because the words and the subject matter are often problematic. But because humor relies on the power of surprise to work. Religion doesn’t do surprise. Religion too often is all about knowing the right answers, finding the borders and protecting them. You can’t be truly funny while working within that framework.
This is a huge mistake on the part of Christians, however. First of all, Jesus didn’t leave behind any instructions to spend our time straining at gnats, putting up barriers to entry into the Kingdom or protecting ourselves from harm.
Secondly, Christians who understand religion this way are rarely funny and when they are, they almost always rely on ridicule. Good comedians shy away from ridicule to get laughs. They know that ridicule makes you look like a jerk. And even jerks usually try not to look like jerks out in public.
At any rate, this long rumination on humor was brought to you by my attempt to provide cover for myself so I could pass on a rather amazing article from the creator of Shit My Dad Says*.
For the uninitiated, allow me to point out that the title has a swear word in it. The dad of the title says shit a lot. Along with many other colorful words, word pictures and off colored jokes. But he’s also very funny and occasionally poignant, wise and insightful. His son is a great straight man and narrator. So if a super abundance of curse words are a deal breaker for you, I get that. But you’re missing out. Because I’m too busy and lazy to blot out all the swear words for you:
“Take a look at the dog,” he said, pointing at his best friend. “The dog gives a shit about three things, in this order; Living, fucking, eating. Now, if he’s eating, and the opportunity to fuck presents itself, he’d stop eating so that he could fuck. And if he’s fucking, and something threatens his livelihood, he’d stop fucking so that he could protect himself. What does that tell you?” he asked.
“I don’t know, isn’t that, like, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or something?”
“I’m okay with you just saying ‘I don’t know.’ I’d actually prefer that to a dumb answer.”
“I don’t know, dad,” I said, getting a little annoyed.
“The dog, just like every other animal including us, thinks first and foremost about staying alive and passing on their genetics. It’s in our DNA to do so. You spend all your time when you’re young making sure you do all the best eating, fucking, and living you can. But then you get old like me and you can’t even tell if you farted and nothing in your body works like it used to. And you start to think, or at least I do, about how you can spend all your most effective years on this planet, which is filled with billions of people, not giving a shit about anybody but the ten or so motherfuckers that share your blood. And I think human beings are capable of more than just that. And we should want to be. Because when you die, all that’s left of you is the people you gave a shit about. Everybody loves to say how much we’ve evolved, but the real measure of whether or not a species has evolved is if they can look their DNA in the eyes and say, ‘Fuck you, I can do better than you think I can.’
You can read the rest at GQ online here.
And that’s a message I am quite certain Jesus would agree with. After all, we are talking about a man who said he came to sow strife between family members, told a son to leave his father unburied, told another man to sell his family’s wealth out from under them and then prayed that we would all be one.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to give up on family, of course. But they can’t be our primary loyalty, nor can we be less than God has called us to be in order to remain in their good graces. And, radical as it sounds, Jesus calls us to love like God does, without discrimination from one man to the next rather than saving our love for those we share blood and even affinity with.
See what happens when you listen to funny old men? Sometimes they know something really, really good.