Q Los Angeles 2013
Arts + Entertainment
Science + Tech
The Gospel and Humor
I was reading a review of the movie
in a newspaper for urban downtown-types, and the article dripped with sarcastic, sneering, smirking humor that, among other things, referred to Susan's horn as a phallic symbol. Humor is like seasoning on food – everything is flat without it. But something was amiss here. I began to ask myself, "Does the gospel have an effect on our sense of humor?" The answer has to be yes – but why and how?
Your humor has a lot to do with how you regard yourself. Many people use humor to put down others, keep themselves in the driver's seat in a conversation and setting, and remind the listeners of their superior vantage point. They use humor not to defuse tension and put people at ease, but to deliberately belittle the opposing view. Rather than showing respect and doing the hard work of true disagreement, they mock others' points of view and dismiss them without actually engaging the argument.
Ultimately, sarcastic put-down humor is self-righteous – a form of self-justification – and that is what the gospel demolishes. When we grasp that we are unworthy sinners saved by an infinitely costly grace, it destroys both our self-righteousness and our need to ridicule others. This is also true of self-directed ridicule. Some people constantly and bitterly mock themselves. At first it looks like a form of humility, or realism, but really it is just as self-absorbed as the other version. It is a sign of an inner discomfort with one's self, a profound spiritual restlessness.
[ALSO: Browse Tim Keller talks and articles on QIdeas.]
There is another kind of self-righteousness, however, that produces a person with little or no sense of humor. Moralistic persons often have no sense of irony, because they take themselves too seriously or because they are too self-conscious and self-absorbed in their own struggles to be habitually joyful.
The gospel, however, creates a gentle sense of irony. Our doctrine of sin keeps us from being over-awed by anyone (especially ourselves) or shocked by any behavior. We find a lot to laugh at, starting with our own weaknesses. They don't threaten us anymore, because our ultimate worth is not based on our record or performance. Our doctrine of grace and redemption also keeps us from seeing any situation as hopeless. This "ground note" of joy and peace makes humor spontaneous and natural.
In gospel-shaped humor, we don't only poke fun at ourselves. We also can gently poke fun at others, especially our friends, but it is always humor that takes the other seriously and ultimately builds them up as a show of affection. We are not to be "perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption."
So how do we get such a sense of humor? That's the wrong question. The gospel doesn't change us in a mechanical way. To give the gospel primacy in our lives is not always to logically infer a series of principles from it that we then "apply" to our lives. Recently I heard a sociologist say that, for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they operate "pre-reflectively." They don't exist only as a list of propositions and formulations, but also as themes, motives, attitudes, and values that are as affective and emotional as they are cognitive and intellectual. When we listen to the gospel preached, or meditate on it in the Scripture, we are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking that we begin to "live out" the gospel instinctively.
I have definitely seen the gospel transform a person's sense of humor, but it would be artificial to say that there are "gospel-principles of humor" that we must apply to our lives. It just happens as we believe the gospel more and more.
Have you ever thought about how the gospel might shape our understanding of humor? What are your reactions to Keller's thoughts?
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Redeemer City to City. It is reprinted by permission.
The artwork from above is quoted from here.
C.S. Lewis devotes an entire letter (#11) in The Screwtape Letters to the topic of humor, dividing "the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy." These are in increasing order of usefulness to the tempters.
I find it difficult to reconcile counsel such as Tim Keller's here with the actual forms of humor we see in the scripture, particularly from the prophets. In several cases, the satire seems very pointed and not particularly "friendly".
While I agree with Jonathan that Prophetic satire tends to be pointed and less than friendly, I felt that Keller's comments were directed at the real-life people we all are today. The ability to laugh at ourselves in healthy ways, acknowledging our foibles without demeaning ourselves, increases the ability to extend Grace to others. I fully agree that highly moralistic people tend to have no sense of humor at all, taking everything (including themselves) far too seriously. That's really rather sad. Humor is a part of who God made us to be.
I believe that as we come closer into a relationship with Jesus, as we appreciate Grace more fully, we also relax a bit. This enables us to live the joyous, ironic, funny and sometimes silly moments of life together, appreciate one another, and grow in love for one another.
I ran across a statement in a resource, and I don't recall the author, but it stuck with me; "Kindness is never a mistake, we all make mistakes, and forgiveness is the key." If we can keep our humor within that spirit, it will enrich our lives together and open our hearts more fully to the Love of God.
"We must play." What a great insight!
This is so true. If we can not laugh at ourselves and our foibles with each other in a sincere non-self deprecating way than our lives must be dry as bones.
Allowing the Word to dwell in us richly can not help but bring joy to every fiber of our being!!
Laughter doeth the heart good like medicine.
Isn't there something wrong with all this pontificating if nothing funny ever gets said? I feel truly blessed by the people around me (btw Keller is very funny in person) who helped me accept the truth & laugh at myself at the same time. Thanks!
Warning….Warning....... please take this with a grain of salt because it is simply my opinion formed from information that I have observed from life experience and not something I've learned from a book or a professor, although this information is probably in a book and taught by some professor.
If we are free in Christ, are we not certainly free to laugh, or cause someone else to bust a gut? Humor may be a "coping thing" for some of us but it’s perfectly natural for us to cope until Christ changes us from the inside, and hopefully he’s working on all of us who believe in Christ.
If laughter is good medicine then we should try to do more of it. Humor is often times the pathway to laughter and Laughter somehow seems to neutralize the cortisol that induces stress in our bodies if only for moments in our action packed lives.
Another great benefit of humor that I have found over the years is cognitive retention is much greater when humor is injected into a difficult or deep topic. When our eyes are starting to glaze over from heavy instruction which may only take 15 to 20 minuets for some of us, a little bit of humor seems to reset the clock and purposeful instruction can go on for hours without the overload mechanism tripping off the breaker in our brains where usable memory is readily available. And who really trusts a religious figure that doesn’t sprinkle a little humor in their messages. It shows us they are human and are more believable and we can better relate to that I think.
Although I would not expect to find humor on a safety warning label from the food and drug administration or on an OSHA instructional sheet on the proper use of a chain saw, should then conclude that the government would want to restrict my personal use of humor?
If I am wrong I certainly hope that along my life's journey that the Holy Spirit would convict me to stop being funny, but so far I think he’s working on the more serious dysfunctions in my life to make me more like him, and that alone requires a real good sense of humor. And while the potter shapes my life I pray that I will be moldable and pliable and not rigid and stiff , more like a child full of fun, and as a child of God I trust my heavenly father to keep me safe and direct my footsteps.
Humor is such a great gift because every individual has their own brand, like the way they cook food, dress themselves, or paint, sing, dance. Humor draws people into truth when it is delivered not as a means to get a laugh, but to bring to light our human situation and the ironies, even sadness of our condition. Humor disarms our pride, and can often shed light on so much truth. Humor for the sake of a cheap laugh, or to bring down someone else is not what I am talking about here. Crass, malicious humor is simply not funny, it is usually pride based and cruel. Laughter is good for the soul, and certainly has become the glue that binds my eighteen year old son and I. We talk about all of life and laugh at ourselves daily.
"NO humor at the expense of others" - a rule of every youth group I've led and a rule some cite as the most beneficial as they went out into the world. Good post!
A great prayer would be to laugh as Jesus laughed.
To add to the discussion, I'd say that humor results from the unexpected. Abraham and Sarah laugh at the prediction that after years and years they will conceive in their old age. Good news can bring laughter, so that humor goes hand in hand with gratitude.
I was very glad to see this article by Tim Keller. My sons and I have had good conversations about humor. Recently one of them spoke of the cheapness of the "sarcastic putdown" that Keller mentions. But of course it also very expensive. I pray that youth group leaders will follow Marilyn Yocum's example (See her post above.). I also pray that all of us who are Christ-followers will be more thoughtful about the way in which we enjoy the great gift of humor.
I completely understand Marilyn's position, but humor that does not cost someone something is foreign to me.
I personally hope that the gospel can penetrate my own soul to the point that it is no big deal to pay when others find me funny.
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