You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses would ya?
No, of course not. I’d hit him with a bat.
In our culture of frivolity it is tempting for Christians to think that solemnity should be our defining attribute. The coarseness of the world impedes us from enjoying any sort of sexual or bodily function jokes because we do not want to be guilty of approving that which is sinful. Even though we know that the bed is undefiled and the body is good, and are therefore free to enjoy those aspects of life in humor, we are stunted in our ability to appreciate them due to the folly and poor taste of our age.
So while we are not to be characterized by coarse jesting, we must learn to distinguish jokes that laud wickedness (the ribaldry forbidden in Ephesians) from those jokes that merely highlight the glorious and comedic world. We cannot merely clam up and play it safe, throwing out the good jokes with the bad. If we are to be characterized by joy then we must be leaders in laughter, but Humor is not a tame lion. It is invasive, subversive and mysterious. It is hard to determine where it is anchored, whether it mocks or praises, and what it is standing with or against.
For this reason many hedge their laughter, guard their mirth like an untrustworthy servant. There is a temerity that would rather not laugh at something funny than to laugh at something sinful. So how can we train our minds to laugh wisely?
First, we must recognize sinful humor, and the way you recognize something is to see it. We should not object to sinful humor in our movies because we do not object to sinners in our movies. The fool gets a lot of screentime in the Bible. These negative examples are valuable. Certainly care for the young must be considered, but this is one of the great strengths of watching films or reading stories with children is the ability to demonstrate what it means to spurn foolish talk. While we would practice discernment in exposing impressionable minds to the coarseness of the world, there is a time and place to include them in the exercise. It is difficult to resist profane talk in public surrounded by peers, but all the more so if one hasn’t exercised that ability at home.
So the first step is to not shy away from movies or stories that includes sinful humor, humor that assaults righteousness and spurns God. Obviously a full diet of such fare would be unhealthy. The body would be beaten to pieces if someone jogs all day long or muscles would tear if weights are lifted everyday. Engaging doubt has an important role in the Christian life, but to exist solely in doubt would be deadly. In the same way, exercising our resistance to evil should be brief, intense and with an experienced counselor.
Comedy is tricky, protean, and often what is discovered when we examine it is that our first impression is wrong. Comedy is a mirror, but it is a convex mirror. Consider the joke of Bart Simpson’s prayer: “God, we paid for all this ourselves so thanks for nothing.” Perhaps on first blush you were offended, as I was. On the surface it seems to being arrogantly dismissive to God, but consider: 1) Bart is not presented as a role model 2) Bart didn’t pay for that food and is therefore revealed as an ingrate, and most importantly 3) it is a joke and is therefore meant to be funny.
That last point might seem tautological, but if it were true that we do not owe God thanks since we pay for food ourselves then it would be a fact and therefore not funny. If the joke was intended to mean there is no god or that we do not owe him gratitude then it is an absolute failure. If there is no god then you do not address him. A recitation of facts isn’t funny. However, if there is a God then as the creator and sustainer of all he is owed gratitude and such a blithe and ignorant attitude is funny. To laugh at it is to affirm the world of a creative and generous God.
To laugh at a joke is not a blanket approval of every element within it. Consider the joke that begins this article. To laugh at it is not to praise the hitting of people with bats, but is acknowledging the wordplay. Laughter can be inspired by absurdity, surprise, agreement, mockery, bitterness, sadness, fear and anger. The key is to train ourselves to laugh in gratitude and to reflect on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and praiseworthy even when the mode of expression is crude.
Secondly, since we are the joyous people we should not suppress our laughter for fear of abusing it. Part of the charge against Israel was that they did not serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart (Deuteronomy 28:47). What does it matter that a man laughs at no wickedness and yet does not serve the Lord with joy? We cannot bury the talent of our laughter simply because the master is a hard man. Once we’ve grappled with the fool’s mouth and honed our sense of the obscene, then we may be free to laugh in order to learn.
Humor is supra-intellectual and difficult to parse, therefore it is important to laugh first, to stake a claim in its world, and then to unpack it. This is not a careless “laugh and let God sort it out” mindset, but an acknowledgement that words often are food that must be tasted before they can be understood. To ponder a joke from a distance is to think a casserole can be judged by its selfies. Plus to invest yourself in something gives you footing to think through it.
Penny Marshall’s 1988 comedy Big is about a boy who wishes he were grown up and the next morning wakes up as Tom Hanks. He is forced to run away, lest his parents discover a stranger in their house, he finds a job and, in the parlance of the day, hijinx ensue. In the scene depicted above Hanks is on a date and Susan, the woman, is expecting a far more lascivious encounter than what she gets. The humor of the situation is that they are both using similar words, but in very different ways. Her understanding of what it means to “be on top” flies in the face of his innocence.
Certainly someone could delight in this joke for the illicit sex, just like someone can abuse anything, but to truly submit to the joke is to be delighted in the subversion of wickedness. Surprised by innocence, like the woman at the well in the Gospel of John looking for a temporary husband and finding the eternal husband, we are delighted when Susan’s expectations are turned pure. The final punchline is only funny if we are relieved that Josh and Susan avoided sin. If someone was enjoying evil then the sight of them in separate beds would be disappointing. So whether they love righteousness or not, their laughter turns them toward the affirmation of purity.
In researching for this article I found that the root meaning of Bawdy is Joyous. The shift in meaning from Joyous to Lewd is easy to trace. In old French Baudie (elation, high spirits) was connected to Fole Baudie to mean Shamelessness. Fole is from Follis meaning Mad. Therefore bawdiness in the modern sense is Mad Joy, which is perfectly emblematic of those who delight in cruel humor, who chortle over filthiness and corruption. Too often our conscience is warped and we exhibit the same mirthlessness as the bawdy, but His laughter is easy and his burden is light.
You get good at what you practice. If you practice not laughing because you are fearful of illicit jokes then you get good at not laughing. If, however, you laugh and combine that with a pursuit of righteousness, then you get good at laughing and better at discerning those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good reputation, virtuous and praiseworthy.
Furthermore, there is something prideful about refraining from laughter until you’ve given your intellectual stamp of approval. Take yourself less seriously. Admit that joy is better than your solemnity and laugh. For while it might be true that the master is a hard man, he also reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not seed. While the joke might have been intended for evil, God has subverted their humor. The one who rules in heaven laughs. God upturns the wicked and though they may seek to deride him, they are often found flipped into the dunghill of their own attempts.
Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy, Monroe, Louisiana.