We are made to be happy. Created to enter into the eternal joy of God, our whole being inclines to that end, but the fallen world has put forth barriers and by our own sin we bar ourselves from that endless delight, and death blinds us to that reality. Yet laughter breaks through.
This tendency for all things to bend to joy is seen in memory. Nobody in recalling an injury feels its pain again, but at the slightest invocation of a joyous event laughter spills out. Pain is forgotten yet joy soars on, achieving greater heights at each remembrance. Faith and hope join hands in laughter, for it is a bold declaration that though this world is fraught with terror, evil and ills yet we can delight in it because we know its comedic end.
Laughter is a powerful weapon. It is a divine act and a powerful contrast between Yahweh and Allah, who does not laugh. But for all that is praiseworthy in laughter there is the laughter of fools that should give us pause. What is the difference between foolish laughter and the laughter of the wise?
Wise laughter delights in incongruities. We laugh at pratfalls because that isn’t how things are suppose to work, we laugh at puns and play on words because language dictates saying one thing and not your mother. Wise laughter is a testimony that the evil in the world ought not be here; it is an incongruity which makes it comedic. The foolish laugh in madness and meanness. This is how things are, they say, and we should leave them be.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters 1 he has his demon scheming against the laughter. The general scheme in the letters for Lewis is to reveal how every aspect of the created world is slanted to the Creator’s advantage. Every realm the demons plot in is set against them and laughter is no different. The four causes of laughter according to Screwtape are Joy, Fun, Jokes and Flippancy. The first two are wholly unhelpful, and even the latter two are difficult. Jokes and flippancy are helpful as long as the incongruities do not triumph. In fact, flippancy exists apart from humor, “Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.” The key for temptation is to avoid true humor. When jokes delight or flippancy assaults foolishness, their usefulness in tearing down the soul is hindered.
He even downplays the use of bawdy humor in temptation because “it gives rise to many incongruities.” These incongruities are what makes things funny, to see something that shouldn’t be and to laugh it off is powerful, even if it is bawdy. For bawdy humor to be helpful, says Screwtape, these incongruities must be used as “a pretext for talking about sex,” a talk which no doubt avoids the markers listed in Philippians 4:8.
Humor, according to Screwtape, is only helpful as a method for destroying shame, but only so far as an evil heart uses the backdoor of the incongruity in order to approve of the illicit activity. Screwtape writes: “A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done…if only it can get itself treated as a Joke.” What the hypocrite depends upon, is not the joke, but upon the hearts of his audience to indulge him.
Hypocrisy is to Virtue what Humor is to Vice. In hypocrisy you have a mask of virtue over the face of vice, hiding its unseemliness. Hypocrisy says one thing, but believes another, acts one way in public, but wishes to live its opposite. Hypocrisy is curbed by the culture, but it is unmasked by humor.
Humor is the opposite of hypocrisy. Humor takes the mask of incongruity, the guise of how things shouldn’t be, and embodies it in order to reveal its out-of-sortness:
I have the heart of a lion and a lifetime ban from the San Diego Zoo.
At his death my friend gave me his EpiPen. Seemed important to him that I have it.
What can think the unthinkable? An ithberg.
In the above and many like it, we are surprised and delighted in the world out of joint. We don’t need to glory in the criminal acts or needless death in the above jokes in order to appreciate their wit, but it should be noted that one can appreciate the above jokes in a poor way.
Other jokes make it less easy to delight in their incongruity and veer closely to dismissing or approving of wickedness. Take for instance:
What’s the number one cause of adultery?
While we might point out that it is indeed laughable that such an answer can be considered a “cause” of adultery, the most noticeable aspect is an excuse of sin, flimsy though it may be. This would be an example of a dangerous joke, one whose mild incongruity can be used to tear down shame. It is a shrug of the shoulders over “the way things are.”
It is tricky to locate the incongruity of a joke sometimes and vulgarity too makes us uncertain of a joke’s allegiance, whether to virtue or vice. Is it a mask or is it hypocrisy unmasked? Does it expose sin or does it carve out a little space for it in our heart? 2
Frequently, when faced with a joke that attacks virtue, explicitly or otherwise, or winks at sin, the righteous man may be tempted to clamp down and respond with somber disapproval. There is a time to give weight to certain attacks, but we must be careful not to act like we are always in enemy territory. This is God’s world, the incongruity of a dragon in a field is funny, because that’s not how the world is supposed to be. Dragons should be slain.
But the evil man’s laugh is a wish, that the broken world might be true, that the warp is forever and the stain eternal. His laugh is bitter, expecting the world to soon agree with him, but when the wise laugh they declare the reality God has made.
Incongruities are laughable, be they dragons or pain in our past, the will pass away. To the wicked the Lord responds as we should, with laughter. His great mirth topples their silly babel. God will break them down forever and the righteous shall see and fear and they shall laugh. 3
Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy, Monroe, Louisiana.
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Ch.11. All quotes come from this chapter.
- For further thoughts see my article On Crude Humor
- Psalm 52:1-6
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