Catalyst, comedy, and critics

Did you hear the one about the preacher who told a joke?

It must be a slow news week. Recently, I flew to the great nation of Texas to preach at a Catalyst event. I saw a rock-climbing wall, a dude break-dancing (I did not know that was still a thing, so that was good to learn), and apparently I got in trouble for making a burger out of a sacred cow.

My talk was about how a leader must find their identity in Christ and not in what they have or what they do. Admittedly, I simply used the big idea from my latest book, Who Do You Think You Are? (shameless book plug now coming from self-promoting gigachurch pastor). As is usually the case, about half the sermon was made up on the spot, including the comedy.

j/k

I told some jokes. People knew they were jokes, as the laughter was loud enough to hear with the ears God specially designed in part for listening to jokes. I told jokes about appearance, including guys in skinny jeans and how I wished I could be like the guys who could button the top button on their shirt.

I also told some jokes about how vehicles are now one of the ways we communicate our identity and value to others. If I remember correctly (I’m getting old and my memory is filled with more important things, like pizza delivery phone numbers and the names of ’80s punk bands), this segment included jokes about hipsters who ride scooters, truck dudes, minivans driven by guys who feel like a mini-man (notice the clever combination), and SUVs driven by people who do not care about the environment.

For the record

According to people who, unlike me, go on the Internet, some did not understand I was telling jokes and people were laughing.

For the record, I really like this planet. God did a good job making this planet. We should take good care of this planet until he comes back to make a new earth, like the Bible says he will.

So at the Driscoll house we recycle a lot; we organize our lives to drive very, very few miles in a vehicle; we buy local organic produce; and we do other things that would make a hippie happy (notice yet again the clever combination). To those who misunderstood the context, I am sorry if you were troubled. To those who understood context and still ranted, I am sorry that you do not have a sense of humor.

Humor is a serious thing

And, while I have your attention, I figure I may as well teach a bit on comedy. Humor is a very serious thing. It’s a part of the Bible that is often overlooked, in large part because theologians are not the life of any party.

I actually wrote an entire chapter about humor in my book, Religion Saves (yes, another shameless book plug). Here’s a section from that book. You get what you pay for, and this is free . . .


The guys with more degrees than Fahrenheit tell us that the Bible does have the occasional funny. They say:

The Bible is predominantly a serious rather than a funny book. Yet it would distort the Bible to suppress the humor that is present. Arranged on a continuum that ranges from the least intellectual (slapstick comedy) to the most intellectual (irony and wordplay), we can say that the humor of the Bible tends toward the subtle. [1]

They go on to say that that the Bible is in fact arranged as a comedy:

The overall plot of the Bible is a U-shaped comic plot. The action begins with a perfect world inhabited by perfect people. It descends into the misery of fallen history and ends with a new world of total happiness and the conquest of evil. The book of Revelation is the story of the happy ending par excellence, as a conquering hero defeats evil, marries a bride and lives happily ever after in a palace glittering with jewels. [2]

Comedy and related themes run throughout the Bible. The word “joy” and its derivatives appear roughly 200 times in our English Bible. The word “laugh” and its derivatives appear roughly 40 times.

Sadly, too many coats of varnish have been painted over what is otherwise a divinely inspired, earthy book that honestly records the foibles and follies of sinners like us by furrowed-brow, pointy-fingered religious types who forget Ecclesiastes 3:4, which says that there is “a time to laugh.” Consequently, very little has been written on the subject of biblical humor, with few exceptions, such as A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking by Douglas Wilson (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) and The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

However, the Bible includes humor of various kinds, from situational comedy to satire, sarcasm, and irony. Entire books of the Bible such as Amos are comedic satire. [3] The names of people in the Bible are also worthy of the occasional chuckle, unless of course you named one of your kids by picking a cool name from the concordance without finding out what it meant, such as trouble (Achan), causes pain (Agrippa), destroyer (Balak), baldy (Careah and Kareah), a devil (Chesed), dying (Chilion), fat cow (Eglon), an ass (Emmor and Hamor), hairy (Esau), puny (Gatam and Mordecai), flat nose (Harumaph), wild ass (Irad), contentious (Jareb and Midian), sickly (Mahli and Mahlon), fool (Nabal), snorer (Naharis), serpent (Nahash), long neck (Og), dung (Parshandatha), enemy (Sanballat), and laughter (Isaac). [4]

As Douglas Wilson summarized in regards to cutting prophetic humor, “The prophet Jeremiah attacked idolaters, the Lord Jesus attacked self-righteous Pharisees, and apostle Paul attacked Judaizers, Ireneus attacked Gnostics, and Luther attacked the papists.” [5]

In the closing line of his classic book Orthodoxy , G.K. Chesterton speaks of Jesus’ lack of humor: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.” [6] According to Chesterton, Jesus was probably not funny.

But Jesus was funny. This fact is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry.

Our inability to see Jesus as funny is not rooted in the pages of Scripture, but rather in the way Jesus has been portrayed in many popular films. In 1927 the legendary director and devout Christian Cecil B. DeMille produced the life of Jesus in the movie King of Kings . He was very careful to portray Jesus as very pious with little humanity; he even had a glowing aura around him, which made him appear like something of an icon on the screen. He was without humor and appeared a very serious holy man.

The Library of Congress holds more books about Jesus (17,000) than about any other historical figure, roughly twice as many as Shakespeare, the runner-up. [7] One University of Chicago scholar has estimated that more has been written about Jesus in the last 20 years than in the previous 19 centuries combined. [8] Yet I have found only one book that examined Jesus’ humor, Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ, published in 1964.

Trueblood says:

There are numerous passages . . . which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked. . . . Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding. [9]

Trueblood goes on to say:

Christ laughed, and . . . he expected others to laugh. . . . A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of his obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter. [10]

Other scholars say, “If there is a single person within the pages of the Bible that we can consider to be a humorist, it is without a doubt Jesus. . . . Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony, and satire, often with an element of humor intermixed.” [11] In the appendix of The Humor of Christ, Trueblood lists 30 humorous passages of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels alone (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). [12]

Jesus said that Christians who don’t evangelize are as helpful as a house fire: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?” Perhaps his most hilarious funny is Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” In trying to figure out what Jesus was talking about, more than a few Bible commentators have done origami to that section of Scripture. Possibly the most common answer is that there was some hole in some wall in some town that a camel could pass through only by laying on its gut and shimmying through like a Marine crawling in boot camp training and some people called that place the eye of the needle.

Or, Jesus was telling a joke and the guys in suits missed the punch line.

Scholars in the area of humor say, “The most characteristic form of Jesus’ humor was the preposterous exaggeration.” [13] The whole idea of a camel being threaded through a needle like a line of thread was an ancient funny where he exaggerated to make a point. Likewise, the guy who says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse does not intend to masticate an entire horse, hooves, tail, and all.

Another example of Jesus using preposterous exaggeration is found in Matthew 7:3, which says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” This Hebrew funny probably got the most laughs on the job site with the framing crew who knew the difference between a two-by-four and a speck of sawdust that blows off a table saw.

Jesus’ most stinging humor, however, was reserved for the religious types, especially the Pharisees. Jesus called them a bag of snakes, and said that their moms had shagged the devil, their father . While those who suffered under their judgmentalism likely had more than a few good laughs when Jesus lampooned them, they of course did not think it was funny because apart from repentance, sinners are no fun at all.

Despite the fact that the Pharisees were a devoutly religious group like many cults and religions in our day, Jesus actually made fun of how they did religion. While it will likely shock our sensibilities, which have been refined by postmodern pluralism, Jesus made fun of how they prayed, saying, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” He also made fun of how they fasted: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Jesus made fun of how they tithed, declaring, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Finally, Jesus made fun of how they led people and made fun of their followers: “They are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” To summarize, Jesus made fun of decent Republican, church-going, tax-paying heterosexual guys for praying wrong, sucking in their faces when they fasted as if they were supermodels, tithing out of their spice racks, and being blind tour guides to hell.

The Pharisees failed to see that they were a joke (and often neither do their religious offspring or self-righteous folks in general). Rather than repenting, they fought back to defend themselves against Jesus’ stinging comedic barbs. In one ironic encounter, they neglect the fact that he is God who has come into their midst and rather than humbly learning from him, they take the opportunity to look down their noses at Jesus for not washing his hands before dinner like Miss Manners requires. Good thing, because the only thing worse than going to hell is going there with unwashed hands.

Lastly, in Matthew 15:10–14 we read,

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (emphasis added)

When the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended . . . ?” how did Jesus respond? Knowing their hardened, stubborn, rebellious, religious hearts of unrepentance, Jesus was not ready to schedule a meeting, apologize profusely, blog about his error, or spend the next decade listening to Elton John records alone in the dark weeping bitterly because he could not shake the horror of hurting someone’s feelings.

In the end, Jesus was murdered. This was because he offended a lot of people. Many of them were most offended because they were the butt of his jokes. However, as Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Since we are all goofy sinners whose self-righteousness is a joke, the only way to not be offended by Jesus and to laugh at ourselves is to live a life of continual repentance.

We should take Jesus very seriously, and ourselves not so seriously. In this way, humor is very serious business.


Footnotes

[1] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), s.v. “Humor,” 407.

[2] Ibid., s.v. “Comedy as Plot Motif,” 160–161.

[3] Ibid., s.v. “Satire,” 762.

[4] Lockyer, Herbert. All the Men of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958).

[5] Wilson, Douglas. A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 13.

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 160.

[7] Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), 11.

[8] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 20.

[9] Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 10.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] Ryken, et al, s.v. “Humor—Jesus as Humorist,” 410.

[12] Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 127.

[13] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), s.v. “Humor—Jesus as Humorist,” 410.