"Jesus, for one, was witty, unpredictable, fully alive, and a person who delighted in, celebrated with, and was open to surprise . . . It is safe to say that divorcing humor from religion is potentially destructive of true religion. Even when the separation is done with the best of motives, or in ignorance, the results are disastrous because we rob ourselves of the lightness and freedom necessary to notice and then to adore God."G. K. Chesterton (1958)
A curious custom in the Greek Orthodox tradition gathers believers on Easter Monday for the purpose of trading jokes. Since the most extravagant "joke" of all took place on Easter Sunday -- the victory against all odds, of Jesus over death -- the community of the faithful enters in the spirit of the season by sharing stories with unexpected endings, surprise flourishes, and a sense of humor. A similar practice occurs among the Slavs, who recognize in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth a joy that it is Jesus who has the last laugh.
The response of the Greeks and the Slavs seems to be most appropriate, and it is disappointing that these practices strike our contemporary mindsets as a little odd. Most mainline Christian congregations, after all, do not celebrate Easter quite this way.
Something has gone wrong with our perception of the alliance between being religious and having a sense of humor. Three elements apparently have contributed to a dimming of the connection between these two areas and have solidified into bona fide obstacles to the critical and desperately needed exercise of humor. Pervasive and formidable, each of these obstacles deserves a word of explanation.
The problem begins with persons who perceive humor as unworthy of the majesty of God. For some, humor is undignified, frivolous, and unbecoming of the grand sphere of the divine, which either uneasily accommodates the informality of humor or rejects it outright as unacceptable.
The second obstacle to the exercise of humor is that laughter is not easy to come by in circles where people speak for God and not to God. Prime culprits are those in authority, like parents and clergy and theologians, who too often speak with absolute confidence concerning what God wants, when God will reward, whom God loves, how God will punish, what God thinks, and how God feels.
The Jewish experience of God is frequently (and mercifully) of a different sort. A familiarity with God uncommon in mainline Christian circles is widely apparent in Judaism, along with the acceptance of human emotions before the Deity. Jews have a long history of weeping, moaning, and raging, as well as rejoicing before Yahweh, while the liturgical behavior of Christians seems by comparison to be considerably more polite restrained. The conversation of the Jew with God was precisely that: a conversation with a give-and-take rarely found, if not entirely unheard of, in the Christian way of relating to the Creator.
For example, there is the story of the atheist grandmother, claiming Jewish cultural (if not religious) roots, who took her beloved five-year-old grandson to the beach. Decked out in his sun suit and hat, and equipped with his pail and shovel, the little boy played happily near the water, building castles and moats. When the grandmother dozed, the grandson was suddenly caught in an undertow and was soon nowhere in sight. The frantic grandmother called for help, but there was no one else on the beach. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she fell to the ground, raised her arms to heaven and prayed, "God, if you exist, if you are there, please save my grandson. I promise I'll make it up to you. I'll join the Hadassah; I'll volunteer at the hospital; I'll do whatever makes you happy." And suddenly a huge wave tossed the grandson on the beach at her feet. The grandmother bent over to hear his heart beating, she noticed color in his cheeks, his eyes opening, but she appeared upset. Bringing herself to full height and with hands on her hips, she wagged her finger at the sky: "He had a hat, you know!"
Humor is possible in this situation only because the grandmother speaks to and not for God. God is someone who can be berated and cajoled because God is very much part of the family.
Still, a third obstacle that explains the flabby condition of many un-humorous Christians is the pervasive inability to uncover humor in the events recorded in Holy Scripture, as the Greeks and Slavs did, especially in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Years of conditioning have rendered the Scriptures as predictable and innocuous stories in which serious people speak in a language filled with moralisms and legalisms, lacking fun and surprise. The dangerous consequence of reading the Bible this way is that the Creator God and, by extension Jesus Christ, become humorless beings incapable of enjoying a joke. And so de we as their disciples.
Fortunately for all us, a new lens is being fitted onto biblical interpretation that highlights a different way to look at salvation history. Many distinguished biblical scholars are finding humor as a key to unlock the meaning of the holy writings.
There are so many blessings associated with humor that it is hard to imagine a Christian living without this gift. Perhaps that is the point. Anyone who calls himself or herself "Christian" and is without a sense of humor may well be taking the name in vain.
Laughter is associated with the will to live, that crucial attitude that helps people survive all kinds of misfortunes. The divine quality of humor is finally peeking its fragile head through centuries of humorless Christianity.