Strange Sacrament: Laughter in the Story of God and the Life of Discipleship

It only took two weeks to learn that I had been at a funeral all along. I never acknowledged it myself, probably because there was no afternoon where I dressed in black and ate cold ham sandwiches. But though I hadn’t attended a funeral, I still felt an inky blackness as though I had. My eyebrows were sore from thinking, staring into infinite puzzles. My mind was haggard from all theological dead ends, the ones that shook me to my core. My throat had a lump: I was afraid to say anything meaningful at all. Theology had frozen me, and I felt I no longer knew anything of God at all. Silently, I was absent-minded, presiding over the funeral of my own faith.

If this feels like overblown melodrama, it’s because it is. That’s the point. By the time I was tasked to choose a topic for this paper, I hated theology like a friend experiencing its bitter betrayal. I needed to write this paper, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to write another sentence without my bitterness toward the subject screaming in my ears. I wanted to research and write about the sources that led to my mini-crisis, or at least identify another way to do theology that didn’t make me completely loathe myself. In short, I wanted to know if theology had room for laughter.

Laughter is peculiar. Physiologically, it’s mostly muscle spasms. Biologically, nothing else laughs except humans. Sociologically, it’s heralded to bring people together. Anthropologically, it is a rare universal. But what about theologically? Laughter is a product of humor, humor is a product of comedy, and comedy is story with a resurrection. Although Western culture—with Christianity headlining—is skeptical of laughter’s theological value for legitimate reasons, a correct vision of Christian theology fundamentally assumes a comedy narrative, supplying Christian practice with its own redeemed humor and, yes, reasons for laughter. In a redeemed state, laughter revolutionizes our understanding of discipleship, even serving as a propleptic sacrament [1] pointing to Jesus’ coming kingdom.

I shall offer proper definitions of comedy, humor, and laughter, briefly examining the latter’s physiology and sociology before scanning the theological landscape of laughter, honing in from human culture to Western culture to Christian culture. We will examine why Christians throughout church history have long distrusted laughter. I will offer a defense against these reasons, showing that they are ultimately not sufficient to illegitimize laughter as a key part of Christian discipleship. Thereafter, I will offer a new theology of laughter, drawing heavily on Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach to the Scriptures to posit that the biblical story, properly understood, helps us see that we are in the part of its story that calls for weeping on account of tragedy and laughter as a propleptic sign of Jesus’ coming kingdom, where pain is removed, fear is extinguished, and all incongruities of human experience are made whole.

Definitions: Comedy, Humor, and Laughter

It is crucial that we begin with definitions, lest we start the car and begin the journey without passengers. Nowhere is that clearer than in offering a theology of laughter. It may seem awfully trivial to research and write a theology of laughter. After all, isn’t it just that peculiar thing humans do over dinner parties and after accidentally farting? Part of my argument depends on the opposite being true.

Comedy and tragedy align on three contours of plot: birth, struggle, and death. [2] Now, to get all comedies and tragedies under this umbrella we need to stray from this traditional Aristophanic formulation: after all, not all stories include a literal birth or death. Nevertheless, comedy distinguishes itself from tragedy because it is a form of story that offers resurrection at the end. “To the possibly tragic episodes of birth, struggle, and death comedy adds resurrection and the sense of the infinite, working in man [sic] with no outward signs; therefore, comedy is the only complete and fulfilled mode of action. It offers us a sense of the regain of what we feared we had lost.” [3] So comedy is a catch-all category of story where the character(s) overcomes struggle and achieves a happy and fulfilling ending.

Humor only makes its home in humanity. It shares a home with no other creature in the universe. “Quite bluntly put, seriousness we share with the animals; in laughter we laugh alone. The dog may wag his tail and the chimpanzee grimace and chatter, but only humans have the capacity for humorously playing with anything and everything.” [4] But if humor makes its home among humans, it freely takes up this residence in every culture. At a cultural moment where human universals are called into question, no real dispute exists that humor is an anthropological constant. [5] But no matter how universal, humor is irreversibly relative. The phrase “inside joke”—where one group of people gets the humor and the other group is on the outside of it—is redundant in strictest terms. Humor is always an inside joke, because humor is a culturally relative set of rules by which humans find anything funny. Because of this, humor may stretch itself as wide as a continent or as narrow as a single human being chuckling as they wash dishes.

Laughter is simply an embodied physiological response to a particular moment of humor. It is not difficult to see that laughter is merely a child of humor. It can be derisive or uplifting, crass or sophisticated, harmless or microaggressive: nevertheless, it results because someone has found something humorous. [6] From a physiological perspective, laughter “consists of spasmodic contractions of the large and small zygomatic (facial) muscles and sudden relaxations of the diaphragm accompanied by contractions of the larynx and epiglottis.” [7] Robert Provine, neuroscientist and professor at University of Maryland, says laughter is a physiological demonstration of our social nature. [8] Vicarious social media (television, radio, books) notwithstanding, laughter is “30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations.” [9] Provine argues that while laughter may offer secondary benefits, its primary benefit is social. “Laughter did not evolve to make us feel good or improve our health… Indeed, the presumed health benefits of laughter may be coincidental consequences of its primary goal: bringing people together.” [10]

Hereon, I will use the word ‘laughter’ to generally reference any of these three categories. I admit this is not an obvious assumption. My entire argument hangs on the thread that humor and the laughter it provokes are in a dependent relationship. In other words, we cannot laugh unless we temporarily assume that our story is comedy. To laugh, we temporarily forfeit belief that ours is a tragedy story. [11] [12] For now, it suffices to clarify that I will generally use ‘laughter’ as a catch-all term for the three.

‘We may not laugh, but must weep’: Theologies of Laughter

Although laughter is ubiquitous, humans have often apprehended its religious meaning as negative and degrading. Broadly speaking, Buddhist scholastics wonder aloud if Buddha ever laughed. [13] It seems in conflict with his deep and abiding sense of inner serenity. Indian dramatist Bharata once distinguished between six kinds of laughter: (1) a faint smile (sita), (2) a smile that barely revealed the tips of the teeth (hasita), (3) a broad smile with a modicum of laughter (vihasita), (4) a broader smile with louder laughter (upahasita), (5) a laughter that causes tears (apahasita), and (6) atihasita, a backslapping doubling over in “raucous guffawing.” [14] It is said that Buddha only engaged in sita: after all, the first two forms of laughter “approach the spiritual and sublime. The last two descends into the crassness and vulgarity of the sensual, lowering and degrading the spirit.” [15]

It is particularly within Western tradition, however, that we find such skepticism regarding the religious value of laughter.

Jesuit priest James Martin recalls a story of the famous humorist Groucho Marx and his encounter with a priest. [16] The priest sees Groucho in a hotel lobby and rushes over to see him, thanking him for bringing so much joy and laughter into people’s lives. “”Thank you,” Groucho replied, “for taking so much joy and laughter out of them.”’[17] Unfortunately, this is not just an amusing anecdote but instead a symptom of a cultural illness. By all accounts, the vast majority of church history depicts serious women and men who insist that the one who laughs is remote from God. [18]

St. Benedict, arguably the founder of Western monasticism, forbade laughter. Indeed, he even called it humility to not laugh lightly and suddenly, “justified by a proverb that only the fool bursts out laughing.” [19] Church father Jerome says this world currently has no room for laughter. “’As long as we are in the vale of tears we may not laugh, but must weep.” [20]

John Chyrostom, heralded preacher 4th century preacher, also suggests that laughter is completely inappropriate. “”This world is not a theatre, in which we can laugh; and we are not assembled together in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins… It is not God who gives us the chance to play, but the devil.”” [21]

Scottish Quaker Robert Barclay joins in his defense of Christian faith in 1676. ““It is not lawful to use games, sports, plays, nor among other things comedies among Christians, under the notion of recreations, since they do not agree with Christian silence, gravity and sobriety; for laughing, sporting, gaming, mocking, jesting, vain talking, etc. is not Christian liberty, nor harmless mirth.” [22]

Hyers suggests that missionaries effectively converted some natives out of laughter. “Before the missionaries came the [African] natives were noted for their hearty, full-bodied laughter. But unrestrained laughter seemed “pagan” to the missionaries. After their reeducation in Christian ways, the natives developed a nervous, suppressed, embarrassed laughter known as the “mission giggle.””[23]

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once disciplined a preacher on the charges of heresy, adultery, and—this is true—the man’s tendency to “break a jest, and laugh at it heartily.” [24]

Kuschel suggests the Middle Ages had no theology of laughter and only a theology of tears. [25]

In summation, Hyers notes that the same theologians and moralists who have lots of good to say about serious ethics and sober judgment “have had little good to say about nonsenses and laughter; there are many fine words about the responsibility to work, few about the “responsibility” to play.” [26] Indeed, the entire Western tradition arguably has no clear religious grounding for laughter and humor. [27]

Between ‘False Happiness’ and ‘Caterwauling Mopiness’[28]: An Apologia of Laughter

Why so grim? I suggest there are three primary reasons for the tendency within Western culture (primarily the Christian subculture within it) for the skepticism toward laughter: (1) the divisive potential of laughter, (2) the apparent seriousness of the Bible, and (3) the inappropriateness of laughter amid the tragic nature of human experience. Before addressing these claims directly, I wish to say two things to clarify the aim of this section.

For one, I am transitioning from a descriptive section—laying out my thesis and exploring perspectives on laughter—into a prescriptive section, where I am establishing a theological argument: therefore, I argue from a Christian vision of reality. Although I believe am exploring truths that bear on the public sphere, I am doing so with a fundamental assumption that Jesus is Lord over the public sphere and that all things flourish under an outworking of that lordship. I will use phrases like ‘life of discipleship’ and ‘biblical story’ for these reasons.

Second, my essential argument is that a correct vision of Christian theology supplies Christian practice with a redeemed humor and reasons for laughter, indeed that a redeemed laughter revolutionizes our understanding of discipleship and can even be a sign of Jesus’ coming kingdom. In this section, however, I am only addressing negative claims against this thesis. In other words, I am not trying to flip them into a positive argument for laughter in the life of discipleship; I am only proving they aren’t enough to dismantle it completely.

Claim 1: ‘Laughter tears people down.’

Caitlin Flanagan recently explored the evolving attitude among colleges and the comedians they bring to campus. [29] Comedians like Chuck Nice, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock are avoiding gigs on college campuses. Flanagan attends a gathering of college representatives in Minneapolis seeking to book comedians to come to their campus to find out why. She finds that colleges are walking a fine line between finding popular comedians to make theirs an attractive place for students to attend while trying to book acts that will not offend their varying ideologies:

As I listened to the [representatives] hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny—genuinely funny—and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs included, but were in no way limited to, the following: women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially “marginalized” community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected. [30]

Making jokes is an undeniably risky thing in our current cultural moment. With every laugh, there seems to a “grimace of laughter.” [31] Flanagan has underscored that, for better or worse, we are in a cultural moment where guards are up, being offended is common, and laughing risks offending someone or at least supporting something offensive. The argument may be summarized in syllogism: (1) if we ought to respect human persons and their diverse yet inherent value, then one ought not make jokes, (2) we ought to respect human persons and their diverse yet inherent value, (3) therefore, one ought not make jokes.

The third is a natural conclusion if the first and second are true. Few would seriously question the second point. But does it follow that respect for the inherent and diverse value of a human person means we ought not make jokes? We have defined humor as the culturally relative set of rules by which humans find anything funny. Surely, some of these implicit rules are divisive by their means and ends: they point things out for the sole purpose of shredding a person’s dignity. But my aim is not to prove that such form of humor doesn’t exist, but that another form of humor that does not necessarily disrespect persons by both its means and ends.

Part of humor involves the incongruities of human experience, “exposing them, softening them, and hopefully in some measure preventing them.” [32] While I certainly admit that it may be destructive to undermine a person’s ideology, I would also admit that not all my ideologies are congruent. Humor is understandably sensitive because it involves my inconsistences. It involves, metaphorically, the Big Macs I am devouring while lamenting my need to lose weight. Clearly, these things are incongruous: if I need to lose weight, why am I digging myself a calorie-hole out of which few metabolisms could climb? The example shows that not all humor needs to be a shameful expose in the service of oppressive men and women. For example, Jesuit priest James Martin suggests three guardrails for humor:

Good humor is true (it reveals a truth); it is helpful (it helps to increase understanding, to lighten a difficult situation, to self-deprecate); it is kind (it is neither harmful nor self-destructive). Those three gates are a good thing to keep in mind whenever we open our mouths for a supposedly funny remark.[33]

Clearly, the claim demonstrates the need not to throw out laughter altogether, but to interrogate the cultural rules by which we laugh. The plea is not to throw out humor, but to discover a humor in the way of Jesus.

Claim 2: ‘The Bible is a serious book with little to no laughter.’

The Bible makes few explicit references to laughter. On the occasion it references laughter, it seems that God is laughing at our pretension rather than laughing with us in joy. Hyers sums up the general conclusion. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the God of Jesus and Paul—is also imagined to be totally humorless: infinite in gravity and without interest in children.” [34]

The argument again may be tightly summarized in syllogism: (1) if the Bible contains little to no humor, then the Christians who identify it as their sacred text must also live with little to no humor, (2) the Bible contains little to no humor, (3) therefore, Christians must also live with little to no humor. While I might certainly establish a legitimate case against the first point—the Bible says nothing about showering, yet we do it anyway with few moral crises—I am mainly concerned with the second assertion. Surely, we read the Bible and don’t hear many jokes. We might not hear any. But what does that really mean? I examine three Bible scenes: (1) Adam and Eve, (2) Abraham and Sarah, and (3) the life of Jesus.

By virtue of placement, the creation story of Genesis 1-2 is often the modern reader’s first experience with the Bible. God speaks creation into existence out of nothing in six successive days before resting on the seventh day. On the sixth day, God creates humankind. In Genesis 2, the storyteller hones their cinematic eye to the sixth day. God creates Adam to reflect God’s image, charging him to name the animals and breathes into him a distinct ability to represent who God is. God sees Adam before sin and still sees something not good. God creates Eve, and together the two receive the privilege of imaging God to the world in a way that Adam could not have done himself.

That we bring our preconceived notions about God and reality to the biblical to the text is a fundamental assumption of hermeneutics. Perhaps nowhere is that so evident as the story of creation, where unchecked assumptions lead us to places the authors never wanted us to go. And although that is an assumption off which we address ‘sober’ and ‘serious’ questions, I argue that our assumptions here block us from imagining the creation account as replete with wonder, relief, humor, and maybe even laughter. Hyers brilliantly identifies nine potential places of humor in the Adam and Eve story: (1) laughter of pleasant surprise as Adam sees Eve, (2) laughter of joy and delight, (3) laughter of discovery and recognition, (4) laughter over a tension released and a problem resolved, (5) laughter of incongruity in Adam seeing a feminine version of himself, (6) laughter of incredulity, (7) laughter of amazement and wonder (‘Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh’[35]), (8) laughter over happy absurdity of sexual differentiation and identity, (9) laughter over tension-in-unity regarding the relationship between male and female. [36]

I will admit that upon first reading Hyers, I did not think all of these were exactly reasons for laughter. In fact, I felt crippled with anxiety. I became nervous for Adam! How could he possibly resolve this male-female tension? How would he then embark on this journey of oneness intended to reflect the Creator’s image? These fears reflect faulty assumptions I bring to the biblical text, namely that the male-female differentiation was a fearful obligation. It might well be a joyful possibility. To fear, we operate under a certain set of assumptions about what endangers the quality or even reality of our existence; to laugh, we temporarily rebel against these fears. “[Laughter] allows at least temporary victories over fear, including the fear of death.” [37] In other words, laughter and fear cannot coexist in the same moment. That I preconsciously imagine the creation story to be riddled with frigid fear and uncertainty says more about me than the storyteller whose logic indicates the opposite.

Abraham and Sarah’s story represents one of the few times that God endorses laughter, albeit in a bizarre way. [38] Abraham notices three men standing outside in the hottest part of the day and offers hospitality to them. While a servant is preparing food, one of them declares that he will visit a year later and Sarah will have bore a son. Sarah is apparently eavesdropping on the conversation, and laughs to herself. They are both way too old to have a son, she thinks. God then asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, says nothing is too hard for God, and then reaffirms the promise of a son. Sarah denies that she laughed. A year later, Sarah gives birth to a son, and they name him Isaac, or laughter. Sarah reflects that God has brought her laughter, and all who hear will laugh with her.

Frederick Buechner, reflecting on this story, says it reflects something of the biblical gospel: God’s promise comes to us as a joke because it is completely unforeseeable:

Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all? Heard as anything else, the Gospel is the church’s thing, the preacher’s thing, the lecturer’s thing. Heard as a joke-- high and unbidden and ringing with laughter-- it can only be God’s thing. [39]

Sarah receives God’s promise as a joke, not because she could care less about living her life under those promises, but because while the tragic is inevitable, the comic is unforeseeable. [40] And if part of humor involves the wildly unexpected, then the logic of the gospel—namely, that it comes as an answer to brokenness that nobody saw coming—is comic by nature. We will explore this notion later, but it suffices to say that Abraham and Sarah’s story reveals the heart of a comedy story.

Perhaps most significantly, Jesus’ life is frequently assumed to be void of humor and laughter. To be clear, there are no explicit references to Jesus laughing in the four gospels. On its own, this is a faulty argument to suggest it never happened: there are also no explicit references that Jesus ever groomed or washed himself, but we are not prepared to say that he never did because it’s absent from the four gospels.

Additionally, it is important to remember that humor is culturally relative, and Jesus was an actual person embedded within an actual culture with its own unique set of rules by which people found things to be funny. “Humorous expressions and the contexts that make them humorous are the most difficult to convey from one language to another.” [41] In other words, Jesus might be telling plenty of jokes, but we read them without punchlines, or even as serious and heavy-handed sayings with applications as opaque as the sayings themselves. [42]

On an abstract level, Henri Cormier offers five points about Jesus’ humor: (1) Jesus enjoys the primacy of humor because he is psychologist par excellence, (2) Jesus showed a sense of humor in dealing with his disciples, (3) Jesus showed a sense of humor in dealing with the crowds that followed him, (4) Jesus exhibits humor the very end because he never changes, and (5) Jesus had a sense of humor because he had a sense of the absolute and relative. [43] For brevity’s sake, I highlight the last: Jesus was funny because he had a keen vision on what was absolute and what was relative. This vision is clear in Jesus’ seven woes to the Pharisees. [44] Because Jesus knew the absolute value of tending to the interior human condition, he makes fun of those who tend the relatively meaningless exterior appearance. Because Jesus knows the absolute value of justice, mercy, and faith, he compares the nit-picking Pharisees to people who strain their water for gnats but end up swallowing camels. Jesus freely uses humor, irony, and satire to lovingly critique those who have made relative things into absolute things, missing out on the absolute in the process. [45]

On a textual level, Trueblood suggests thirty humorous passages from the synoptic gospels. [46] He suggests that three of Jesus’ parables are humorous at their core: namely, the new wineskins, [47] the unjust steward, [48] and the talents. [49] In Luke 22:24-27, the disciples are going back and forth about who would end up the greatest. Jesus hears them debating and turns the argument on its head, saying that the Kingdom of God involves a radical shift in what constitutes greatness, referencing Gentiles who lord their authority over people as “benefactors.” [50] Trueblood argues that instead of using other accessible words for rulers, he employs the word best translated as “benefactors” in jest:

We cannot doubt that this revolutionary doctrine… was made more understandable by the satire on the sort of the name [Benefactors] which a dictator likes to assume… Of course, the man who is in love with power, and who is clever enough to make the people idolize him, must always try to appear as one who has nothing but the people’s interest at heart, but Christ knew better and, by His humor, may have been able to make the dull Apostles see a little way into the realm of pretense which is always involved in the love of prestige and power. [51]

Cormier suggests that our hesitations as Christians to speak of the humor of Jesus has less to do with his unceasing seriousness and more to do with our far-reaching awareness of his divinity “that we are almost inclined to deny the reality of his human nature.” [52]

Theologian Cheryl Taylor points out that it’s unfair to assess a theme’s theological significance purely because of how frequently or infrequently it is mentioned. [53] She adds that while it may be unfair to say that humor is an overarching plotline of the Bible, “it is more theologically significant than scholars have usually allowed.” [54]

Claim 3: ‘Life is too tragic to laugh.’

It would be unfair to discuss the perceived absence of scriptural humor to not acknowledge the undeniable presence of weeping and tragedy that are in the Bible. The entire book of Lamentations is devoted to weeping over the tragic experience of God’s people. A verse in James even seems to suggest that we should turn our laughter into mourning and our joy into gloom. [55] Tough crowd, says the comedian in all of us, stretching our neck collars.

The argument would be summarized something like this: (1) if human experience is replete with tragedy, then there is no reason to laugh, (2) the human experience is replete with tragedy, and (3) therefore, there is no reason to laugh. Again, I have no interest in arguing the second point: tragedy is an anthropological constant, a fancy way of saying that a human being is born into a broken world to live with their own unique brand of brokenness. To find tragedy, we do not even require a Sunday subscription, because our lives are newswires bespeaking how tragic it is to be human.

Midway through research, I found out that my parents would be getting divorced. Mine feels like a punchy existence, a series of abrupt uppercuts to my jaw rounded out by splitting jabs to my gut. Life has a vast repertoire for tragedy, and it does not seem to mind dealing me an existential struggle in the same moment as it sucker punches me with the news of a dying relationship. But while I do not negate the tragic dimension of my experience, I submit that to be human, in part, is to suffer tragedy. Our question is not if our lives are a story: the crucial question is what genre our story is. [56]

‘Risus Paschalis’: Toward a New Theology of Laughter

Stories in the Aristophanic comedy genre are just tragedy with one plot shift at the end. [57] Tragedy is birth-struggle-death. The Bible has hyperbolic amounts of space for the tragic dimension of human experience. Still, the biblical story is not a tragedy, but a comedy. To the birth-struggle-death that seemingly summarizes human experience, it adds the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. With Jesus’ resurrection, “we now live in the eschatological era, the age in which the kingdom of God breaks forth.” [58]

Our actions are living out scripts of the metanarrative we affirm, either consciously or subconsciously. [59] Therefore, it is the central work of discipleship to attend to what the story of God is [60] and continue working out this drama into our ordinary lived experience. Jesus has conquered sin and death; by his resurrection he has established a new reign, where the tragic fracture of all relationships are undergoing an unforeseeable and ultimately comedic restoration.

But what could this ever have to do with laughter? In some ways, everything. Peter Berger suggests that the experience of the comic is a world without pain. [61] A classic example is the clown “who is beaten, knocked down, trampled upon, and generally tormented. Yet the assumption is that he does not really feel the pain… as soon as the assumption of painlessness is left behind, the comedy turns into tragedy… Generally, any comedy turns into tragedy as soon as real suffering, real pain is allowed to enter it.” [62]

Humor—and subsequently laughter—is in a dependent relationship with Aristophanic comedy because humor requires us to suspend our assumptions about a world that is filled with pain and enter into another world, “a world in which the limitations of the human condition are miraculously overcome.” [63]

To laugh, we enter another reality. It is a story where brokenness is a word, but resurrection is the final word. It is a world without hurt, pain, or sorrow. It is a world where tears are wiped away. It is a world where the multifaceted tragedy of human experience is incredulously transposed into an equally multifaceted symphony of joy and wholeness, where there is enough restorative power to afford levity. Laughter, then, is a sacrament begging for a comedic metanarrative to justify it, “an adumbration of a world beyond this world.” [64] When laughter is framed as eschatological, it becomes “promising, even proleptic. For if the verbal abuse of Jesus’ enemies at the foot of the cross surely included cruel and mocking laughter, may we not suggest an Easter laughter - risus paschalis – that rings out with resurrection joy?” [65] Kuschel adds: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?[66] What is that if not Easter jubilation, Easter laughter?” [67]

But there is tension. We still experience tragedy. We still weep. We laugh, but at best it’s a momentary echo of a world for which we long but it painfully out of our grasp. Yet in the context of a life of discipleship, it becomes a sacrament. I quote a brilliant Berger at length:

In Christian terms this means that the comic is one manifestation of a sacramental universe that… contains visible signs of invisible grace… the experience of the comic does not miraculously removes suffering and evil in this world, nor does it provide a self-evident that God is active in the world and intends to redeem it. However, perceived in faith, the comic becomes a great consolation and witness to the redemption that is yet to come. [68]

‘An act of celebrating existence’: Laughter in Christian Praxis

Since we are talking about something so earthy and common as laughter, it’s important to spend a significant portion discussing its theological praxis. Before offering six preliminary comments on translating from theory to practice, let me say something intuitive and obvious: laughter is somewhat out of our control. [69] Scientists highlight that just as laughter is a contagion that can be excessively difficult to stop at certain points, it is also not strictly something we can force. [70] These six comments are to be applied in the spirit of the dramatic performance they intend to cultivate: it is an imprecise art, not an empirical science.

First, our current place in God’s drama bids us to both weep and laugh. If we cannot find some expression of both in the community of Jesus, we distort the kingdom of God that has both joyfully arrived and yet painfully awaits birth. When we laugh, we may engage a visible sign to an invisible kingdom that will be without pain or tragedy. But we must also mourn, yearning for the kingdom that currently comes in fits and starts. If we laugh but do not weep, it is likely we have tasted a falsified version of Christian joy. But if we weep but do not laugh, we do not fully see “the dynamic tension that arises between two poles—doubt in the hope of redemption and the realization that the hope and promise hold after all.” [71] Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian who barely needs an introduction, understood that “true humor “presupposes rather than excludes the knowledge of suffering” (Ethics, 511). As the child of suffering, humor takes suffering seriously but refuses to give it the last word.” [72]

Second, the potential for laughter to take on a sacramental view does not negate the clarion call to agape love. Humor in the hands of the self-absorbed quickly devolves into mockery, deriding others to validate themselves. Like anything for the Christian, it is made holy when it’s held by agape love, a proactive and others-centered commitment to the good of persons.

Third, a humor redeemed and reclaimed by Christ naturally means the joke is on us. As mentioned earlier, humor thrives on incongruity, or a lack of harmony between things. I eat Big Macs while talking about my desperate longing to lose weight. Or personally, I am confident with giving presentations but lay awake at night fearing I’ll be asked to read something aloud. Niebuhr points out that our response as Christians to these incongruities is faith directed away from ourselves. [73] When humor meets Christ, the subject of the joke is most often us. [74] In moments of failure or incongruity, we are given the unique opportunity to laugh, because despite the news that we are “at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob… we are [also] loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.” [75]

Fourth, laughter can actually free us to be more present with our communities. “A sense of humor about ourselves can liberate us from narcissism and depression and self-pity and other evils, giving us a healthy objectivity about ourselves. This in turn makes us better companions.” [76] Laughing can be an effect of self-forgetfulness, and this self-forgetfulness helps us be persons-in-community.

Fifth, if the biblical story to which Christian theologian so fastidiously attend is a true story—and a comedy at that—theology itself is a fascinating habitat for us to cultivate laughter. Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and professor at Duke University, suggests that theology ought to be funny. [77] A theologian finding something funny “depends first and foremost on a joyful recognition that God is God and we are not. The joke is on us.”[78] If theology fills us with anxiety and fear of getting it wrong, it says more about us then theology. For one, if the biblical story headlines a God who reveals God’s self as a gift of grace, then our theologizing is no longer interacting primarily with an objective text, but a subjective Person. [79] Theology involves rigorous exercise of the mind and thoughtful methods, surely, but it is also an extension of a transformative relationship. And two, if God’s story is unforeseen and comedic, then of course we are wrong. And that’s OK.

Sixth, we experience the sacramental nature of laughter by pausing and remembering. Like any sacrament, laughter is a visible symbol of an invisible grace. A sacrament communicates meaning, and to apprehend meaning requires a conscious choice. In other words, the operative verb for sacrament is ultimately “remember.” [80] When we are about to partake in the Lord’s Supper, its sacramental nature bids us to pause and remember that we are not just gobbling bread and wine, [81] but are experiencing a visible sign of Christ’s broken body and shed blood. If laughter is really a sacrament, then we do well to apply the logic. After we laugh, what would it mean for us to take a deep breath, savor its grace, and thank God for the coming age when the tides of God’s unforeseeable, logic-defying, and superabundantly gracious reign overturn the tragedies of our experience? The more our eyebrows furrow and our minds complicate, the farther we are from the grace God seeks to communicate through it. And as we enjoy the strange sacrament of laughter for its proleptic vision of God’s coming kingdom, we are empowered to incarnate Christ, acting out God’s comedic drama of restoration to a world watching with buttery popcorn in hand.

[1] The question arises: sign or sacrament? I have chosen the word sacrament. The two words share close meanings as visible symbols pointing to invisible realities. I chose sacrament because, as I will argue, laughter is a commonplace occurrence (like bread and wine) that receives special meaning under the biblical story.

[2] Via, Dan O. Kerygma and Comedy in the New Testament. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975, 39-66

[3] Ibid, 46

[4] Hyers, Conrad. And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1987, 17

[5] Berger, Peter. Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1997, x

[6] The only exception is tickling, which I consider to be an outlier.

[7] Ibid, 45

[8] Provine, Robert. "The Science of Laughter." Psychology Today, November 2000.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Berger, Redeeming Laughter, 210

[12] Hyers, And God Created Laughter, 5

[13] Ibid, 16-17

[14] Ibid, 17

[15] ibid, 17

[16] Martin, James. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011, 144

[17] Ibid, 144

[18] Kuschel, Karl-Josef. Laughter: A Theological Essay. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1994, 46-47

[19] Ibid, 44

[20] Ibid, 45

[21] The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith: A Celebration of Life and Laughter. New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 1981, 15

[22] Hyers, And God Created Laughter, 15

[23] Ibid, 17

[24] Fabricus, Kim. "Ten propositions on faith and laughter." Faith and Theology. July 18, 2007. (accessed November 2015).

[25] Kuschel, Laughter, 45-47

[26] Hyers, The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith, 15

[27] Ibid, 12

[28] Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth, 175

[29] Flanagan, Caitlin. "That's Not Funny! ." The Atlantic. September 2015. (accessed November 2015).

[30] Ibid

[31] Golozubov, Alexander. "Theology of Laughter and Franciscan Perspective." Academia, 2014: 1-17, 2

[32] Hyers, The Comic Vision and Christian Faith, 10

[33] Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth,

[34] Hyers, And God Created Laughter, 4

[35] Gen. 2:23

[36] Hyers, The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith, 12

[37] Berger, Redeeming Laughter, 83

[38] Gen. 18:1-15; 21:1-7

[39] Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977, 68

[40] Ibid, 57

[41] Hyers, And God Created Laughter, 3

[42] Trueblood, Elton. The Humor of Christ. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964, 98-110

[43] Cormier, Henri. The Humor of Jesus. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1977, x

[44] Matt. 23:13-26

[45] Hyers, And God Created Laughter, 3

[46] Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 127

[47] Matt. 9:17

[48] Lk. 16:1-13

[49] Matt. 25:14-30

[50] Lk. 22:25

[51] Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 88

[52] Cormier, The Humor of Jesus, x

[53] Taylor, Cheryl. "A Theology of Humor." (accessed December 2015).

[54] Ibid

[55] Jam. 4:9

[56] Bartholomew, Craig G., and Michael W. Goheen. The Drama of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004, 19

[57] Via, Kerygma and Comedy, 39-66

[58] Patella, Michael. "And God Created Laughter: The Eighth Day." Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 2 (2015): 156-168.

[59] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 16

[60] Sometimes, it is even more important to attend to what it isn’t but we believe it is because of our cultural heritage.

[61] Berger, Redeeming Laughter, 210

[62] Ibid, 210

[63] Ibid, x

[64] Ibid, 210

[65] Fabricus, Ten Propositions on Faith and Laughter

[66] 1 Cor. 15:54

[67] Kuschel, Laughter: A Theological Essay, 84

[68] Berger, Redeeming Laughter, 214-215

[69] Scott, Sophie. "Only when I laugh: the science of laughter." The Guardian. July 6, 2015. (accessed November 2015).

[70] Exception: tickling, which falls outside our definition of laughter, an embodied response to humor.

[71] Patella, And God Created Laughter: The Eighth Day, 162

[72] Migliore, Daniel L. "Karl Barth: Theologian With a Sense of Humor." The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 1986: 276-279, 277

[73] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Discerning the Signs of the Times - Sermons for Today and Tomorrow. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946, 3

[74] Buechner, Telling the Truth, 50

[75] Ibid, 7

[76] Roberts, Robert. "Sense of Humor as a Christian Virtue." Faith and Philosophy 7, no. 2 (April 1990): 177-192, 177

[77] Hauerwas, Stanley. "Don't Laugh, but I Think Theology Should Be Funny." October `, 2015. (accessed November 2015).

[78] Ibid

[79] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989, 52-66

[80] Lk. 22:19

[81] Or grape juice.

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