Is It Biblical to Be Funny?
- 2009 20 Aug
QUESTION 8: HUMOR Why do you make jokes in sermons about Mormon missionaries, homosexuals, trench coat wearers, single men, vegans, and emo kids, and then expect these groups to come to know God through those sermons?
I am on a mission to both put people in heaven and put the “fun” back in “fundamentalism.” I believe Christianity should be more fun than a trip to the dentist and that evangelicalism needs a better patron saint than Ned Flanders of The Simpsons fame.
As a result, one of the most controversial aspects of my ministry has been my tone, sense of humor, and propensity to make fun of every conceivable group of people. This includes rappers with grills and rims and indie rockers who wear all black, smoking American Spirit cigs and pretending not to care about what other people think; men who can’t find their pants and women who work near poles and earn their income in one-dollar bills; gays and straights; publick skewlers and home schoolers where mom wears a denim jumper and dad churns butter in preparation for Armageddon; mullet-wearing, one-tooth NASCAR fans and people who drive hybrid vehicles and promote justification by recycling; and any other groups that come to mind impromptu as I preach and write.
My favorite targets tend to be action-figure-loving single guys who play World of Warcraft at their mom’s house while downloading porn and blogging about how the world should be, in between long sessions of sleep in their Star Wars sheets. Vegans are also funny because they get upset every time I promote bacon, and they often tell me that I will die if I eat bacon, to which I reply, “Yes, praise God, I will die and go to heaven . . . full of bacon.”
The question on which this chapter is based also mentions Mormons, because in one sermon I referred to two nice, young, clean-shaven men wearing pressed white shirts, riding their bikes to hell. Still, far and away my favorite target (other than myself and my Shrek-sized head) is religious types, particularly those who have their own end-times chart drawn in crayon on an ammo box, anyone who has ever held a praise flag in church, and new Calvinists who get drunk on dead authors and want to tell everyone else what to do while conveniently overlooking the fact that they have never done anything and don’t know what they are doing. But the real question is whether it is biblical to be funny.
IS HUMOR BIBLICAL?
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 the Bible is, in fact, arranged as a comedy:
A full-fledged comedic plot is a U-shaped story that descends into potential tragedy and then rises to a happy ending as obstacles to fulfillment are gradually overcome. Some comic plots record only the upward movement from bondage to freedom. The progression of a comic plot is from problem to solution, from less than ideal experience to prosperity and wish fulfillment. The comic plot is the story of the happy ending par excellence. The plot consists of a series of obstacles that must be overcome en route to the happy ending . . . The truth is that comedy is the dominant narrative form in the Bible. There are relatively few full-fledged tragedies in the Bible. The materials for tragedy are everywhere in the stories of sin and disobedience, but the Bible is almost completely an anthology of tragedies averted through characters’ repentance and God’s forgiveness. The comic plot is the deep structure of biblical narrative . . . 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 two hundred times in our English Bible. The word laugh and its derivatives appear roughly forty times.
Sadly, too many coats of varnish have been painted over what is a divinely inspired, earthy book that honestly records the foibles and follies of sinners like us by furrowed-browed, 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. There are a 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 Perhaps the most humorous line in Amos is where God refers to the female members of the Bashan city council as fat cows: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’”1
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 Achan (trouble), Agrippa (causes pain), Balak (destroyer), Careah or Kareah (baldy), Chesed (a devil), Chilion (dying), Eglon (fat cow), Emmor or Hamor (an ass), Esau (hairy), Gatam or Mordecai (puny), Harumaph (flat nose), Irad (wild ass), Jareb or Midian (contentious), Mahli or Mahlon (sickly), Nabal (fool), Naharis (snorer), Nahash (serpent), Og (long neck), Parshandatha (dung), Sanballat (enemy), or Isaac (laughter).4
The Bible even uses what the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery calls “scatological humor” in both the Old and New Testaments.5 The story of the godless king Eglon is recorded in Judges 3:15–30. God’s holy, divinely inspired word says Eglon was “a very fat man.” The Jack Bauer-esque southpaw Ehud “reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his [Eglon’s] belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.” The story ends by explaining how Eglon’s feces came pouring out of his pierced intestine. The stink was so bad that his servants who were waiting outside his chambers, unaware he had been whacked by the Mob, possibly by a guy in a shiny sweat suit complete with gold chains dangling over lots of chest hair, wrongly assumed the stink was a post-chalupa rough go of things on the toilet.
New Testament scatological humor includes Philippians 3:8, where Paul uses a particularly provocative word, skubalah, to describe religion. Various translations render it “rubbish,” “garbage,” “refuse,” “filth,” “dung,” “dog dung,” and “turds.” Greek scholar and expert Daniel B. Wallace6 explains the word used in Philippians 3:8:
If [skubalah] is translated “s**t” (or the like), a word picture is effectively made: this is all that the “flesh” can produce—and it is both worthless and revolting. That the apostle is not above using graphic and shocking terms has already been demonstrated in vv. 2–3. The reason for the shocking statement in v. 8, then, may well be to wake up his audience to the real danger of his opponents’ views. It is not insignificant that there is precedent for the apostle’s white-hot anger over a false gospel being couched in not-so-delicate terms: his letter to the “foolish Galatians” is replete with such evocative language.7
Wallace goes on to conclude, “The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between ‘crap’ and ‘s**t.’”8 Pastor and author Douglas Wilson goes so far as to say that Paul’s word for religion is “dog s**t.”9
We are going to take a look now at some of the more intriguing examples of humor from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. By doing so, we are not making light of Scripture; rather, we are practicing the teaching of 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” That good work includes knowing when to laugh and when to make fun of others for a prophetic purpose that is deadly serious. As Douglas Wilson summarizes in regard to cutting prophetic humor, “The prophet Jeremiah attacked idolaters, the Lord Jesus attacked self-righteous Pharisees, the apostle Paul attacked Judaizers, Irenaeus attacked Gnostics, and Luther attacked the papists.”10
Before moving on, it is important to note that the Bible laughs at the expense of sinners upon occasion, but most often at serious religious types who are legalistic, self-righteous, and sinfully judgmentalof other people. Though such verbal jabs are painful, they are a demonstration of biblical love. Biblical love, unlike sentimental love, does not merely feel mushy, gooey, and syrupy sweet, but acts for the good of the beloved. These acts include, as needed, confrontation, rebuke, and steady doses of truth delivered in whatever form is most effective, including mockery. Indeed, it is not always the one kissing you who is truly your friend, as Jesus himself experienced with Judas. Proverbs 27:5–6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Therefore, when the Bible laughs at someone, it does so in love, seeking to expose the folly of fools so that they might come to their senses and repent.
HUMOR IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Our study of biblical humor begins, appropriately enough, in the book of Genesis, which is the book of beginnings. There we find one of my favorite funny stories about the “righteous” man Noah. You will remember that he and his family alone were spared God’s wrath in the flood. Upon exiting the ark as the father of a new humanity, “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.”2 Every time I read this account I chuckle. Noah is obviously a camping redneck, because only a camping redneck would make his own liquor and pass out naked in his tent wearing nothing but a John Deere ball cap. For all we know, his tent might have been made of blue tarps, and he may have dozed off while singing country songs about the hillbilly trinity of dogs, trucks, and cornbread.
While preaching through Genesis, I was continually amused by Jacob, whose name means “trickster.” The previously laid-back, easygoing homebody Jacob3 rolled in to Haran, where he met the lovely Rachel at the well.4 He was so excited that to show off his manly strength he removed the stone covering the well, a job so dudely that it normally took a crew of men to get it done. Still flexing his muscles and enjoying his manhood, Jacob kissed Rachel like one of the guys who just won a NASCAR race and locks lips with the trophy girl on the platform. In the ensuing chapters, Jacob the trickster is taken to the woodshed by the Michael Jordan of con artists, Laban. There we read that after working for a full seven years to marry Rachel, Jacob rolled over the morning after his wedding to find lazy-eyed Leah in his bed, not her lovely sister Rachel. Laban had swapped out the girls, thereby forcing the trickster to work another seven years and marry them both! The entire account is dripping with satire.
One of the funniest lines in all of Scripture is found in Exodus 32. While Moses was away with God, his brother Aaron led the people to give their jewelry and wealth to melt down and make a golden calf for idol worship. When confronted by Moses, Aaron’s defense was “they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”5
The Historical Books
In the history books of the Old Testament, both Gaal6 and Nabal7 got drunk and, like drunk guys hopped up on liquid courage often do, popped off about how they could take guys much tougher than them, only to wake up with a hangover, a foreboding sense of dread, and empty colons as they pondered the beating that awaited them. Though it is not said, one wonders if they were frat guys.
Arguably the funniest scene in the entire Old Testament is found in the octagon report of 1 Kings 18:25–29:
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
In this legendary showdown, God shows up and shows off to reveal himself and his servant Elijah. When it came to the prophets of Baal, though, their false god never made it to the ring. So, Elijah mocked them, saying in effect, “Perhaps your god has not yet made it to the octagon because he’s sitting on his toilet throne dozing off, so maybe you guys should go bang on the door really loudly and see if you can get your god out here for my God to open a can on.” God loved this man so much that he took him straight to heaven in a fiery chariot rather than let him taste death.
The Old Testament prophets are filled with all forms of humor. Amos 6:4–6 sounds like a commentary on MTV’s Cribs:
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils.
Or to put it in our vernacular: there is mad judgment on all vintage jersey– wearing pimps with phat cribs rolling a fleet of cars decked out in rims with spinners, enjoying the finest strip clubs, sitting in the VIP room sipping Hennessy through crazy straws by the bucket.
Isaiah 3:16–24 says:
The Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils. Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.
Or, to put it another way, God promises to clean out the walk-in closet of his daughters just before shaving their heads and putting them over his knee, because they are a trampish bunch who love to strut around the club in push-up bras and clear heels flirting with rich old men, hoping to land a sugar daddy with Viagra in one pocket and a platinum credit card in the other.
Isaiah 44:13–20 mocks Geppetto-esque guys who use their woodworking skills to make a god:
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Indeed, it is funny that God would take the time to mock a guy who got an A in high school woodshop and delights in his ability to discern which end of a log is god and which end is firewood because he studied it in community college.
In addition, Isaiah 64:6 compares religion to a bloody menstrual rag: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” This is particularly shocking if you think about it being applied to the sincerely religious, including, for example, a Muslim kneeling on his rug praying to Mecca, or a Mormon wearing his sacred underbritches because some guy in Utah told him that God likes his men to wear onesies with a trap door.
The Wisdom Books
The wisdom literature is likewise filled with humor. In many places we read about God laughing at people, even mocking them. Psalm 37:13 says, “The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.” Psalm 2:4 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Psalm 59:8 says, “But you, O Lord, laugh at them; you hold all the nations in derision.”
Also, Proverbs 1:23–27 says:
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Sarcasm also drips throughout the book of Job. The fact that the Bible college students who kept hounding Job with picky theological criticisms are called his “friends” and “comforters” is an obvious joke. To end the book, God even pokes fun at poor Job in chapter 38, essentially telling him to put a cup on because God planned to kick him in the middle by asking him eighty scientific questions, beginning with, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Getting the sarcasm, Job wisely tapped out and left the ring.
Proverbs makes fun of all kinds of people, especially the sluggard, who, by definition, is someone so lazy that he experiences devolution on his way to becoming a slug. Proverbs 26:14 says, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed.” Perhaps quoting what the guy’s mom says every morning, Proverbs 6:9 says, “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” Mocking the guy who is too lazy to even exert energy to get the chips from the bowl to his mouth while sitting on the couch devoting his twenties to watching every episode of Star Trek, Proverbs 19:24 says, “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth.” Presumably mocking the aspiring musician who freeloads off his girlfriend and crashes at her pad but never goes out to find a job because of one ridiculous excuse after another, like the terror alert being at yellow, Proverbs 22:13 adds this: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’”
Proverbs also includes more than a few jabs at various kinds of bad women. Speaking of the nagging woman, Proverbs 27:15 says, “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a quarrelsome wife are alike,” which is particularly funny if her nagging is about the dripping faucet or leaky gutter. If you ever see a guy camping on the roof, you can assume he is obeying James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” after reading Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24, which both say it is better for a guy to live on the roof of his house than inside his house with a quarrelsome, nagging wife.
One of the funniest sayings in Proverbs is that a hot gal all dressed up is akin to a pig dolled up with jewelry: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”8 Like I tell the single guys in our church, you can’t marry a woman just because she’s hot, because so is hell, and if she’s a pig you’ll be living in hell.
Some nice, well-meaning Christians who drink only decaf and listen to music with a soothing acoustic guitar are often quick to quote verses such as Ephesians 4:29, which says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear,” and also Ephesians 5:4, which says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
However, they tend to be worldly in their definition of what qualifies for these categories. They rarely allow the Scriptures to define appropriate speech but rather import politically correct and/or Victorian worldly definitions of nicety. To do so they often quote verses such as Galatians 5:13–14, which says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” What they conveniently overlook is that this is written by the same guy who said religion is like a steaming pile that the neighbor’s dog leaves in your yard. Furthermore, his words that precede this amazing love statement are: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”9
Indeed, we are to be “kind to one another,”10 which means that Christians should be kind to other Christians, but apparently if someone wants to say that we need Jesus plus something else for our justification (e.g., circumcision for the Judaizers in Galatia) then we should also mock them and ask them to cut their whole pickle off and attend Bobbitt Bible Church as a sign of true varsity religious devotion.
Paul’s ability to connect his mocking invitation to self-emasculation with love may be what Peter meant when he said that some of Paul’s writings are “hard to understand.”11 Thus, our speech should be not only gracious but also salty, as Colossians 4:6 says: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” We will examine just a few salty sections of the New Testament so we can spend more time studying stand-up Jesus.
In Acts 12:12–17 we read that Peter was locked out of a church prayer meeting. Likewise, Revelation 3:20 gives a funny picture of Jesus being locked out of a church potluck and pounding on the door, saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Also, in Luke 24:18, after Jesus’ resurrection, there is a hilarious discussion between Jesus and some guys as they walked together on the road. As if Jesus were stupid and did not watch the news, they asked him about himself, and a guy named Cleopas asked Jesus, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” The subtle irony is worth at least a smirk.
HUMOR AND JESUS
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.”11 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 as a very serious holy man.
The Library of Congress holds more books about Jesus (seventeen thousand) than about any other historical figure, roughly twice as many as about Shakespeare, the runner-up.12 One University of Chicago scholar has estimated that more has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. 13 Yet I have found only one book that examines 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.”14
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.”15 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.”16 In the appendix of The Humor of Christ, Trueblood lists thirty humorous passages of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels alone (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).17
There are at least three reasons why modern Bible readers and hearers are remiss in capturing Jesus’ sense of humor. First, many people are so familiar with some Bible texts that they wrongly assume they know what the texts mean and are not able to hear them in a fresh manner. Second, because the death of Jesus is the centerpiece of our theology, it has in some ways so dominated our thinking about Jesus that his life prior to his death is seen as little more than one of avoiding sin and being an acceptable sacrifice, which means that his humor and fun are overlooked. But the fact that Jesus was often invited to parties because people liked him, crowds thronged around him, and his fiercest critics falsely accused him of being nothing but a party animal suggests he was fun to hang with.12 After all, how many people who are as lost as Dick Cheney in the woods keep asking your pastor over to their Texas hold ’em tournaments?
Third, being removed from Jesus by two thousand years means that some of those ancient cultural clues and euphemisms are lost on us. The cultural framework required for humor was made obvious to me while in India, because every time I turned on the television and watched an Indian show I could not figure out for the life of me what the jokes meant. Nonetheless, it is important to note some of Jesus’ ancient funnies.
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?”13 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 explanation is that there was some hole in some wall in some town that a camel could pass through only by lying 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.”18 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.
For yet another example of Jesus’ preposterous exaggeration, we can consider his encounter with Peter in Matthew 16:13–20. There, Jesus nicknamed Cephas after the WWE wrestler, calling him Peter, which means “the rock,” just before Peter proved he was merely a pebble by rebuking Jesus, and Jesus calling him Satan, or at least Satan’s wingman. 14 While calling Peter “the rock” is funny, not funny is the fact that the Catholic Church, in which I was raised and served as an altar boy, missed the punch line, and rather than having a good laugh, ended up with the papacy and a guy with a really big hat.
Jesus and the Pharisees
Jesus’ most stinging humor, however, was reserved for the religious types, especially the Pharisees. Jesus called them a bag of snakes15 and said that their moms had shagged the Devil.16 While those who suffered under the judgmentalism of these religious types likely had more than a few good laughs when Jesus lampooned them, the Pharisees, 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.”17
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.”18 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.”19 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 so do their religious offspring and self-righteous folks in general). Rather than repenting, they fought 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 rebuke Jesus for not washing his hands before dinner, like Miss Manners requires.20 Sure they are going to hell, but at least it’s with clean 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.”
Jesus and Offense
Indeed, not only does the Bible say that we are to love people, but that love is not rude. In our postmodern age of nicety, the only real sin anymore seems to be hurting people’s feelings. Never mind if they are homosexual bishops or emergent pastors who finger-paint their doctrinal statements and deny penal substitutionary atonement because some Buddhist deacon, who can put his ankle behind his head for prayer, is an avowed pacifist, as if love is defined by movies made for junior-high girls and greeting cards rather than by Jesus. 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.”21 Since we are all goofy sinners whose self-righteousness is a joke, the only way not to be offended by Jesus and to laugh at ourselves is to live a life of continual repentance.
The best place for this kind of loving prophetic humor is the pulpit. Regarding humor’s place in church services, John Frame has said:
Some may think that humor necessarily trivializes worship. But that is not true, for there is humor in Scripture, for example in Genesis 18:13–15; 21:6–7; Proverbs 26:15; Isaiah 44:12–20; Matthew 19:24; 23:24; and Acts 12:1–19. God laughs at the wicked in Psalm 2:7. Humor has a positive theological purpose: it enables us to see ourselves from God’s perspective; it knocks us down a peg or two. It shows the ridiculous discrepancy between God’s greatness and our pretensions. As such, the emotion arising from humor can pass very quickly into a deep sorrow for sin and a craving for God’s grace. Humor can also express joy in the Lord and the “hilarious” cheer (2 Cor. 9:7 in the Greek) by which God’s Spirit frees us from selfishness to serve our brothers and sisters. Humor can also establish a bond between leader and people, reassuring them that he is one of them. Thus, it can strengthen the horizontal side of worship, the unity of the body of Christ.19
Therefore, humor is, in fact, biblical, but is it helpful? This is necessary to address, because some people argue that while humor is permissible, it is not helpful.
TEN WAYS HUMOR IS HELPFUL
Humor is incredibly helpful to the gospel, in general, and to my ministry, in particular. Historically, humor has been a great gospel weapon. One of my heroes, the renowned Reformed Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said:
I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon to be used against us, and not to be employed by us as a weapon against him. I will venture to affirm that the Reformation owed almost as much to the sense of the ridiculous in human nature as to anything else, and that those humorous squibs and caricatures, that were issued by the friends of Luther, did more to open the eyes of Germany to the abominations of the priesthood than the more solid and ponderous arguments against Romanism . . . “It [humor] is a dangerous weapon,” it will be said, “and many men will cut their fingers with it.” Well, that is their own look-out; but I do not know why we should be so particular about their cutting their fingers if they can, at the same time, cut the throat of sin, and do serious damage to the great adversary of souls.20
After pondering the benefits of humor for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have uncovered ten reasons why I believe it is beneficial.
1) Jesus Christ laughed, and Christians are supposed to be like Jesus and thus laugh. Trueblood wrote:
The widespread failure to recognize and to appreciate the humor of Christ is one of the most amazing aspects of the era named for Him. Anyone who reads the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] with a relative freedom from presuppositions might be expected to see that Christ laughed, and that He expected others to laugh, but our capacity to miss this aspect of His life is phenomenal.21
2) Religion is the great enemy of the gospel because it seeks to replace the gifted righteousness of Jesus Christ with some other human work. Therefore, poking fun at the silliness of religious people and their sources of sinful selfrighteousness serves both them and others who are prone to follow in their example. Such humor is arresting and difficult to ignore.
3) Too many people take themselves too seriously and God too lightly. Subsequently, like those who rebuked Jesus for not washing his hands but had no problem murdering him, and the homosexual pastors who are more offended by rock worship music in church than their sodomy, the far too serious among us need to be made fun of as a prophetic gift of being awakened from slumber.
4) Nearly everyone makes fun of other people, though not often in public as preachers do. Instead, they post anonymously on blogs and Web sites, send nasty anonymous letters to their church, and gossip behind people’s backs so that they can continue to present a holy face in public. Yet, by suffering the blows of sharp comedic criticism, those who make fun of others are often tenderized, becoming more compassionate toward people they would otherwise speak ill to or of.
5) Some things are a joke, and to treat them seriously would be a sin, but turning them into a joke keeps them from being legitimized. For example, anyone who takes seriously a religion with its roots in Utah (Mormonism) or Pittsburgh (Jehovah’s Witness) is doing a disservice and wasting a lot of comedic material. Likewise, anyone who thinks the earth created itself, fornicating single people who think that God sees their hearts but not their pants and thereby blesses them, and every pothead who knows only two verses (that every seed-bearing plant the Lord God gave is good and, of course, thou shall not judge) are better served by a punch line than a syllogism.
6) When all else fails, and the feces and fan have interfaced, all you can do is laugh it off. On this point, Proverbs 14:13 says, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” Life in a sinfully crooked, fallen, jacked-up world is incredibly painful and filled with overwhelming heartache and pain, especially for pastors, who arguably deal with it more than anyone. Sometimes the only way to keep from putting a gun in your mouth while mumbling Lamentations is to find something funny in it all and laugh through your tears.
7) Nehemiah 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Too many Christians are spiritually weak and sickly, but their souls would be built strong through regular, deep belly laughs just as much as an athlete sculpts his physical body by pumping iron at the gym. Furthermore, it is cheaper and more fun than antidepressants.
8) Cultivating your sense of humor heightens all your other emotions. The person who can laugh deeply is passionate enough to also weep deeply. Those who bottle up their emotions in a Spock-like existence display little if any of the characteristics of their passionate God, who both laughs and weeps, as Scripture says. Scripture also commands us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”22
9) Laughter is sometimes an act of faith, in that it enables us to rise above the pain of the present while we await the coming kingdom, where there are no tears.
10) Humor is a missiological ministry tool that is necessary for successful evangelism in our culture. In 1 Corinthians 9:22–23 Paul writes, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” The average person listens to talk radio comedic banter on the way to work, downloads funny YouTube videos during break, listens to more drive-time radio banter on the commute home, watches a sitcom after dinner, possibly tunes in to a stand-up comic on Comedy Central, and watches someone like Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or David Letterman before dozing off. To reach people, we need to speak their language, and their language obviously includes comedy.
Humor can be evangelistic. In fact, our church has been named one of the fastest growing in America. We started it in 1996, when it was roughly the same size as a Mormon family, and our little church has grown in one of America’s least churched cities by reaching mainly young, hip, urban types from the various groups that I regularly make fun of. I cannot explain this phenomenon other than to say it’s like punching a guy, who then goes to get two friends so that you can punch them too.
In conclusion, I will lay down some rules of engagement for aspiring sanctified comedians. With these rules I hope to keep at bay the wing nuts who see comedy in the Bible and assume that it endorses their cruel version.
TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR SANCTIFYING COMEDY
1) Don’t mock God. God is great. God is not a sinner. God is not to be judged by us. God is God. Further, God has a long history of getting the last laugh. So don’t mock God. However, one exception is to mock the false impressions of God that religious people have, showing that their god is not the God. So, for example, if you mock the false Jesus of Mormonism, who is a created being, polygamist, and the half-brother of Lucifer, you are mocking what Paul calls “another Jesus” and not the real Jesus.23
2) Don’t mock everyone. If you mock your spouse, children, or your own mom, you are a dolt and not funny no matter how many people laugh. Furthermore, don’t mock rape victims, abused children, battered women, and the like, because the point of prophetic irony is to bring sinners to repentance, not to bring victims to tears.
3) Don’t mock all the time. Only some of the Bible is funny, which means that most of our speech should be serious and that some of our speech should be humorous. In that vein, the majority of my sermons are not funny but, rather, straightforward Bible teaching. Since my sermons last an hour or more, though, I do throw in a few laughs to keep folks with me and to break up the monotony. I don’t remember telling any jokes at all during some sermon series because I did not think the content called for humor. While preaching a twelve-week series called “Christ on the Cross” about the murder of Jesus, I don’t remember telling a single joke, and the book I wrote on the same subject22 contains no humor at all.
4) Don’t judge yourself by yourself because Paul says that is foolish, no matter how funny you think you are. If someone in authority over you (e.g., boss, parent, pastor) tells you that you have crossed the line and need to apologize and grow up, then repent before you become the joke.
5) Don’t worry about getting tempered as you age. With age comes wisdom, if you are perceptive and humble enough to learn from your experiences. Therefore, as you age, you should do so graciously by becoming tempered, though not neutered.
6) Don’t keep picking on the same group of people. It is important to expand your comedic horizons and mock lots of groups of people for their self-righteousness. If you keep picking on the same group, eventually people will call you hateful, but if you pick on lots of groups, they will thankfully downgrade you to cruel or, if you are really blessed, maybe just to mean. For the newbies, it is often easiest to start with vegans, homeschoolers, rednecks, NASCAR fans, and any Christian who thinks Left Behind is really going to happen any minute.
7) Don’t assume you know where the line is. The problem with comedy is that the line is different for everyone, and the line changes from one culture and subculture to the next. So remain teachable and flexible. I once preached a sermon from Philippians 2 on humility and confessed my sin of pride, but one guy let me know he did not think I was genuine because I was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of deejay Jesus spinning turntables. While pride apparently does not trouble this guy, he has chosen to draw a clear line at kitschy Christian T-shirts from Urban Outfitters. The painful truth is that you generally find the line of propriety only by crossing it, and when you do, make sure to apologize and repent.
8) Don’t forget to laugh at yourself—often. The best material is the stuff of your own life. You know better than anyone that you are a nut job, so do not waste such precious comedic fodder. Tell stories about yourself, pointing out your imperfections, folly, stupidity, pettiness, self-righteousness, and the like before you turn your funny guns on anyone. By doing so you will reveal that your humor is not scorn but, rather, the acknowledgment of a common mess we are all in as sinners. In the end, we are all hypocrites and good for a laugh. By laughing together at one another and ourselves, we are experiencing biblical fellowship and celebrating gift-righteousness from Jesus; his gift removes our pride and vain attempts at self-righteousness, which in the end make us deadly serious defenders of our goodness, as if we had any. In short, we are all Pharisees to varying degrees.
9) Make sure you know whom to mock. Psalm 1 does not look favorably at the unrighteous who mock the righteous. Mockery in and of itself is not a sin, but you have to make sure you know whom to mock and why.
10) Don’t overlook the importance of discernment in deciding when, where, and how to use prophetic humor. Proverbs 26:4–5 advises, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” What appears at first glance to be a contradiction or a goofy Zen saying from a Kung Fu movie or fortune cookie is actually a call to discernment. When a fool is hardhearted, to engage him is to end up descending to his level and becoming a fool who blurts out folly in angry defense. In this case, the art of ignoring him is the best course of action. However, when a fool keeps boasting that he has conquered you and starts heralding his victory to other fools, the best thing to do is take him down a few notches in Jesus’ name.
IN DEFENSE OF HUMOR
To those who have been offended by my comedic banter, I would simply ask why. If it is because I have sinned, then I ask your forgiveness. But if it is because I have hit a nerve of sin or self-righteousness, then I would welcome you to repent and have a good laugh with me.
For my critics, as well as others who make it their job to criticize their preacher, as if we preach from a stage so that you can get better aim, I would ask you if you love your preacher, pray for your preacher, and seek to learn from your preacher. Or are you one of those miserable people who expend their energy criticizing from the pew, like the fans at a sporting event who scream at the athletes from, of course, a safe distance, because being an armchair quarterback is far easier than actually carrying the ball? For you, I close with the words of my dear friend, the now departed and no longer chewed-upon-by-the-critic dogs that encircled him, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In an obscure little book he wrote defending manly oddball preachers with personality quirks, scathing humor, and unbridled passion over effeminate preachers and preachers as “dry as sawdust,” he said:
Many hearers lose much blessing through criticizing too much, and meditating too little; and many more incur great sin by calumniating those who live for the good of others. True pastors have enough of care and travail without being burdened by undeserved and useless faultfinding. We have something better to do than to be for ever answering every malignant or frivolous slander which is set afloat to injure us . . . There are tender, loving spirits who feel the trial very keenly, and are sadly hindered in brave service by cruel assaults. The rougher and stronger among us laugh at those who ridicule us, but upon others the effect is very sorrowful . . .
As ministers we are very far from being perfect, but many of us are doing our best, and we are grieved that the minds of our people should be more directed to our personal imperfections than to our divine message . . .
Filled with the same spirit of contrariety, the men of this world still depreciate the ministers whom God sends them and profess that they would gladly listen if different preachers could be found. Nothing can please them, their cavils are dealt out with heedless universality. Cephas is too blunt, Apollos is too flowery, Paul is too argumentative, Timothy is too young, James is too severe, John is too gentle . . .
Well then, let each servant of God tell his message in his own way. To his own Master he shall stand or fall . . . Judge the preacher if you like, but do remember that there is something better to be done than that, namely, to get all the good you can out of him, and pray his Master to put more good into him.23
71 Sam. 25:36–37.
112 Pet. 3:16.
12Luke 5:33; 7:31–35.
232 Cor. 11:4.
Copyright 2009 by Mark Driscoll
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
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