Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)
There are remarkably few treatments to be found in theological libraries about humor in Scripture. Most of those few that exist seem to operate from the conclusion that what humor is in the Bible is in isolated pockets. Sure, when Ehud skewers the tyrant Eglon, losing the sword in his rolls of fat and causing him to soil himself, we can’t help but suspect we’re meant to chuckle. A bit of Hebrew or Greek suddenly makes the reader aware of groan-worthy puns which crop up in the oddest places. However, taken in sum, almost everyone agrees that the Bible is a Very Serious Book, and we should be Very Serious People if we are to use it as the foundation for our faith.
This Very Serious approach to Christianity, however, seems to me unsatisfactory. We might gain some hint of this simply by noticing its effects. A humorless Christianity is dehumanizing, lopping off our emotional legs so that all we can do is sit on the stubs and point accusing fingers. A faith unable to chuckle will do the craziest things without getting the joke. One look at some Christians’ ridiculous wardrobes, our trite fiction or our bizarre attempts at spirituality betrays an insanity which even a modicum of irony would undo.
However, the deeper problem with Very Serious Christianity is that it misses the point – the punch line – in Scripture itself. Scripture is, at heart, a comedy. In one sense this is true simply by dint of the way the story ends. In the categories of the dramatists, we are in a story with and unapologetically happy ending. All the deaths, all the exits stage left, get brought back for the finale of the resurrection, and in a world made new the players live happily ever after. This note of hope, and the joy it engenders, should in itself call the grimness of too much spirituality into question. One wonders what Very Serious Christians will do in a world with no more tears or heartaches, and (one assumes) with no more frowns.
There is also another, deeper sense in which Scripture is comedic. While God is certainly a character who is not to be trifled with, every other character (which means every character like us) is portrayed in the most ironic and slapstick terms. Seriously, go read about Abraham’s brilliant plans to tell Pharoah his wife is his sister (twice). Watch Israel’s kings run back and forth like indecisive tumbleweeds, worshipping idols and begging God for help based on which way the weather seems to blow. Listen to the disciples talk with Jesus, and marvel at the way a moment of insight is almost always immediately followed by one of monumental stupidity. The antics of humanity are enough to rival the slapstick of the Three Stooges or the ridiculousness of the Royal Tenenbaums.
This is why, as the psalmist notes, God laughs at the schemes of man. When Very Serious Men gather their might against the Lord’s anointed, while they might feel dignified and important, the truth is that they are a joke. Their frailty, their presumption, and their shortsightedness combine to prove them to be nothing but the oafish buffoon included in every play and movie for comedic relief. Go read the prophets, who mock idolaters for being no brighter than the lumps of stone they worship, who ridicule the oppressors and their wives who are as fat as the cows of Bashan.
It isn’t just the wicked who are worthy of a chuckle in Scripture either. The righteous are too. God reminds Israel that He saved them not because of their greatness but because they are the least among the nations. Paul tells us God saved the foolish and the weak to show His power in their midst. God is on a serious mission, but we are chosen to be his players because, well, it’s ridiculous to think we’re doing His work on our own. Indeed, salvation itself is in a sense comedic: we are sinners made righteous, saved by the ultimate irony of the cross and resurrection. We are not saved by our Very Serious attempts to justify ourselves, but by ruefully surveying our best efforts and recognizing them as piles of something which might offend the Very Serious reader (but which Paul has no problem referring to in the crudest terms).
Of course, everything I just said is only one side of Scripture’s perspective. There is a deeply serious aspect to everything in the Biblical story: our sin is a grave offense, our misdeeds cause unimaginable destruction and the cross is a brutal and bloody salvation. However, the problem comes when we let this seriousness become Very Serious; too serious to also get the joke. Very Serious Christianity is ultimately destructive to the soul because it cannot take God’s perspective on our weakness: we are foolish, fickle, and frail, but we are also redeemed and being used as agents of redemption.
If we are to reach a point of health in our Christian lives, we must learn to laugh at ourselves, and laugh at all that is like us in the world. We must learn the freedom which comes from seeing our own silliness. We must chuckle like only those saved by grace can chuckle, and roar with the laughter of those saved by faith in the Very Serious work of Someone else.
When we sin, we must grieve it with the tears of repentance. But then, seeing it nailed to the cross, we must smile with the security of knowing we are still loved and still being made into Christ’s likeness.
When we stare the devil in the eye, we must fearfully look to Christ for rescue. But then, recognizing that he has been publicly made an object of ridicule through Christ’s death and resurrection, we must laugh in His face because of the silly creature he is.
We must laugh at a toddler’s shaky steps and a teenager’s silly soapboxes (especially since the teenager takes them Very Seriously), not because we are better than them but because our walk is truly no less steady and our ideas no less small.
We must laugh at ourselves, at all the ways we think we’re strong and all the ways we are truly weak. We must tell jokes about our own people, our own denomination, our own misadventures. We must tell the stories about how silly we were when we were younger, and how silly we were last week as well.
In the end, we must learn to laugh because it reminds us of our humanity. We are not to be taken seriously; we are not to be made much of. It is no accident that we are the children in the story, and just as our Father smiles at us in our messiness and helplessness, so we should smile as well.