I recently completed a project on humor, theology, and feminism. If it’s sounds absurd, it is; but I think Christianity is in need of a little absurdity from time to time to break up the severity of its dogma. Below is a brief excerpt:
Humor was largely considered an affront to the sacred in the early Christian tradition, a troublesome interruption to the serious business of God and religion. A survey of the church father’s writings provides little to no evidence of the use of humor, let alone the merits of its resultant laughter. One brief example of humor’s denigration comes from a passage from the Rule of St. Benedict: “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk lending to laughter.”
Interestingly, those characteristics of humor considered sinful or devilish were often the very characteristics of feminine discourse and behavior. Frivolity, pleasure, gossip, and laughter were, after all, considered the excesses of women who were often trivialized by their association with idle talk, a descriptor attached even to the testimony of the women who first witnessed the empty tomb (Luke 24:11).
But if the feminine quality of discourse was so inconsequential, why was it considered dangerous enough to be excluded from church life? While women’s humor has long been unrecognized in the Christian tradition, when it does break-through it is often quickly marked as inappropriate, a blemish on female virtue. Especially during the 1950’s and earlier, funny women of many traditions were considered loose or of ill repute. One suggestion is that the humorless Christian ideal was largely indebted to Platonic philosophy in which “intemperance, irrationality and immoderate emotional responses” threatened “both rationality and the governance of the state.”
Humor was and still is considered dangerous to regimes of totalitarians, even those institutions who claim to be in favor of the totalitarianism of God’s reign. For with humor comes the threat of fluidity, a danger to the social order made especially potent when in the hands of those who are already fearfully regulated.
In an interview in the Christian Century with pastor and comedian Susan Sparks, she comments, “Power and humor are not friends. Humor breaks us open, reveals and brings in new perspectives. If we laugh in holy realms, it suggests there may be some wiggle room in the dogma.”
It is not that dogma becomes demonized altogether by humor but that it does not become solidified as the only authoritative way of speaking theologically. In contrast, laughter offers a more democratic pathway toward the divine by nature of its extra-linguistic characteristic available to all of creation. If one has ever tried to repress the shoulder shaking giggles during an otherwise serious event, he or she knows the uncontrollable (and socially dangerous) quality of laughter’s (dis)rupture. It cannot be contained or quantified or regulated with the disapproving smack of one’s mother or the glare of one’s neighbor.
Humor sustains us in a journey that when walked in the footsteps of Christ promises the paradox of suffering and thriving, dying and finding new life. As Simone Wiel wrote, “Contradiction is a lever of transcendence.”
While anger surely has its place in the spiritual life, when oiled by the dampness of humor, it is transformed into a holy anger that rightly both laughs and laments over the life of liminality.