December 3, 2001

Is laughter holy? Opinions have changed over time
___By Craig Bird
___FaithWorks magazine
___JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP)--We know Jesus wept, because the Bible tells us so. But did he laugh?
___For centuries, Christians said, "No."
___As early as the 4th century, church leader John Chrysostom declared that Jesus never laughed. Artists through the centuries overwhelmingly followed the Catholic saint's lead. Medieval paintings portray God's Son sometimes as serene, but always sober.
___And Christendom's sense of humor didn't improve much over the next millennium. The Council of Constance in the 1400s consigned to hell any minis
JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, non-humorist
ter or monk who spoke "jocular words such as to provoke laughter." Well, actually, the council said, "Let him be anathema," which is a decidedly non-jocular way of saying the same thing.
___Even the Bible seems to frown on levity. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep," Jesus says in Luke 6:25. "Let your laughter be turned into mourning," adds James 4:9. "Sorrow is better than laughter," observes Ecclesiastes 7:3, "for when a face is sad a heart may be happy."
___It's little wonder that many people have the stereotype of Christians as joyless, dour types whose greatest fear is that someone, somewhere, may be having fun.
___But, as any preacher who ever warmed up a congregation for a sermon with a good, clean joke can testify, that isn't the whole story.
___Bible scholars say Holy Scripture often uses humorous puns to make a point, but many are lost in translation. The play on words in Genesis between "man" (in Hebrew, "ish") and "woman" ("ishah") comes across even in English.
___After God tells Abraham that Sarah will give birth to a son in the geriatric ward, according to Genesis 17:17, "Abraham fell on his face and laughed." But wait, here comes the punch line. The child's name shall be Isaac, which means in Hebrew "laughter."
___"There is a real theological aspect here," said Mark Biddle, a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.. "Since we are created in the image of God and we have an innate sense of humor, could that mean God has a sense of humor too?"
___Biddle finds many Scriptures he thinks are funny. "Some are pretty obvious, but many are subtle and you need to tease out the Hebrew or Greek a bit," he said.
___A prime example: Genesis traditionally recounts that Rebekah "dismounted from her camel" after seeing Isaac "meditating in the field." Biddle believes a strong case can be made that she "fell off her camel" when she saw Isaac "relieving himself" (Genesis 24:63-67).
___Then there is King Saul letting the rustic David pay his wedding dowry in Philistine foreskins (1 Samuel 18:22-25). And later Michal, the wife thus purchased, rants satirically when her husband dances before the Lord with such vigor everyone visualizes that he isn't wearing underwear (2 Samuel 6:20).
___Jesus apparently knew how to take a joke as well. Scholars say he used humor frequently in his teaching.
___Jesus used "the weapon of wit and the saber of satire" in his running verbal battles with the religious power structure, according to Randall O'Brien of Baylor University, author of "I Feel Better All Over than I Do Any Place Else."
___"Humor was often the howitzer he used to shell the veneer of piety surrounding 'Fortress Pharisee,'" O'Brien noted. "Who couldn't help but laugh when Jesus exposed the arrogance or blindness of the religious leaders, calling them 'blind guides,' straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel ... cleaning the outside of the cup but leaving the inside filthy ... and like tombs, whitewashed on the outside but rotting on the inside?"
___Even entertainers like Garrison Keillor of "Prairie Home Companion" fame can see it. "Christ gives his followers a satiric sense of the world," Keillor said. The upended values of the parables--with the last becoming first--are proof.
___But that's not the picture of Jesus that most often comes to mind. As Elton Trueblood reminded so forcefully in his 1964 classic work "The Humor of Christ," many Christians resist acknowledging that Jesus did such things.
___Trueblood's own journey to a laughing Jesus began years before. During family devotions, the famed Quaker theologian was "reading from the seventh chapter of Matthew, feeling very serious," when his 4-year-old son began to laugh. "He saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person's eye that he was unconscious of the fact his own eye had a beam in it."
___His son's laughter, Trueblood admitted, "was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place."
___"Christians have been stereotyped as anti-fun, anti-laughter types who think it's spiritual to look like you've been sucking a dill pickle all day," said Gary Dyer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Midland. "And we probably brought it on ourselves. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Scowl and someone will ask, 'Are you a Baptist?'"
___Baptists have had a few heroes of laughter. Two of the most popular in the last century were Jerry Clower and Grady Nutt, both products of Deep South Christianity.
___Clower, "The Mouth of Mississippi," didn't equivocate. "There is only one place where there is no laughter," he was fond of saying, "and that's hell."
___Nutt, a regular on the television hit "Hee Haw," was billed as the Prime Minister of Humor. Nutt contended that a humorless God "wouldn't have created ostriches--or Baptists." He described the words of a plaque he found at a gift shop in Gatlinburg, Tenn., "as true as any verse in the Bible: 'Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulders of a weary world.'"

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