A Joking Matter: And Jesus Laughed

by David Heim

Mr. Heim is a Century assistant editor.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 9, 2003, pp.27-30. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author reviews some insights into humor by several authors writing from religious perspectives.

Book Reviews:

Jokes Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen. University of Chicago Press, 99 pp.

Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New, By Adam Biro. University of Chicago Press, 128 pp.

Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, by M. A Screech, Penguin, 328 pp.

The only subjects worth joking about, said G. K. Chesterton, are serious subjects -- like being married or being hanged. On that score, religion should be a rich source of jokes -- provided you take it seriously. Chesterton’s theory helps explain why so many of the jokes and cartoons that cross our desks at the CENTURY are not amusing: they don’t take religion seriously enough. Most seem to regard the church as the venue of juvenile cuteness and the home of long-winded, money-hungry buffoons. If that’s the assumption, then there’s nothing to joke about. Humor arises only in the tension between the sublime and the ridiculous, the serious and the profane.

Shared assumptions are crucial to all jokes. As Ted Cohen points out in his "philosophical thoughts on joking matters," Jokes begin "with an implicit acknowledgment of a shared background," and this commonality sets up the satisfactions of a shared response.

Consider the assumption in this old minister-goes-golfing Joke:

A minister woke up on a beautiful Sunday morning and decided to squeeze in a round of golf before services. St. Peter observed the man headed for the golf course and gave God a nudge. ‘He should be punished for this." God said, "OK, just watch."

The minister proceeded to play the best golf of his life. His club selection was precise, and he hit every shot perfectly He was shooting par for the first time. "I thought you were going to punish him," said St. Peter. "Just watch," said God.

The minister continued to play flawless golf and on the 18th hole he shot a hole-in-one. "What kind of punishment is this complained St. Peter." "Just think about it," said God. "Whom can he tell?"

I recall this joke as very successful, but I suspect it no longer works as well as it did because the assumptions don’t hold. The joke assumes that it is scandalous for a minister to play golf on Sunday morning, and that he would naturally want to conceal his activity. But reverence for the Sabbath and expectations of pastoral piety have waned. Now the minister’s preservice outing is rather unremarkable, and might be regarded as a healthy bit of stress management. Whom couldn’t he tell?

When we laugh at the same thing, Cohen says, it confirms that we share not only the same assumptions but the same feelings about the world. Laughing together satisfies a deep human longing for intimacy.

The intimacy-fostering element of jokes explains why many public speakers, including preachers, like to begin with a few jokes. Their aim is not so much to loosen up the crowd as to establish a connection with the audience. The tactic can backfire, however, if the jokes are so bad or so generic as to reveal that the speaker and listener do not share a particular set of assumptions.

The implied intimacy of jokes also explains why jokes can be deeply alienating. If one finds the assumptions of a joke offensive -- sexist or racist, for example, or simply ignorant -- then one is abruptly thrust out of the community that the joke is attempting to establish.

Perhaps the most important distinction in jokes is between those in which the jokester pokes fun at other people and those in which he pokes fun at himself (or his own group). To put it another way, some jokes establish intimacy at the expense of others, while other jokes do so at one’s own expense.

How many Presbyterians does It take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change it, and nine to say how much better the old one was.

This Joke can be told among Presbyterians as a way of ruefully acknowledging a shared experience. (Of course, it works just as well with Baptists, Lutherans or virtually any group -- organizational resistance to change being universal -- so on that score the joke is lame.)

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. Eight to form the light bulb committee and two to count the votes.

This joke is better insofar as it identifies something more peculiar to the Presbyterian ethos: it relies on a more specific kind of shared knowledge. In any case, when people laugh together at something absurd in their own group, it can be a way of affirming that they belong to it. (As denominational distinctives disappear jokes like these seem to function as away of asserting an otherwise vanishing identity.)

How many United Methodists does it take to change alight bulb?

United Methodists do not have a policy on changing light bulbs, but if you feel called to change a light bulb they will provide resources and support in your journey

This joke has more critical bite; one imagines it being told (by an alienated conservative, say) as a way of poking fun at others, not oneself. That’s even more likely with this one:

How many Christian Scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one. He prays for the light bulb to come back on.

The capacity to include oneself and one’s group in the circle of laughter is a prominent feature of Jewish humor. Jewish jokes are often exquisite exercises in self-critique and rueful self-knowledge. Consider, for example, the one-line classics of Henny Youngman: Why are Jewish divorces so expensive?

Jewish jokes have other distinguishing traits. They tend to be verbally sophisticated (reflecting a highly literate, text-based culture) and they draw on Jews’ experience of being outsiders, often an oppressed minority. Cohen, who devotes a chapter to the topic, suggests that Jewish jokes also replicate patterns of rabbinic debate: stories are used to illustrate a point, and moral inferences are logically drawn from examples. In the jokes, the logic of debate takes a crazy turn:

A man is lying asleep in bed with his wife. She wakes him and says, "Close the window. It’s cold outside," He grunts and turns over.

His wife nudges him again, ‘Close the window. It’s cold outside."

At last he gets up and bangs the window shut, "So now it’s warm outside?"

What’s interesting theologically is the way Jewish jokes tackle evil and suffering -- the most terrifying absurdities of life. Adam Biro, in the preface to his collection of Jewish stories, observes that Jewish Jokes have a way of embracing "all the world’s pain" and "all the world’s wisdom." They exhibit "bottomless despair, joy of living, unspeakable misfortune of being, and also, the pride of being Jewish." The stories he tells bear him out. Here’s one in abridged form:

Moshe was dying. He was old, very old. He had seen much suffering in his life. Golda, his wife, was seated on the edge of the bed wiping his brow. They had lived more that 70 years together.

"Tell me, Golda, do you remember the horrible pogrom in our village in 1905?

"Of course I remember. I was with you through all that."

"Do you remember when the Bolsheviks beat me up in 1918? Were you with me then?

Of course I was with you then, my love."

Were you with me in the Lemberg ghetto?"

Of course, my love, I’ve always been with you, always.

Moshe was silent for a moment, then he looked at his loving wife. "You see, Golda, I think you were bad luck."

Absurd egotism, marital discontent and the ghastly horrors of Jewish history are all part of this joke. But beneath it all, improbably is "joy of living"

Perhaps the best-known Jewish theological joke is this one:

A traveler arrived in a village in the middle of winter to find an old man shivering in the cold outside the synagogue. "What are you doing here?" asked the traveler.

"I’m waiting for the coming of the messiah,"

"That must be an important job," said the traveler. "The community must pay you a lot of money."

"No, not at all. They just let me sit here on this bench. Once in a while someone gives me a little food."

"That must be hard. But even if they don’t pay you, they must honor you for doing this important work."

"No, not at all, they think I’m crazy."

"I don’t understand. They don’t pay you, they don’t respect you. You sit in the cold, shivering and hungry What kind of Job is this?"

"Well, It’s steady work."

This Joke manages both to satirize the community and its beliefs and to affirm them -- through laughter.

The peculiar capacity of jokes to absorb absurdity is theologically significant, Cohen suggests. To laugh at the world’s absurdities implies an "acceptance of incomprehensibility," and this acceptance is a kind of religious affirmation, Such jokes offer a way of being reconciled to the creation and the Creator even as one expresses anger or despair at God’s world.

Cohen finds such laughter in the passage in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah laugh upon learning that Sarah at age 90 will bear a child (to be named Isaac, "he laughs"). If the patriarch and matriarch of the faith can laugh at God’s incomprehensible ways, argues Cohen, then surely such laughter has a theological warrant.

That is not the traditional interpretation of the Isaac story, however. Sarah’s laughter has been generally thought to signify her lack of faith, not her embrace of an unfathomable God. She is scoffing at God’s promises. Genesis 18:13 supports that reading: God seems upset by the laughter, and Sarah denies that she ever laughed.

M. A. Screech, in Laughter at the Foot of the Cross, suggests that the author of Luke’s Gospel had this negative view of Sarah’s laughter in mind when he penned his contrasting account of the annunciation to Mary. Unlike Sarah, Mary greets the news of her unlikely pregnancy with humble acceptance: "Let it be to me according to your word."

Screech reports that the early and medieval church generally took a dim view of jokes and laughter; they seemed inappropriate to the godly life. Church leaders took seriously Paul’s warning in Ephesians 5:4 about engaging in "silly" talk (which the King James Version translates as "jesting"). St. Bernard argued that Paul’s directive ruled out not only lewd or extravagant jokes but jesting of any kind.

In light of the church’s unease with laughter and jokes, Screech is drawn to the way two towering figures of the Renaissance, Erasmus and Rabelais, defended and employed humor. These humanists believed that God’s enemies deserve to be ridiculed, and that humor offers an effective way of pointing out error and showing the truth by contrast. If you can make people laugh at falsehood, they are on their way to rejecting it. A typical target was illiterate priests -- like the one who thought the rubric Salta per ter (‘skip three pages") in the baptismal service meant "Jump thrice over the stone" and proceeded to jump around the church.

Screech’s book is more a set of research notes than a sustained reflection on Christian humor. He shows no interest in the various ways jokes can function in communities, and ho doesn’t comment on the limited range of Erasmus’s and Rabelais’s humor. They are relentlessly didactic: they poke fun at others’ absurdities, but not at their own. Their humor lacks, therefore, the humility and deep humanity one finds in the Jewish Jokes recounted by Cohen and Biro. One might conclude, on the basis of Screech’s book, that Christian humor has been rather humorless.

Screech also ignores the theological issues raised by his provocative title. How have Christian approaches to jokes and humor been defined by the figure of Christ, the definitive model of the godly life? The Christian joke teller, unlike his Jewish counterpart, cannot escape the questions, What would Jesus joke about? Would Jesus employ the scoffing humor of Erasmus? Would he joke at all?

The Gospels are no help on this matter. They do record Jesus’ neat pun on Peter’s name ("and on this petra I will build my church"), and his parables (like the one about a camel going through the eye of a needle) might be said to have a comic dimension, but these are hardly break-up-laughing kinds of jokes.

Questions about whether Jesus laughed and joked have had a subterranean life in the church. Inevitably, they lead to imponderable christological questions. The issues are neatly laid out in an argument between two monks in Umberto Eco’s mystery novel The Name of the Rose:

"John Chrysostom said that Christ never laughed."

"Nothing in human nature forebade it," William remarked, "because laughter, as the theologians teach, is proper to man,

"The son of man could laugh, but it is not written that he did so," Jorge said.

Calling upon Aristotle and theological tradition, Brother William argues that if Jesus was fully human, as the creed claims, then surely he laughed (and joked?). But what incongruities in life would the God-man find to laugh at or joke about? Would he have engaged in witty banter or sardonic asides with his disciples? Would he have laughed at the odd habits of the gentiles? What kind of laughing and joking is worthy of the Messiah? The more one ponders that question, the more theologically shrewd Brother Jorge’s reply appears: Christ was fully capable of laughing, but he didn’t do so.

Some modern supporters of Brother William’s view can be found at the "Jesus laughing" Web site (www. Jesuslaughing.com), which promotes a portrait of a heartily laughing Jesus, available on notecards and T-shirts. The site includes testimonials from people who have been edified by this image of a laughing rather than sorrowful Christ. The apparent aim of the portrait (and the organization) is to celebrate Jesus’ earthy humanity and his joy in living, an aspect of Jesus otherwise obscured by tradition.

But the theological difficulties of this effort surface quickly. The scripture verse at the top of the Web site is Psalm 2:4, "He who sits in the heavens laughs." The "Jesus laughing" people seem unaware that this psalm refers to a very particular kind of laughter -- God’s derisive laughter at human pretensions (the next line is "the Lord has them in derision"). Such divine laughter at humans expresses precisely the opposite of the earthy humanity the "Jesus laughing" folk have in mind. After all, they want to underscore Jesus’ solidarity with humankind, not his distance from it.

As the Jewish Jokes so wonderfully illustrate, it is in their solidarity with human failures and absurdities that jokes reach their profoundest dimension. The church has always maintained, on the basis of scripture, that Christ’s solidarity with humankind was complete -- that he knew thirst, loneliness, despair and death. It is not too much to say that Jesus encountered on the cross the incomprehensibilty of the world.

So the question arises: Could Jesus have responded to his destiny with laughter? Could he have met the absurdities of life not only with prayers and tears, faith and obedience, but with a joke -- a joke filled with all the world’s pain and all the world’s wisdom? Could Jesus have laughed with the Father at the unlikeliness of the Son’s mission? Or engaged in some gallows humor with the disciples? (Something ripe for a Marx Brothers routine: Do you believe in the life to come? Mine was always that.) The idea may verge on blasphemy, but the doctrine of the incarnation prevents us from ruling it out.