Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Humor as Truth

The other day we thought about how exaggeration can be truth. But what about humor and jokes? You and I simply assume humor and don’t question whether or not it is a valid way of thinking about life. But doesn’t Scripture say to abstain from coarse joking? And isn’t it true that the reason jokes are funny is precisely because they are not true: they detail something that is not; they capitalize on the incongruous or unexpected. This is the way with wordplay, puns, comic stories, stand-up one-liners, and even knock-knock jokes. Not only these, but even slapstick humor occurs when something unexpected happens—particularly something that should not happen: does a shovel belong in Curly’s face? No. Is it there? Yes. Enter stage right: laughter.

In fact, you often hear Christians say, “God has a sense of humor,” or “When you plan, God laughs.” But where do they get this from? Is it Scripture? God’s laughter in Scripture is one of mocking the wicked… it’s a condemning laugh, if you will.

Are not Christian believers to pursue truth? Feel the tension with me: Jesus Christ is truth, and it is the lovely, the admirable, the true upon which we are to set our minds. Shall Christians cease laughing and instead pursue stoic solemnity?



Some Insight from Augustine
In our discussion of exaggeration, I mentioned Augustine. That section finds immediate pertinence here:

We call things false because we see in them a resemblance to the true.…Reason: [That] which I call untrue, is found in those who lie. They differ from those who are deceptive, in that everyone who lies wishes to deceive. For masques and comedies and many poems are full of lies, but their purpose is to delight rather than to deceive; and nearly everyone who tells a joke is telling a lie. But one is rightly called deceptive or deceiving, if his or her goal is to deceive someone. Those who do it not in order to deceive, but just make something up, no hesitates to call liars, or if not that at least tellers of lies.
Reason: …A thing is called false if it tries to be something and fails
Augustine: What you say is correct. But I am surprised that you exclude from this category those poems and jokes and other falsehoods.
Reason: Because it is one thing to want to be false, and another to be unable to be true….these things are in some way true precisely because they are in some way false, and their being true is supported only by their being false in another way….Then if some things are helped to be true by their being something false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods and strive for truth as for some great good?

Excerpted from Augustine’s Soliloquies, Book II: 7,12 – 10, 18, translated by Kim Paffenroth.

Developing Our Thoughts
Augustine lays firm bedrock for us, but since his aim is to determine the eternality of the soul, he doesn’t dwell long enough to answer our question about humor fully. He shows us that precisely in being false, some things are true. If you agree with that premise, then you can agree that a joke, precisely in being a false depiction (read ‘subjective construal’) of reality, can be true in what it attempts, even while it is not true as a description (read ‘objective essence’) of reality. But still that is only half of it. Just because by being false it is true does not mean that we are to accept foolheartedly.

In fact, a full-hearted acceptance of humor would indeed be fool-hearted because it is undeniable that some forms of humor can cut down rather than build up. Some humor belittles the glory of God and the image of God in man. But how much humor can we accept, and why can we accept it?

We find the answer in something else Augustine says, though admittedly, we have to alter his intent. Augustine states through ‘Reason,’ “Then if some things are helped to be true by their being something false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods and strive for truth as for some great good?” The bolded words are all referring to the same thing. We might paraphrase: ‘if jokes are true by the joke’s being false…’ This we can certainly agree to, and already have. But if we alter the antecedent, then we come up with this: ‘if reality is shown to be true by jokes being false, why do we so greatly fear falsehoods (jokes) and strive for truth (strict description) as for some great good?’ We might also include Evey Hammond's wisdom from V for Vendetta: "Artists use lies to tell the truth while [deceivers] use them to cover the truth up."

Is this our answer? Does it satisfy our question? I believe it does. Not only the “why” but the “how much.” You see, humor highlights the incongruous. Jokes depict a reality that is not the way it is, but what’s more jokes depict a reality that is not the way it ought to be. Insomuch as a joke highlights the good and desirable, we ought to embrace and encourage it. Are jokes harmless? No… they either harm pride, arrogance, and sin; or else they harm goodness, glory, truth, and love. Like most things: there is no neutral ground; you must ask yourself the question: do I make jokes to highlight God’s goodness in creation and to stimulate hope for the new heaven and new earth, or do I make jokes to question and critique God’s wisdom andprovidence? Or again, ask yourself, do I make jokes to laugh at my flaws and point myself back to Jesus, or do I make jokes to highlight my competence and ability over and against others.

Is the Christian allowed to laugh? Yes, absolutely. The Christian can and should laugh, and perhaps they should even have the greatest sense of humor since they are acquainted with Truth himself. Joke and jest, and build the kingdom of God with your humor. Destroy sin, mock Satan, lighten the load of pride. Pay attention to the world around you and laugh about the way things are. All the while pointing to the way things should be. Do it with a heart of love and compassion. Do it with joy. Love the truth, and laugh off everything that isn't.

Scripture references involving humor:

List compiled from Elliot Ritzema’s article “Humor” in John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, eds. TheLexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).


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