Wit and the Word

Published in Preach magazine: Preaching and Comedy [Autumn 2016]

One of the greatest proofs to me of the truth of the Christian faith is that it unfailingly portrays what it is to be human. And some of that is ridiculous. Daft. Bizarre and hugely funny.

burning bush.jpg

‘The Messiah comes from the back of beyond? Born to a virgin? Surrounded by farmyard animals? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? You’ll be telling me Leicester City are going to win the Premier League next! Oh…’

God’s overarching story is full of the contrast between his good creation (people and planet) and the ways people have contrived to mess up both. Take into account the fact that the 66 books of the Bible, while divinely inspired, are still humanly written, and you will find plenty of the idiosyncrasies of human beings are included.

Time after time in the long and amazing story of God’s interaction with the human race, you’ll find the preposterous happening. Donkeys talk. The seas part. It rains food. There are plagues of frogs, people are swallowed by whales, a giant warrior is slain by a kid with a sling, and prophets get up to all sorts to communicate God’s message.

Made for mirth

The Bible tells us God himself laughs (Psalm 2:4), and hardwired into every human being, made in God’s image, is this release of joy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is ‘a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance’ (3:4). So what elements can you find in good comedy and humour, and where do we see these in action in the Bible?

First let’s strip down the comedy engine and see what some of the components are. While how we respond to these will vary, depending on what kind of humour we find funny, these components are common if you’re looking for laughter...

  • surprise – the unexpected often makes us laugh
  • misunderstanding – when you say one thing and I understand another
  • incongruity – something out of place is often funny: deliberately bringing an unusual or unexpected element into a story or scenario has huge comedic value
  • juxtaposition – putting two people or elements together that don’t normally belong together: the comedy of contrast
  • identification – when you recognise a situation, feeling or human response you instinctively identify with
  • absurdity – the weirdly surreal, or simply plain daft

So here are types of humour that use these elements:

  • surprise – slapstick and clowning, farce, joke-telling
  • incongruity/absurdity – surreal humour, satire, joke-telling, commedia dell’arte
  • juxtaposition/misunderstanding – storytelling, monologues, surreal humour, puns and wordplay, theatre of the absurd, pantomime
  • identification – observational humour, themed shows, self-deprecating comedians

All these elements can be found in Bible stories in the Old and New Testaments, yet many have become so familiar that we’ve often missed the humour at the very heart of them.

 
 

OTT in the OT

Even with an event of such enormity as the Fall, there is humour in the midst of it: when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:6–10), the first thing they realise is that they’ve got no clothes on, and they swiftly knock up the first item of Eden couture: fig-leaf jumpsuits.

Then, even more bizarrely, when God comes to see them, they hide. As if he might not see them. Basically they panic. And who wouldn’t? It’s farce mixed with Carry On films and a twist of Jacques Tati. Not a story people had a problem remembering.

The same can be said for so many incredibly visual Old Testament stories, full of extraordinary yet flawed characters, called by God to do often apparently crazy things:

  • Noah (Genesis 6-9): ‘build the world’s biggest boat, and fill it with animals’. The OT story that has inspired at least one musical and countless songs.
  • Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16 onwards): it reads like the most unlikely episode of EastEnders ever written, and includes a very unlikely pair of new parents. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when God explained what circumcision involved.
  • Joseph and his multicoloured hippy coat, plus rather unwise dream-sharing (Genesis 37 onwards)

And these are before we even start getting into Gideon, Moses, Samson, David, Daniel and the prophets. Startling stories full of action, unforgettable scenarios and examples of God at work despite the daft, crazy and very human heroes he uses.

The book of Proverbs is full of humorous asides. Clearly there must have been occasions when Proverbs 22:13 was used as an excuse for not turning up for work: ‘The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!”’ That’s pretty inventive for a duvet day.

Proverbs 27:14, meanwhile, was clearly written for those with thin walls, or flat-sharing: ‘If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.’ Yeah, keep it down a bit, mate.

Stroppy prophets

Some of the characters God chooses to use give us all hope. Take Jonah, for example (no please, take him). Called by God to preach in Nineveh, he runs in the opposite direction. Well, we’ve all felt like that. Finding himself able to sleep on a ship about to break up in the midst of a violent storm, he’s blamed by the crew because he’s been daft enough to tell them he’s running away from God. ‘What should we do?’ they ask. ‘Chuck me overboard,’ he replies, ‘it’s all my fault.’

To be fair to the crew, they’re reluctant and ask God not to hold them to account for tipping Jonah over the side. Jonah, bless him, is swallowed by a giant fish (type unspecified).

You know the story – Jonah delivers God’s message, the people turn from evil, then Jonah has a strop and sulks. We then get the comedy of the vine that dies, and after a bit more drama-queenery, God teaches Jonah a valuable lesson. Unforgettable.

 
 

Jesus at the mic

We can only skim the surface in this brief article, but the humour of Jesus is a massive topic all on its own, and one of the most helpful books I’ve found is Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ, a slim volume written in 1964 and most recently reprinted by HarperSanFrancisco in 1990.

He argues that recognising Jesus’ wit and humour is essential for understanding some of his teaching, and seeing how this helped him communicate with his disciples and the wider population.

Jesus often uses an apparent contradiction or paradox to make a point, to connect with his audience, often with a humorous metaphor or image (eg the blind leading the blind in Luke 6:39).

Trueblood also points out that Jesus used the ridiculous for good reasons:

•        easy to remember

•        likely to be passed on like a good joke

‘Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25) – whatever your view of the Jerusalem gates explanation to this reference, it’s a surreal image that would have left his hearers chuckling and repeating it to their neighbours.

‘Do not cast your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6) – flinging your best jewellery in front of a bunch of farm animals who were considered unclean to start with would have been a hilarious and shocking image for his audience.

Punchlines with purpose

Jesus uses humour to reveal truth, not just to get a laugh – as do the best of modern-day comedians. Humour disarms, and sometimes it’s opening people up for a knockout blow.

He also makes regular use of irony. When Jesus calls the fishermen Simon and Andrew he promises ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17). It’s a surreal image Eddie Izzard would be proud of – kind of a play on words, but using the time-honoured comedian’s ploy of giving something familiar an unexpected twist.

There’s also a hefty dose of irony at work when Jesus names Simon ‘Peter’ or ‘the Rock’, saying his Church will be built on him (Matthew 16:18). The unpredictable, excitable and unstable Simon looks like the last character you’d choose for your foundation stone, as he goes on to deny Christ three times.

But Jesus is proved the correct judge of character ultimately as Peter becomes the real rock of the Early Church. His nickname may have seemed like a bit of a joke initially, but Jesus’ banter had a purpose – to see him become the man he was made to be.

Cutting to the bone

In today’s comedy, satire – particularly political satire – is a key weapon used to prick the pomposity of the vain, self-righteous and powerful, to highlight hypocrisy and to expose truth. It can be traced back right the way through history from today’s Have I Got News For You and Private Eye, through the 18th century political cartoons of Hogarth and Gillray, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to the Roman and Greek poets before Christ.

It’s also clearly seen in Jesus’ concerted verbal attacks on the Pharisees in Matthew 23. As religious leaders who prided themselves on not just being holy, but being seen to be holy, Jesus takes great delight in pointing out the ludicrousness of their focus on outward appearance at the expense of what is within.

If Matthew 23 was delivered by a top contemporary stand-up, it would be a barbed rant by the likes of social activist Mark Thomas, skewering targets along the way with a passion for justice and integrity, yet a tender heart for truth. This must have been something like the way it sounded for Jesus’ hearers, even as they were stunned by his insight and courage at confronting the Pharisees with their inconsistencies head-on.

‘You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel’ (verses 23–24).

It’s observational humour: picking up the minutiae, but targeting their hypocrisy and the fact they’ve completely missed the law’s priorities. And he ends it with a classically surreal image: straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel! That’s the line shared down the pub.

J John comments on Jesus’ use of exaggeration: ‘There’s an ingredient in Nurofen that is probably disgusting. If we actually had to swallow the liquid, we wouldn’t be able to. But it’s covered in sugar in order to make it soluble. What we are trying to do is help deliver the message to make it accessible and soluble.

‘Jesus was doing this; a lot of people don’t recognise Hebrew humour, as it is humour by exaggeration. Before you take the speck out of someone’s eye, take the telegraph pole out of your own. It was all exaggeration.’[1]

One of my favourite incidents takes place in Matthew 17 on the Mount of Transfiguration: Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter enthusiastically suggests a little tented village, then ‘while he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them…’ Essentially, this is God sighing and saying ‘Ye-es, Peter, nice idea, but maybe concentrate on listening to what Jesus tells you?’

There’s so much more to be explored (check out 1 Corinthians 12:1–26 for a Body of Christ analogy for the local church that always makes me think of Mr Potato Head in Toy Story), and Jesus’ parables are an absolute goldmine. The God who invented laughter, and who has consistently used the most unlikely men and women in his plans, has left wit and humour all over his Word. I’m not kidding.

[1] http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2016/March-2016/J.John-filling-the-football-stadiums-again


Author Bio

Russ Bravo is editor of Inspire magazine. He’s based on the Sussex coast where he runs Matt’s Comedy Club and helps lead worship at St Matthew’s Church, Worthing.