Getting the Joke
By Audrey Stallsmith
This autumn has been what they used to call “passing strange.” That thought occurred to me the other day as I was sprinkling cinnamon on tulip bulbs. There was actually a good reason for the cinnamon, it being a natural anti-fungal.
But any observer probably would have given me the same look the Fed-Ex guy did the time he found me outdoors, topping rows of upside-down Mason jars with upside-down Cool Whip containers. (Rose cuttings were the explanation that time, as some of you gardeners might have guessed.)
“Weird” is an adjective to which my family is rather accustomed, though we like to think of ourselves as resourceful rather than peculiar. Since we live on a farm, we’re used to a few mice popping up in the fall, but this year it’s been a full-scale invasion. Thanks to PBS, I learned that rodents multiply faster during cool, wet summers, but the explanation hasn’t helped my feminine unease any!
Due to my jitters about rats and mice and the damage they do to my plants, I found a machine that would humanely electrocute the intruders—thus sparing both my conscience and my nerves. As I was setting up my little “electric chair,” however, it occurred to me how ridiculous it is for me to be intimidated by animals so much smaller than I am!
A psychologist would probably say that, when I lie awake listening for scampering noises, I’m not so much scared of the little furry gnawers themselves as of the fact that I can’t control them. And he or she would probably be right!
I’ve related all this to say that, if we couldn’t laugh about the sometimes-odd circumstances of our lives, we would probably cry. Or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in one of his columns, “All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats. . .refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”
So humor is inseparably tied up with humility. If we can’t see the comic side of our own weaknesses, we become much too obsessively involved with defending ourselves. But a mirthful man, as Chesterton points out, “abandons dignity, which is another name for solemnity, which is another name for spiritual pride. . .a laugh is like a love affair in that it carries a man completely off his feet. . .a man must love a joke more than himself, or he will not surrender his pride for it.”
To reach that level of self-abandonment, we must feel very secure. And we can only feel that confident when we’re truly convinced that God loves us despite our frailties.
In Orthodoxy Chesterton asserts that “man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth.” He notes elsewhere, “The more sane and certain is your belief, the more insane and impetuous should be your behavior. . .there is only one way of being exuberant. . .and that is to be seriously convinced.”
Unfortunately, “exuberant” is not an adjective the world usually associates with Christians. The media often prefers to typecast us all as stern and humorless Puritans—though I suspect even the Puritans weren’t actually as drab as all that!
Such a portrayal simply isn’t true, of course. Employees of the college where we hold our writers’ conference say they’ve never heard anybody else laugh as much as we Christian writers do. And Chesterton himself was a jolly, rollicking defender of the faith, whose lectures were immensely popular due to his humor as much as to his genius.
But I have to admit that the attitude displayed by we believers is frequently anything but exuberant. One problem is the fact that we tend to become strident when our faith is challenged. Though we may believe that we’re somehow defending our Lord, I’m afraid the truth is that we’re actually defending our own pride.
Some Christians are in a slough of despond at the moment, due to the results of the recent election. But, though I’m a Republican myself, I don’t make the mistake of believing that God is one too! There are plenty of believers on the other side. And, as Stephen Brown writes in If God Is in Charge, “If a liberal or a pagan can destroy what we consider the eternal verities. . .they probably were not eternal verities to begin with. . .God and His word will stand no matter what we do.”
Psalms 2:4 relates how, “God in heaven merely laughs” at man’s attempts to defy Him. “He is amused by all their puny plans.” If we really believe He has everything under control, we too can find a certain amusement in athiests’ attempts to prove otherwise. But we won’t feel threatened by them.
And, if we truly trust that God will never stop loving us, we can relax a little and lose what Henry J. Nouwen calls in A Cry for Mercy “the illusion that everything has the quality of an emergency.” There is, as Charles Williams agrees in Descent of the Dove, “no need to be too ardent against other people on behalf of the Omnipotence.” To put it more plainly, God is perfectly capable of taking care of Himself and of us too!
We should probably begin acknowledging too that Christ was much less priggish than we are. He did not have, as many of us do, a slavish deference for either the religious or political establishments. In fact, he tended to defy both at every turn with what Dorothy Sayers called “a shocking carelessness in the matter of other peoples pigs and property.” It is, as Rebecca Manley Pippert writes in Out of the Saltshaker, a “profound irony that the Son of God visited this planet and one of the chief complaints against him was that he was not religious enough.”
There was good reason that Jesus often chose to dine with out-and-out sinners rather than with the self-righteous. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that “God cannot endure that unfestive, mirthless attitude of ours in which we eat our bread in sorrow with pretentious, busy, haste, or even with shame.”
We often think our lack of humor proves how serious we are about our mission. But, as Chesterton points out, “funny is not the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny and of nothing else.”
One of the things I always liked about Alistair MacLean’s espionage thrillers is that his heroes tended to crack wry jokes in the most desperate circumstances. Although they were generally involved in “saving the world” at the time, and willing to give their lives if necessary, those jokes allowed them to take themselves less seriously while taking their mission very seriously indeed. George MacDonald reminds us in Sir Gibbie “it is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence.”
In his book, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner writes that “man is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven. That is the comedy. . .Blessed is he. . .who gets the joke.”
Since we are made in God’s image, we know He must possess a sense of humor too. And it has to be a mammoth one to have allowed Him to put up with the human race for all these years. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton posits that “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
I watched a French version (with subtitles!) of Beauty and the Beast the other night. As I’ve mentioned before, I fancy we often also see God as a fierce and scary being who is just waiting for an excuse to devour us.
The truth is, of course, that it is we who are the cursed ones, but who only need to fully believe in His love to be set free. Once we are, perhaps we’ll finally believe, as G. K. writes in his poem, "A Portrait," “That though the jest be old as night/ Still shaketh sun and sphere/ An everlasting laughter/ Too loud for us to hear.”