Laughing in church

Is it any wonder that so many people find religious settings stultifying? It's time to recover joy, humor and laughter in Christian churches, says the Rev. James Martin.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life," by James Martin, S.J. Copyright © 2011 by James Martin, S.J. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

For all its dignity and grandeur and gravity, the Christian church is, like any institution, manifestly human. And with that humanity comes some laughter, both intentional and unintentional. This is a gift from God, who wants us to enjoy ourselves, to appreciate the absurdities of life, and not to take ourselves so seriously, particularly in religious institutions, where it's too easy to become deadly serious.

Is it any wonder that so many people find religious settings stultifying? "The lack of humor and irritability into which we in the contemporary Church and contemporary theology have so often slipped is perhaps one of the most serious objections which can be brought against present-day Christianity," wrote Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German Catholic theologian and later a prominent Vatican official, in his book "An Introduction to Christian Faith."

Levity is still considered excessive in some churches. (Believe me, I've visited them and worshiped in them.) And when bishops, priests, sisters, brothers, ministers, pastors, elders, pastoral associates, music ministers, hospital chaplains, directors of religious education, and religious education teachers act as if they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, that no job is as difficult as theirs, and that they alone are responsible for doing God's work, then we're in trouble.

 

11 reasons for humor and joy

  • Humor and joy evangelize others by showing our hope.
  • Humor can shock listeners into recognizing reality.
  • Self-deprecating humor reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
  • Humor can speak truth to power.
  • Joy, humor and laughter show Christian courage in the face of adversity.
  • Humor deepens our relationship with God by encouraging us to smile in prayer.
  • Humor and laughter welcome others into a group.
  • Laughter helps in the healing process.
  • Humor fosters good human relations.
  • Laughter relaxes us and so opens our minds.
  • Humor is fun, a gracious gift to enjoy.

Source: "Between Heaven & Mirth"

 

As we mentioned in Chapter Two, there are several historical reasons for this underplaying of humor in church circles. As John W. O'Malley, a distinguished Jesuit scholar and the dean of American Catholic historians, told me recently, "In strictly ecclesiastical or 'churchy' circles, humor has never, ever been a big thing. However, in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, humor about religion was widespread in literature: for example, Boccaccio's 'Decameron,' Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales,' Erasmus's colloquies and 'Praise of Folly,' even Thomas More's 'Utopia' (which was not exactly humor but seriously lighthearted). But the Reformation controversies suppressed all that, pretty much ever since, though people like G.K. Chesterton tried to get a little bounce back in things."

But overall, as Fr. O'Malley noted, humor has never been a "big thing" in ecclesial circles. And that has been my experience as well.

The comedian Groucho Marx was once in a hotel lobby (or stepping off a train, or having lunch, depending on the source of the story) when a priest, in his clerical collar, rushed over to see the great film comedian. "Thank you, Groucho, for bringing so much joy and laughter into people's lives!"

"Thank you," Groucho replied, "for taking so much joy and laughter out of them."

It's not just a Catholic problem. The Rev. Martin Marty, the distinguished Protestant theologian, author of many books and over 5,000 scholarly articles, told me that certain aspects of the Protestant tradition have always struck him as "grim." In a recent interview Marty said, " Hilaritas is not characteristic of the Protestant ethos."

Professor Marty saw that as ironic since Martin Luther, about whom Marty has written extensively, often stressed the value of "play" in his writings. And he was also fond himself of the occasional witticism. In one of the sayings later collected in Luther's "Table Talk," one of his friends recounts Luther's amusing way of preparing to deliver a particular homily. "Tomorrow I have to lecture on the drunkenness of Noah," said the great man, "so I should drink enough this evening to be able to talk about that wickedness as one who knows by experience." To underline his humor, I should add that I first read this in a book entitled "The Wit of Martin Luther."

Ironically, Professor Marty said that his whole career could be attributed to a sense of humor. While studying at Concordia Seminary in Missouri, he and his friends playfully concocted a fictional scholar named Franz Bibfeldt, whose fake name and spurious accomplishments they attempted to place in as many academic settings as they could -- student newspapers, the school's library card catalogue, and so on.

In response to these shenanigans, the dean called him into his office for a scolding. He told Marty that someone with such frivolity could never be a good Protestant scholar, and sent him to work with a pastor. But at that church the pastor told the young man that all his assistants studied for their doctorates. So that's what Marty did. "So my whole professional life was thanks to a prank!" he told me.

Today you find on the Internet references to the work of the wholly fictional professor, including a book penned by Marty and a friend with the wonderfully serious title of "The Unrelieved Paradox: Studies in the Theology of Franz Bibfeldt." Among the fanciful articles are "Franz Bibfeldt and the Future of Political Theology."

"And I'm still accused of not being serious enough!" said one of the country's greatest scholars of religion. "I have a real taste for humor."

Professor Marty, who is also the author of "Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America," surmised that the American Protestant tradition's emphasis on seriousness may relate to the belief that what you do needs to "add up" to something. Of course, he said, there are many Protestants who are lighthearted, humorous and joyful. But overall he detects a certain grimness in certain parts of the Protestant DNA. "After all," he told me, "we talk about the Protestant work ethic, not the Protestant play ethic."

Charles Hambrick-Stowe, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield, Connecticut, agreed, suggesting that this seriousness may be ingrained in aspects of the American Protestant tradition. "Perhaps a great deal of this comes from our Puritan background," he said. "After all, Cotton Mather talked about the dangers of humor and noted that nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus smiled. But the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." Hambrick-Stowe laughingly recalled H.L. Mencken's acid definition of Puritanism as the "haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Pastor Hambrick-Stowe has a range of experience in a variety of Protestant traditions. He has taught both at Lancaster Theological Seminary, a UCC institution in Pennsylvania, as well as in the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Hambrick-Stowe has also taught church history at the Baptist-run Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He is an excellent person to address the topic of humor in American Protestantism.

Hambrick-Stowe agreed with Professor Marty in the overemphasis on what he called the "grim, dour and rigid" brand of some Protestant traditions. "Too many thou-shalt-nots," he said.

"Then why do I know so many joyful Protestants?" I asked him. In response he pointed to an interesting historical development that helped to usher in a more joyful form of American Protestantism.

In the aftermath of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century, he said, many Protestant denominations began to realize that the center of people's lives was moving away from the church. This led to a growing awareness of the need to link the life of the local church with the everyday "social" life of the congregation. "This is when you had churches building social halls, gymnasiums, church parlors and even bowling alleys where all sorts of groups could meet," he said. "Pianos started to appear in social halls, and not just for the singing of religious songs. You had a greater emphasis on fellowship and youth groups."

As a result, says Hambrick-Stowe, what was injected into American Protestant culture was both "fellowship and fun."

Even with these relatively recent developments, and even if many priests and ministers admit the need for joy, many religious institutions still seem to find little room for a smile, for a joke, for laughter, or worse, for the occasional measure of silliness. But God, I would suggest, may think otherwise.

Why do I believe this? Because God relentlessly introduces into even the most serious of situations -- whether we like it or not -- joy, humor and laughter. This happens mainly through our own very human mistakes, which reveals to us our very human limitations. Everyone has a favorite story about a snafu, a slipup or a stupid thing they did or said in the midst of their ministry that prompted gales of unexpected laughter. God brings joy, humor and laughter into churches through our humanity, on a regular basis, which is something that we should rejoice about.

Editor's note: For more on Franz Bibfeldt, see "Franz Bibfeldt for Real? Yes and No" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Bibfeldt."