Laughter has not always been prized as a wholly positive phenomenon. In the 18th century Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son: ‘there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.’ John Ray called laughter ‘the hiccup of a fool’, and Oliver Goldsmith thought that it spoke of ‘the vacant mind’. As recently as 1964 a specialist psychology dictionary characterised laughter as an ‘emotional response, expressive normally of joy, in the child and the unsophisticated adult.’ Recent writers have confirmed that that humour and laughter have become important only in recent times. They note that laughter is rarely mentioned in the Bible, and such instances as do occur tend to be of the scornful kind.
Notwithstanding the protestations of our more serious forebears, it would seems that laughter is not only a universal, but also a rather primitive reaction. The stereotypical laughter response – ‘hahaha’ – seems close to the non-verbal vocalisation of some apes. Smiling, too, is probably a very primitive behaviour, and in its essence is probably a defence mechanism (signalling a non-threatening stance towards the other person).
Developmentally, laughter begins at about 4 months and expresses a pleasurable mood. An appreciation of humour (in the form of a response to incongruity within a non-threatening environment) comes later (possibly as late as the 2nd year).
A ‘grand theory’?
The development of a ‘grand theory’ of humour has proved elusive. We can list the kinds of things that we find funny or which make us laugh, but we cannot always see a connection between them. Stephen Potter (1954) pointed out that we may laugh when the sea touches our navel, at other people’s (or our own misfortunes), because other people are laughing, when we feel embarrassed, to attract attention, to indicate that we have got the joke, at a joke we have heard many times before, at funny hats, and so on.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world humour and laughter were linked to ‘making fun’ of disability and misfortune in others. This approach finds its modern version in disposition theory. This theory predicts that people are negatively disposed towards a certain party will find amusement in the disparagement of that party. This may help to account for jokes aimed at minority groups.
Some see the essence of humour as deriving from a vivid sense of proportion/disproportion. Incongruity theories were developed by thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Kant, and Spencer. These focus on a mis-match between is perceived and what was expected. Of course, in order to be amused by the incongruous we must have a sense of the congruous.
Humour may be expressed in a variety of ways, for example, a smile, a chuckle, a guffaw. But what is the link between humour and laughter? Not all laughter is triggered by humour, and not all humour leads to laughter.
The laughter response is largely governed by the prevailing social situation. If others around us are seen or heard to be laughing, we will tend to follow suit. Hence the presence of a ‘live’ audience for many comedy shows on radio and TV, or the use of ‘canned laughter’.
In fact, the social nature of humour goes beyond our tendency to laugh when other people around us are laughing. Kathryn Lockhart claims that humour is not merely imitative; it is democratic – it ‘has the power to unite a roomful of people who can share a laugh over a common experience.’
Simple observation indicates wide variations: there are people who laugh at (virtually) nothing, and those who laugh at (virtually) everything. However, surveys indicate the most people think they have an above-average sense of humour. Apart from suggesting an interesting statistical impossibility, this does confirm that most people regard having a ‘good sense of humour’ as a desirable thing. Indeed, many would regard it as indicative of good psychological health.
Types of humour
Types of humour – toilet humour, satire, word-play, derision, humorous stories, impersonation, ‘in’jokes’, parody, impersonation, satire, understatement, hyperbole, irony, wit, slapstick, practical jokes; black humour.
‘Clever’ humour, as in the songs of Tom Lehrer, bears repetition as the hearer delights again in the musical and verbal dexterity.
Put-downs. Put-downs can be either gentle (deflating pride) or aggressive (leading to anger and resentment).
Purposes of humour
Some humour seems to have little obvious purpose – simple playfulness or fun are sufficient ends in themselves. Often, however, there is a more ‘serious’ purpose:-
- ego-defensiveness: for example, making fun of yourself before anyone else does; defusing a threatening situation.
- building of trust or friendship (how many of us love to share a good joke!)
- emotional coping (helping us to deal with the absurdities and incongruities of life)
- cathartic release (note the similarities, as well and the differences between, laughing and drying, for example)
- subversion (the use of mockery to bring down the high and mighty, or to deflate the pompous)
- building group cohesion (by the use of ‘in-jokes’, for example)
Although it has been said that ‘laughter is the best medicine’, humour can, in fact, be toxic. In some hands, it is a powerful tool which can be used to mock something that cannot, or should not, be changed (race, gender, disability).
In fact any of the purposes of humour that have just been noted can be misdirected. Humour may become a tool of self-deprecation for the person who lacks self-esteem, of manipulation to gain love and attention, of avoidance for the person for the person who finds it difficult to confront a traumatic experience, and so on.
Sexually-oriented humour – playing with the boundary between private/public.
Swearing – overused in live stand-up, so loses its power to surprise and shock.
Even when it is not being used as a tool of aggression against the vulnerable, or as a vehicle of crass tastelessness, humour can quickly become merely foolish (Eccles 2:2; Prov 14:13).
The professionalisation of humour
Centuries ago, they had their court jesters. Now, we have our comedians.
‘Author Eugene Peterson observes that our society is so bereft of joy that instead of exploring the reasons for our unhappiness, we pay entertainers to make us laugh so that we can forget our troubles.’
Humour as escapism – we pay comedians to distract us from our tragic and humdrum lives.
Funny people and comedy actors (Rowan Atkinson, Ronnie Barker).
Delivery: timing, discovery
Observational humour – finding the incongruous in everyday life.
Humour in the Bible
So what of humour in the Bible? The BBC once had an interesting ‘Fact of the Day’:-
Of the 13 uses of the word ‘laughed’ in the Bible: 9 involve people being ‘laughed to scorn’ (usually accompanied by mocking and/or despising); two are bitter or ironic laughs; and one involves someone being frightened to admit to having laughed ironically. Only one of the 13 references can be reasonably described as cheerful, and that is in Job, one of the most miserable and dispiriting books in the Bible, as he recalls his former happiness before God and Satan conspired against him.
Well, that may be factually accurate. But it by no means tells the whole story. If we are meant to infer from this that the dominant mood of the Bible is one of despondency, misery or depression, that would be very far from the mark. We should not over-generalise, the 66 books of the Bible having been written by many different people in different literary forms and genres over a long period of time. However, it would be fair to say that the biblical writers take a characteristically cheerful view of life. It is true that most of them would probably struggle with our modern notion of ‘fun’. But if you change the search term from ‘laughter’ to ‘joy’, for example, you would get a very different impression indeed. ‘Joy’ occurs some 210 times in the Bible, ‘rejoice’ 124 times, and so on.
Serious? Yes. Morose? I don’t think so. Are we to suppose that Scripture is a relentlessly serious book, eschewing all wit, laughter and playfulness?
No, not at all. In fact, according to the relevant article in ISBE (revised ed.) there is more humour in the Bible than is immediately apparent to us. The reason for this is that much humour depends on word-play and cultural aspects, both of which are likely to be ‘lost in translation’.
Although there are many different forms of humour, a factor that is common to many of these forms is an appeal to the incongruous. We expect life generally, and human nature in particular, to make sense, to operate in certain kinds of ways. Our reaction to the unexpected, the confusing, and the plain stupid often manifests itself in laughter. Humour is (or should be) a sign of sanity and good sense, a response of the normal to the abnormal, of the sensible to the silly, of the well-balanced to the eccentric.
One source of humour in the Bible is the human personality. It is a deplorable, yet amusing, human trait to blame someone else for one’s own shortcomings. The personalities and behaviour of Eve (Gen 3:12f), Sarah (Gen 18), Jacob (Gen 29-31), and Jonah are all presented in ways calculated to arouse our sense of the ridiculous.
At other times, humour is situation-based. The account of Samson (Judges 14-16) is littered with incongruous situations:-
Samson burning the grain fields of the Philistines by tying torches to the tails of foxes; Samson carrying off the gates of the enemy’s city, gates which were both the symbol and the reality of its security; Samson slaying a thousand men with the “fresh jawbone of an ass” (Jgs. 15:15); Samson paying his gambling debts by slaying thirty men of Ashkelon, turning the tables on those who had tricked the secret of his riddle from him by “plowing with his heifer” (Jgs. 14:18).
We are intended to smile at Balaam’s discomfiture (Num 22:21-30), and at the ‘comeuppance’ of the proud and powerful who crossed David’s path (1 Sam 17; 25).
Humorous for the same reason (the discomfiture of the haughty) are: the defeat of the Midianites by a handful of men under Gideon (Jgs. 7:19–23); the ironic jeers of Elijah at the priests of Baal (1 K. 18:27); and the terror of the wicked Haman, begging for his life from Queen Esther, whom he had tried to destroy (“falling on the couch where Esther was,” Est. 7:8), and being hanged on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai (vv 9f).
But the most frequent form of humour in the Bible is verbal. It is, unfortunately, also the least translatable. But there are many instances of onomatopoeia (in which a word imitates the sound of its referent), paranomasia, alliteration, and so on. Jesus used this kind of humour quite frequently, employing hyperbole (the ‘speck’ and the ‘log’, Mt 7:3; the gnat and the camel, Mt 23:24; and the camel and the eye of a needle, Mt 19:24). Paul used irony, as in 2 Cor 10:1f; 11:1,16-21.
Much of the humour in the Bible is sharp-edged, mocking or even satirical. Gentler forms are also found, however, as in the story of Zacchaeus, Lk 19:1-10, of the woman at the well, Jn 4:16-18, and of the Syrophoenician woman, Mk 7:25-29.
To deliberately and systematically exclude all humour from preaching, therefore, is unbiblical. It is also unhelpful, because humour turns out to be a wonderfully effective tool of teaching and persuasion, when used skilfully.
Does God have a sense of humour? Kathryn Lockhart observes that the Bible reveals a God who works in whimsical and seemingly incongruous ways: ‘For example, he chose Moses, an ineloquent speaker, to lead his chosen people (Exodus 4:10-11). He asked Gideon to go up against ten thousand armed warriors with three hundred soldiers carrying clay pots, torches and horns (Judges 7). He arranged for old Sarah to give birth to baby Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). He ordained that the Savior of the world should be born in a stable to a poor woman who was not married (Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-7). And he created humans, who are unique among the animals in that they have a sense of humor.’ According to Psa 37:12f, God indulges even in derision (see also Mt 9:24).
With regard to Jesus, it has often been noted that the Gospels record him weeping once, but never laughing. Nevertheless, a lively sense of humour is evident in his ready use of irony and hyperbole, in his vivid characterisation and story-telling. And he loved children, which speaks volumes for a sense of fun. Nevertheless, his use of humour was purposeful: he frequently used wit and hyperbole to deflate pride and to expose greed.
Kathryn Lockhart again: ‘Jesus was what we would call today a lateral thinker, meaning that his creativity would allow him to respond to people in unorthodox, and therefore unsettling, ways. He had a fine sense of hyperbole, claiming that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). He accused the Pharisees of being blind guides who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). He was also adept at using biting irony, as when he rebuked the Pharisees for inventing their own petty laws and placing them above God’s teachings, saying, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9). Jesus was a master of witty repartee, as in the case when a man in the crowd shouted, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Without skipping a beat, Jesus retorted, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus had an attractive personality and a powerful charisma that people found either so hard to resist that they had to follow him around or so threatening that they clamored for his death. Parrott notes that “Jesus used humor freely, thus permitting in his own humanity the greatness to prevail over the potentially tragic”.’
From humour to joy
Humour can reveal human frailty – both in others and ourselves. It can show us who we really are, and make us marvel that God could love such as us. : ‘When humor reveals the frailties of humanity, it makes us marvel that God can love us as much as he does—so much so that he allowed his precious Son to live as one of us. Lockhart quotes Soria: ‘Good humor can be a physiological condition. And it can be achieved even though one is not feeling very well, perhaps through human maturity. But, when this happens in an habitual and heroic way, it is assuredly a sign of Christian sanctity. For then it is a surrendered and joyful acceptance of the will of God’.
As Peterson says: ‘One of the most interesting and remarkable things that Christians learn is that laughter does not exclude weeping. Christian joy is not an escape from sorrow. Pain and hardship still come, but they are unable to drive out the happiness of the redeemed.’
Humour in preaching
My thoughts turned to this subject after reading an article by Dr David P. Murray entitled Serious Preaching in a Comedy Culture.
Noting the tendency of today’s media to turn everything into a joke, Dr Marshall says that preachers must resist this tendency, and recognise that their business is a very serious one. He supports his plea with the following arguments:-
1. The preacher’s examples. Old Testament preachers such as Enoch, Noah, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and Jeremiah were not light-hearted, but serious. Paul claimed to ‘speak forth the words of truth and soberness’ (Acts 26:25), and that his ‘speech and…preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Cor 2:3-4). And our Lord’s preaching too was characterised by soberness rather than comedic effect.
2. The preacher’s office. The preacher is an ambassador of Christ, 2 Cor 5:20. We are his representatives. We are on a serious mission. Life and death hang in the balance.
3. The preacher’s message. There is nothing comical about sin, hell and judgment. Nor is the remedy for these ills comical, for it entails Christ crucified. Nor can the joy and thrill of faith in Christ take away from the plight of unsaved souls to whom we preach.
4. The preachers’ fruit. The proper of effect of the word of God, faithfully proclaimed, is ‘the fear of the Lord’, Acts 2:43.
5. The preacher’s world. We live in a world of pain and suffering. Some in our congregations will be hurting badly. They need compassion, not comedy. On the other hand, there is so much flippancy and superficiality in the world. The preacher needs to aim at conviction and repentance (see James 4:8-10).
6. The preacher’s Bible. Although there is some satire, irony and word-play in the Bible, there is no place for comedy. Where laughter is mentioned, it usually refers to scorn or derision.
7. The preacher’s God. When people come face to face with God, they are not amused, but awe-struck (see Job 42:5-6, Isa. 6:5, Dan. 10:17, Rev. 1:17).
The cumulative weight of these arguments, suggests Dr Murray, convinces us that preaching should be characterised by seriousness, rather than by comedy. It is not sufficient, he suggests, for a preacher to retort, “But humour is natural to me”; or, “Humour helps me to capture people’s attention, overcomes defences, drives truth home”. Humour has no place in the pulpit; preachers should resist the spirit of the age and any appeals to ‘lighten up a bit’.
I have to say that I agree with the main thrust of Dr Marshall’s plea. However, I can’t help thinking that there is a certain amount of confusion here, and something that has been missed out. The confusion comes about because he fails to distinguish in his article between ‘comedy’ and ‘humour’. He uses the two interchangeably. But ‘comedy’, I would suggest, is a form of entertainment, and would agree that as such it has no place in the pulpit. But ‘humour’ is a much more fluid and flexible concept. Humour is so deeply embedded in who we are and how we think that it can serve all kinds of purposes – noble as well as ignoble – and to attempt to shut it out of the pulpit altogether is both unnecessary and unhelpful. Plus, I suspect, there is more humour in the Bible than Dr Marshall concedes.
The view of Martyn Lloyd-Jones
D. M. Lloyd-Jones was a serious preacher, not at all given to using humour in the pulpit. In this regard, he was like George Whitefield.
Lloyd-Jones notes, however, that some preachers – C.H. Spurgeon, for example, and John Berridge – are naturally humorous. We do not condemn them for their use of wit in the pulpit, even though they may sometimes have over-stepped the mark.
I think that Lloyd-Jones’ conclusion is wise:-
I would not dare to say that there is no place for humour in preaching; but I do suggest that it should not be a very big place because of the nature of the work, and because of the character of the Truth with which we are dealing. The preacher is dealing with and concerned about souls and their destiny. He is standing between God and men and acting as an ambassador for Christ. I would have though that as that is the overriding consideration, the most one can say for the place of humour is that it is only allowable if it is natural. The man who tries to be humorous is an abomination and should never be allowed to enter a pulpit.
Preaching and Preachers, p241.
The view of John Stott
John Stott records in The Contemporary Christian (p296) a story that he recounted more than once from the pulpit:-
A social worker in Nigeria once visited a youth in one of the back streets of Lagos. On his bedside table he found the following books: the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, the Qur’an, three copies of Watchtower, a biography of Karl Marx, a book of yoga exercises, and – what the poor fellow evidently needed most – a popular paperback entitled How to Stop Worrying.
This is a fair example of the kind of humour that Stott employed in the pulpit. He only used humour occasionally, and when he did so, it was always subservient to some more serious point that he was attempting to drive home.
In I Believe in Preaching (pp286-292) Stott sets out his view on the use of humour in the pulpit. Having affirmed that the primary stance of the preacher is one of ‘earnestness’, but asks ‘whether it is ever appropriate for the preacher to make the congregation laugh.’ Does the scriptural observation that ‘there is a time to weep and a time to laugh’ (Eccles 3:4) apply to preaching?
It is generally agreed, says Stott, that Jesus used humour quite extensively. Perhaps the most common form of humour employed by our Lord was irony. Elton Trueblood is quoted:-
It is very important to understand that the evident purpose of Christ’s humour is ot clarify and increase understanding, rather than to hurt. Perhaps some hurt is inevitable, especially when…human pride is rendered ridiculous, but the clear aim is something other than harm…Truth, and truth alone, is the end…The unmasking of error and thereby the emergence of truth.
Jesus also used comic exaggeration to good effect, as in his sayings about specks and logs in people’s eyes (Mt 7) and the scribes and Pharisees who would ‘strain out a gnat and swallow a camel’ (Mt 23:23f). His hearers must have been in fits of laughter.
Drawing on the example of Jesus, preachers of the Reformation such as Martin Luther and Hugh Latimer drew vivid word-pictures that incorporated earthy humour.
There is a place, then, for humour in the pulpit. But we must use it carefully and sparingly. We must not demonstrate a frivolous, trivialising attitude towards God himself, or salvation, or the solemn realities of eternity.
Humour can break tension. It can allow our hearers a few moments’ break from mental concentration or from emotional pressure.
Humour can break down people’s defences. Some who hear our preaching come with a stubborn, rebellious attitude. Appropriate use of humour can help break down resistance. ‘After the mirthquake the still small voice’ (Christopher Morley).
Then again, humour can humble us by pricking the bubble of pomposity:-
To laugh at somebody’s foibles is a back-handed compliment. It recognizes the innate dignity of human beings. It cannot take seriously their deviations fro authentically human behaviour, their pride, pretence and pettiness. These things are funny because they are incongruous. Moreover human can be directed against oneself; one laughs at one’s own idiosyncrasies, at one’s ludicrous lapses from humanness.’
It is even possible, as Malcolm Muggeridge suggested, that humour can be seen as ‘the converse of face of mysticism’; the downward-looking gargoyle to mysticism’s upward-pointing steeple. The Christian can easily see this exemplified in his own life, as he recognises the gulf between ‘his heavenly vision and his earthly attainment’.
The Oxford Companion to the Mind, art. ‘Humour’.
ISBE (2nd ed.)
Kathryn Lockhart, art. ‘Humour’ in Complete Handbook of Everyday Christianity, ed R. Banks, R. P. Stephens.