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god-the-father-batoniDoes God jest, and does He enjoy the joke? Do the angels and saints hear chuckles booming through the firmament and know that He’s amused again? If so, what tickles His fancy? The issue is more complex than it appears, so as a reward I’ll share the best joke in the world.

It could be simple: God made Man in His image, so presumably He has a sense of humour just as we do. Conversely, He may lack a pointless appendix or a petulant gall-bladder, so maybe humour is something that we have but He doesn’t.

The best joke in the world begins with a man passing a tiny shop…but I get ahead of myself. The surprisingly sparse material on divine humour usually starts with the Bible, for the Word of God is a logical place to begin. The Old Testament contains many examples along the lines of, “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting” (Job 8:21). This doesn’t count. It refers to our own laughter, rather than God laughing. Professional comics can feel quite glum even as they make others laugh. Using humour and enjoying humour are different things entirely.

The Old Testament contains only a few examples of God laughing, such as, “But the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He sees that His day is coming” (Psalms 37:13). In the second Psalm we hear:

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath…

The others are similar and don’t count either, for they are mirthless laughs of vengeance or victory. “Ha ha ha, you lose, you miserable stinker!” does not signify a sense of humour generally speaking. Lady Thatcher was like that, say her former confidants, utterly incapable of laughter unless one of her political adversaries broke his leg; otherwise she reacted to humour like a dog watching television.

When Proverbs says, “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” (27:14), there is potential humour in some pious sadist praying loudly as his neighbour tries to sleep; but is God laughing too, or only educating us in a vivid manner? Perhaps our loving Father is so intensely preoccupied with our salvation that He created humour to please us and to help us overcome difficulties, but does not indulge Himself; like a teetotal Scots vicar with a bottle of whiskey kept for guests. This isn’t finding fault with faultless God: salvation is more important than surgery, and who’d tolerate a surgeon whose sock-puppets kept cracking jokes from inside the abdominal cavity? If God is humorless, perhaps it signifies the depths of His love.

Yet some people won’t give up easily. A Hebrew-speaking business professor grinds relentlessly through the Old Testament, itemising purportedly funny stories, irony, satire, and even puns. A typical example is Dathan and Aviram (Numbers 16:13) griping to Moses: “Is it but a small thing that you have brought us out of a land of milk and honey (meaning, sarcastically, servitude in Egypt rather than the actual Promised Land) to kill us in the wilderness, but you also have to lord over us?” A put-down, yes, but is it comedy? Moses probably heard the same every day over forty years. If it’s a “shock laugh,” like Lenny Bruce using the F-word, neither is very funny and the Biblical puns are no more so.

Is Creation itself an act of divine comedy, with its improbable procession of ostriches and elephants, zebras and duck-billed platypuses? God could have authorised small, arboreal, tree-top leaf-eaters instead of magnificently ridiculous long-necked giraffes. More amusingly, the platypus thinks he’s normal and the rest of us are weird. Alas, there’s no telling if the Father is as amused and delighted as we are, or just made them for our benefit, or another reason entirely. Imposing our merriment on God may be anthropomorphising Him more than He warrants. The search continues.

With Christ as both God and Man, may we believe that if His godliness lacked humour then His humanity enjoyed it? Or was Jesus just working the crowd?

The New Testament, claims a professor in Biblical Archeology magazine, “abounds with laughter.” One wonders if she’s using the Latin Vulgate, the King James Version, the New American Standard or Monty Python’s parody. She writes that Our Lord “was likely the kind of personality that was just fun to be around. For example, a crowd numbering about 5,000 men followed him to a solitary place (Mark 6:30-44). Jesus’ teaching evidently made people forget to eat, bring food, or worry about work.” Sorry. Most everybody ignores work when he goes to a lecture; and forgetting food may demonstrate haste to hear Our Lord, but it’s as funny as running out of gas in the Rose Bowl parking lot. As for the Prince of Peace being “just fun to be around,” one recalls that well-meant, but inebriated and quite toe-curling, Christmas toast by the late Sir John Gielgud: “To Jesus Christ! What a splendid chap!”

She cites a book by the genuinely impressive Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian at Harvard and Stanford who advised every Republican U.S. President from Hoover through Reagan. His short work The Humor of Christ focuses partly on contextual humour, one of the greatest stumbling blocks, especially to vulgar modern people who are fed almost exclusively on stand-up quips ending in a pre-recorded “laugh track” or a “ba-dum-dum” drum roll lest one miss the punch line. Our cicerone continues:

“…Trueblood lists thirty humorous passages…all one liners, parables or stories Jesus told. Trueblood thinks Jesus’ audience would have laughed at the image of those who loudly proclaim their righteous actions to others (Matt. 6:2) because it was all too prevalent. An audience would have found the idea of rulers calling themselves benefactors ludicrous (Luke 22:25)—because the working folks knew all too well it wasn’t so.”

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image23222026The thought of Jesus working up “one liners” lacks dignity, but as dry humour the examples are plausible: Reagan needed no theatrics to get a laugh when he ironically paraphrased a bureaucrat saying “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”  It works best delivered flat, without inflection, with a knowing pause at the end. An ironic reference to unpopular Sadducees or Pharisees or Herod or the hated Romans, may have been funny with or without lifting an eyebrow.

Complementing that is exaggerative humour. Trueblood recalls an innocent child laughing at the incongruity of a man with a gigantic beam stuck in his eye, and then once more at him criticizing a man with only a mote (Matthew 7:3). A sophisticate may miss the two jokes while a child will not. Similarly, Christ says “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Whether it was, as I was shown in Jerusalem, a narrow gate in the Old City walls through which a rich merchant’s camel couldn’t carry much, or it was meant literally or exaggerated for effect, it could have been funny enough for the right audience. In Genesis (21:2) Abraham is 99 when 90 year old Sarah gets pregnant: is it the start of an educational joke or a simple fact demonstrating God’s power? Exaggeration hardly ranks alongside of Oscar Wilde’s best witticisms, but people use it often: “My kid is so ugly that…we have to wrap him in pork-chops to get the dog to play with him.”

Comedy can also depend on the unexpected comment that should have been anticipated. Some cite Mark 5:40, when Jesus brings a dead little girl back to life, her family is astonished, and Christ breaks the silence by suggesting that they might fix her something to eat. If dead-pan humour, it works best in a sarcastic Jewish grandmother’s accent: “Nu? Maybe she could eat some soup!!” The concluding phrase “children are always hungry, you nitwits” is omitted but implied. But it might not be humour; more likely just a helpful suggestion.

holbrookBiblical ambiguities may or may not be humorous depending on how they’re told. Much of America’s frontier humour is now fully incomprehensible in print, which is why Petroleum V. Nasby, Artemis Ward, and other celebrity wits of the Gilded Age are forgotten. Their humour lay in their onstage delivery, dead on the page unless one knows how to say the lines. Nearly the only way that this can be appreciated today is in actor Hal Holbrooke’s brilliant recreation, “Mark Twain Tonight!” Watch him retell Twain’s achingly funny yarn, “His Grandfather’s Ram.”

Unlike today, when jokes are spat out like so many machine-gun rounds, some funny, elderly humour resides in endless digressions. Instead of speedy delivery, the comedy lies in how long it takes for the speaker to make his point, potentially forever. Each time that Holbrooke/Twain returns to the ram, loses his train of thought and steams off in another direction, the audience laughs harder. In his memoirs Twain’s audacity astounds: he told the same somewhat tired joke, in full, five times in a single lecture! The first utterance met polite titters, the second confused silence and the third stony disapproval. By the fourth they caught the teasing, and before the fifth they rocked in laughter once they sensed it returning yet again. Pulling it off required masterful timing, and exceptional bravery.

So, does much Biblical humour lie in the telling, and if so is it lost in antiquity? Witty and wise in equal measure, my brother recalls when Adam and Eve hide from God (Genesis 3:8 – 3:12). When He accosts them in Eden, they conjure up pathetic excuses stopping just short of what jurists call The Bart Simpson Defence: “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it, and if I did nobody saw me.” Cast George Burns as a wry understated God. Adam cowers, buck naked in a scratchy bush; he’s hiding from an all-powerful so quite-likely all-knowing God, which is impressive stupidity. The Garden’s not exactly as crowded as Macy’s after-Christmas sale: only two people and one God are present, so pleading mistaken identity (“It was somebody else”) isn’t too plausible. Naked is also funny. Naked in a bush is funnier. Naked in a bush, while hoping that God can’t see you, is funnier still. Cowering is the chopped onion on the caviar. An inevitable but understated confrontation makes a strong comic beginning: when the drunken husband staggers home and his wife, waiting at the door with the rolling pin and murder in her eye, initially says nothing, folds her arms, taps one foot and lets him babble lame excuses, it’s funnier than if she clobbers him immediately.

God, removing his cigar, smiles pleasantly and asks in feigned innocence why Adam’s hiding there, a good start: “Hi, Adam. You’re naked in a bush. Whatcha’ doin’?” It’s heightened as we pause to watch Adam squirm. Since Adam is hardly going to admit that he and Eve have been playing Parcheesi with the snake and snacking off the Tree of Knowledge, he mumbles about being naked, as if Adam normally wore pinstripes and a tie. A competent script-writer might have God peer down into the bush, gaze at Adam’s nakedness and retort something like “No s———, Sherlock.” But God’s writing talents are greater, so our Father asks mildly but pointedly, “How do you know you’re naked?” Then God pauses, smirks and examines His cigar again. Expect a big laugh here. Of course God knows that Adam knows that the snake explained this in its PowerPoint lecture “Nakedness & Shame 101,” just before the seminar took a break for more apples. Adam’s cornered. “It’s my wife’s fault,” he blurts, introducing another pitiful excuse. His former rib, Eve, also forgetting that God sees everything, presumably elbows Adam’s remaining ribs viciously. And so on. This is brilliant comedy…or it’s all modern interpretation and wishful thinking.

A mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, thought, “The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature.” Paradoxically, the joke may be on Whitehead and all of us who expect to find humour in the Bible, which aspires to higher goals than mere entertainment. God possibly didn’t go to all that work for beach reading. It may be that the Bible isn’t meant to be literature or meant to be funny, but intended to (as Milton says in Paradise Lost and poet A. E. Houseman says of beer) “justify God’s ways to Man.” We may be simply crass. We may be modern, braying, rollicking jackasses expecting every important message to start with a “warm-up joke.” If the Rev. Jonathan Edwards began his Colonial Era fire-and-brimstone sermons with a few cheery gags, history remains curiously silent. Even our great-grandparents, capable of hilarity at appropriate times, may have been puzzled and disapproving. Moreover, whenever God appears in the Old Testament, men throw themselves on the ground and tremble; hardly in the mood for jokes, even if God had some doozies. The subtler joke may be that because we now expect laughs in everything, we find true merriment in less and less.

In the world’s best joke, a man passes a tiny shop and sees the window full of watches…but let’s pause briefly. G. K. Chesterton wrote a short essay on humour for the 1928 Encyclopaedia Brittannica, citing antiquity: “Even a schoolboy can see it in such scenes of Aristophanes as that in which the dead man sits up in indignation at having to pay the toll of the Styx, and says he would rather come to life again; or when Dionysus asks to see the wicked in hell and is answered by a gesture pointing at the audience.” So some ancient humour remains funny, with no cultural or historical limitations. Examples of Hittite or Ancient Hebrew humour, Chesterton said, are comparatively scarce but surely existed.

Yet attempts to define humour have been mostly ineffective. Socrates, via Plato, thought it lay in mocking the defenceless weak: they would have loved Helen Keller jokes but not much else. Freud thought it vented dangerous psychological pressures. Henri Bergson went further, writing that humour was based on cruelty, which prompted Chesterton’s stiletto thrust that, if so, a child laughing at the cow jumping over the moon merely anticipates it breaking its legs on landing. Closest to truth may be Max Eastman, a fascinating figure who, en route from being a firebrand Bolshevik to an anti-communist free-marketeer, thought that humour was based in incongruity and surprise. In his 1936 The Enjoyment of Laughter, he noted that a baby reaches for something held out to her, and then laughs when it is unexpectedly pulled away. She shifts from expectation to surprise at an equally rational but unforeseen alternative, namely that the item was never intended for the baby. This theory of erroneous expectation even works for puns, switching between two possible meanings.

Chesterton adds celebration of the underdog but seems to concur about incongruity and surprise, as all three work from erroneous expectations. Who would expect David to beat Goliath, or Jerry the cartoon mouse to outwit Tom the cat? In Brittannica Chesterton continued:

“…the joke of Odysseus calling himself Noman is not, as some suppose, a sort of trivial pun or verbalism; the joke is in the gigantic image of the raging Cyclops, roaring as if to rend the mountains, after being defeated by something so simple and so small. And this example is worth noting; as representing what is really the fun of all the fairy-tales; the notion of something apparently omnipotent made impotent by some tiny trick. This fairy-tale idea is undoubtedly one of the primitive fountains from which flows the long winding stream of historic humour.”

Late in his life, Charlie Chaplin was asked how one would film the now tired comic staple of someone slipping on a banana peel. First show a stout and haughty woman laden with packages, striding purposefully along the sidewalk, he explained. Then show the banana peel; then cut back to the woman barrelling on. At this point in Chaplin’s reply, the listener wonders if Bergson isn’t right and the humour lies in the cruelty of an impending accident, but then the maestro springs the trap and Eastman wins. She steps right over the banana peel, Chaplin suggested, and she falls down an open manhole!  The Comic Muse built a false expectation and, like Eastman’s surprised child, we laugh when it is pulled away and some greater unforeseen possibility occurs.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen expanded this in his telecast, “The Clown Is Right.” From his battered hat to his dented dignity, the circus clown simultaneously depicts our grand hopes and surprised comeuppances. Past dreams of grandeur and present proof of failure are conveyed simultaneously in one forlorn clown. Thus false expectations work for Eastman, Chesterton, Chaplin and Sheen. It still doesn’t quite answer why God Himself has reason to laugh, so Sheen goes further:

“The clown is laughing at finite men who try to make themselves The Infinite…God Himself laughs in the same way. He laughs at Man who is the carbon-copy and calls himself the original.”

Sheen says God laughs at our false expectations or fraudulent expectations purveyed to others. Like Eastman’s baby God beholds many things, while unlike the baby our omniscient Creator can never be surprised: God saw the banana peel but He already knew about the open manhole. Thus God may find humour in our false expectations, but through vicarious experiences taken from our own mortal senses. His creatures may be His lenses. Made in His image, we take the same vicarious experiences from cinema, falling in love alongside of the hero or heroine, laughing with and at the drunkard, fearful of the assassin lurking behind the curtain. Though we’ve seen the movie before, we watch it again and again with no surprise yet with undiminished appreciation, and God may do likewise with His far bigger production.

“There is no past and future for God, only an eternal Present,” writes Joseph Pearce on these pages, thus God can focus on, or “tune in” to, any moment in Creation. Watching His improved version of The Animal Channel, in “real time” He can vicariously frolic with His polar bear cubs, or gambol among His dinosaurs, or thrill through the eyes of His gazelles racing over the veldt. Loving humans especially, He may bore the poor angels as He repeatedly watches Adam and Eve first see a giraffe and collapse in giggles at its improbable neck. Again and again, He may rise up out of His seat and cheer when you (yes, you) triumph over temptation; and He may roll with laughter when I am too drunk to find the key to my front door. He may cringe in horror at the murderer’s blade, as at any great sin.

In one moment we can laugh both at something and with it. Thus God may laugh overall, and specifically through the mind of Eastman’s baby where His vicarious joy comes from sharing her ultimate realisation. Even when we suspect, or know for sure, that Wiley Coyote will drop off the cartoon cliff, we laugh while sharing his reaction once he learns that he’s confounded again; and our laughter comes at the moment when he knows he’s been betrayed by his false expectation, not when he plummets. Similarly, God beholds Sheen’s clown, laughing overall while sharing both its misplaced egotism and when its false expectations leave it sadder but wiser. For God, who loves and shares with unique intensity throughout Time and Space, among billions of His creatures, the vicarious experiences could be powerful indeed. It could make God the greatest humorist of all. Yet this speculation hides a mighty risk.

We mortal movie-goers haven’t the power to change a film; we’re stuck with whatever, say, Alfred Hitchcock made. We can’t stop the murder in the Psycho shower scene, and since God gave us free will, He will not stop a real murder. But He can forgive a murderer or damn him, so it is hard to imagine the God of Love laughing at a drunkard’s comic moment when, later, alcohol ends his life in tragedy. If God laughs at a funny incident leading a criminal to the electric chair, then it’s as bad as us merrily watching an infant stick its finger into an electrical outlet. If divine laughter occurs in the long process of a man losing his soul for all eternity, then God is unspeakably cruel. But this defies love and logic.

Russell Kirk told me of a Low Church Scots vicar explaining Judgement Day, “when the puir damned souls will aw’ be screamin’ en the flames, ‘O Laird, we didnae ken! We didnae ken!’ [We did not know] An’ the guid Laird, in aw his kindness an’ limitless maircy, wull look doon an’ say, ‘WEEL, YE KEN THE NOO!’ (Well, you know now).” The lack of Christlike kindness and mercy is the point of the tale, seeming inconsistent with a loving and humorous God.

Match-made-in-heavenThe solution may come from the late and celebrated Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who pronounced us welcome to believe that God pardons all souls at the end of Time and brings everyone into Heaven, but that the concept is too presumptuous to insist upon or preach. Then each and every human sin will lead to knowledge, repentance, penance and forgiveness. Then God is free to laugh at everything, even our mistakes and sins, knowing that the biggest ever production, released by the divine and ultimate Universal Studios and not the motion-picture company, has a happy ending. Then His whole creation can sit at His feet and watch in mirth and good conscience, leaving angels, I suppose, to make the popcorn.

A further possibility arises from the best joke in the world, which nevertheless defies full analysis. It is comical yet unexpectedly sensible; while as you think deeper it grows funnier, more surreal and even mysterious. It inhabits a strange borderland between the rational and irrational, like much of life itself.

Walking down a narrow lane, a man notices a tiny shop where the window is crammed with wristwatches. Needing a new watch, he enters and asks to buy one. The kindly shopkeeper, an elderly Jewish man wearing a beard and skullcap, apologises: “Sonny, I’m sorry, ve sell no vatches here.” Then what do you do, asks the confused customer. “I’m a mohel,” the old fellow replies, “a rabbi what performs ritual circumcisions.” Ever more puzzled, the visitor shakes his head and asks why he has so many watches in his window. The rabbi shrugs: “So? What would you put in the window?”

What indeed? Anything literal would be appalling. Something else as incongruous as watches? Why do we look in windows and start making assumptions, and do we continue throughout life itself? Do seemingly random acts imply a hidden purpose? Expectations, surprises and incongruities increase line by line. The elusive joke poses many riddles, mostly unanswerable for now, and at the end we are left alone with the gift of laughter.

Defying analysis, the same rabbi might ask, “So? If He loves us so much, how could He not have a sense of humour?” Besides sharing our experiences vicariously, God may have jokes that we appreciate today but better understand later. He may even share varieties of humour presently beyond our mortal comprehension. For now, only imperfectly do we see what God puts in His window, while Paradise waits behind the door.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. In Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose a humorless monk/librarian murders several people over the question of whether Jesus had ever laughed. Laughter is often cruel, of course–the surest way to bring a political poseur down is to get people laughing at him–but to therefore conclude that laughter is Screwtape’s invention and not God’s gift is to deny the love with which God gave us free will. And just as the Jews gave us the “best joke in the world,” they also said that “without wine there is no joy.” I suspect that God created laughter, as He created so much else, as a way of giving us a measure of the difference between joyful conversation over wine and wallowing in the gutter drunk. A brilliant and soulful essay, Steve.

  2. You had me at the beginning of the “von Balthasar” paragraph which resulted in a two hour discussion with the wife on the nature of God, knowledge, love, scripture, redemption, repentance, etc. Where Ms. Martha argues in favor of a reality where the Knowledge of God, is deep and wide, and mostly unknown, albeit we have guides, limitations, and parameters, some inherent. Yet, beyond this ‘now’ reality, given that it is grounded on a noetic understanding of ‘this’ reality, she confesses to the possibilities in ‘von B’s’ writings. I can’t muster an argument against, because they all fail to account for God’s omnipotence and I’m not privy to all that God Wills. You lost me in the frivolity of the final sentences. You owe your readers, I think, a penetrating analysis of the former. It’s just my opinion.

  3. “Conversely, He may lack a pointless appendix or a petulant gall-bladder, so maybe humour is something that we have but He doesn’t.”

    Wonderful and funny article!

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