The Laughter that the World Cannot Give

The Good Book tells us that when the Lord comes, “The lame shall be humorous again!” Actually, it’s “leap like the deer” (Is. 35:6), but that’s only useful if you’re trying out for the Olympics or escaping from prison.

A reminder to those who have a deep-seated tendency toward lameness: humor sells. Don’t get me wrong. By God’s grace, even lameness can be humorous. Ever wonder why lame and absurd commercials are so effective? Because they’re memorable. They might not be funny, but they’re humorous nevertheless.

Teaching the faith, like marketing, requires branding the message on the hides of the imagination, “the eye of the soul,” according to Joseph Joubert,[1] and humor often does the trick. Yes, torture does too, but this piece is about humor. (Stay tuned for “Pedagogical Torture: Ever Ancient, Ever New.”)

My parents used to make my siblings and me rewrite the Sunday gospel reading in our own words.  One time, my ten-year-old brother wrote a piece that started off like this: “The disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, are you thirsty? Would you like a Sprite?’ And Jesus answered: ‘I am.’” I can’t remember what passage my brother was paraphrasing, but this humorous icon of the concerned disciples commending their Sprite into Jesus’ hands stuck with me.

A few years ago, one of my classmates asked our Introduction to New Testament teacher, a Jesuit Father, a curious question: “Why didn’t Jesus go straight to the high priests after the Resurrection and kill them all?” To this, Father replied: “Well, I don’t think it’s God’s style to say, ‘Pow! I’m back. Screw all y’all!’” For me that one line was worth a thousand lectures on forgiveness and unconditional love.

Our faith is essentially humorous, and our task then is to find ways to draw out the Divine Humor that is already embedded in the faith that we hold and share. Good teachers of faith know how to show others to find humor in mystery and to find mystery as humorous.

In fact, God himself is the teacher par excellence of humor. Though the Bible does not explicitly mention humor as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we see that salvation history is charged with Divine Humor:

Talking snake, complaining donkey, living in a whale’s belly, birthing Virgin, dying God. (And electing a Jesuit Pope?)

Divine Humor produces a kind of laughter that the world cannot produce. God tells the sort of “jokes” that call for pause and cause confusion because the punchlines go against our expectation; and yet they stir inside us and meet even deeper expectations. We can laugh at the idea of a pregnant virgin, a meek God, and a resurrected corpse, but if we silence our artificial laughter and sit in that hope-filled absurdity, it will tickle our soul. And when our souls are tickled, our faces radiate a joy that will tickle other souls.

Quang Tran, SJ, was born and raised in New Orleans, LA. He graduated from Fordham University after a year of studies in Beijing and is currently working on his M.Div. at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. 

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1. Joseph Joubert, Some “Thoughts” of Joseph Joubert, trans. George H. Calvert (W.V. Spencer, 1867): 49.

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