When I was a young Anglican priest in England, it was part of my daily routine to walk the half-mile across town for Evening Prayer in the parish church. My path took me past a neighbor whom I knew to be a Jehovah’s Witness. This particular JW was the sort of man who woke up with his hair combed. Everything in his front yard was in order. His sensible car was polished to perfection. I never saw him without shined shoes, a jacket, tie and a lugubrious expression.
This sober sectarian started to appear at his front gate each evening to engage me in conversation. He would pose theoretical apocalyptic questions like, “Excuse me, but have you ever thought that the Anti-Christ might be living in our midst even now?” or “Have you considered that the mark of Beast spoken of in the Book of Revelation is actually the bar code you carry on your credit card?”
After fending off his leading questions with polite bemusement for a couple of weeks I finally stopped one evening and said, “Look here. I believe you are a Jehovah’s Witness, aren’t you?”
“I need to tell you that I am never going to become a Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, I’m never even going to begin to consider becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, and would you like to know why?”
He was taken aback. “Why is that?”
“Because I have never seen you smile or laugh. If your religion has made you so miserable why should I join it?”
One of the simplest benefits of Pope Francis’ ministry is that he seems to like to laugh. In a world that is increasingly deadly, dark, and serious, he is the man in the white suit. He’s lighter and takes himself lightly. Laughter is a mark not only of authentic religion, but mature humanity.
I do not for a moment imagine that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a monopoly on being sour and dour. Every religion has its somber merchants of doom and gloom. One look at the typical arch-traditionalist or serious Protestant progressive will confirm the presence of the po-faced in all religions.
Laughter lightens and enlightens the soul. Laughter is a sign of confidence and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, after all, comes from the word “enthuse,” which is derived from the Greek en theos–or “God within.” Enthusiasm is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and any religion that is totally dour, sour, and serious is not the religion of Christ the Lord, but the religion of the Anti-Christ—the Dark Lord.
Laughter, like all emotion, opens the heart, and when the heart is open things get done. There’s an old Russian saying, “The heart moves the feet.” In other words, it is the emotions that motivate. In fact the word “emotion” and “motion” and “motivate” all come from the same root. The mind might be informed, but until the heart is moved nothing moves.
When the heart is opened we experience a little vulnerability, and at that point God can slip in past the watchful guardians of the soul. This vulnerability makes us open to reality—especially the reality of our humanity. Like art, music, sport, or dancing, laughter is one of those delightfully useless absurdities that make us human. Animals don’t laugh and cry. Apes grunt but they don’t guffaw. Wolves howl and owls hoot, but not with laughter.
Let’s get theological. If we’re created in the image of God and we are able to laugh, then does God laugh? Is comedy divine?
I’m convinced of it. Because he sees how all things work together for good, he sees that the whole cosmic drama has a happy ending, and a just ending is the definition of a comedy.
God therefore sees the whole cosmic joke and instead of seeing him only as the sober and awesome God of the Universe, it doesn’t do us any harm to also see him as a King of Comedy–I’m seeing an everlastingly burly Burl Ives, or the good man, John Goodman. I’m seeing the Creator as a chuckling Chesterton or the sweet John Candy. He is Jolly Jehovah, the Lord of Laughter, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and the Almighty Master of Mirth.
Was Jesus a joker? There’s not much explicit chicanery in the gospels, but one gets the impression that there was within our Lord a spring in the step, a glint in the eye, and a certain joie de vivre. He may not have been a joker, but he enjoyed the joke. I think he took pleasure in being subversive and undermining the deadly seriousness of the Pharisees. He was quick-witted, and I’m sure his one-liners raised a laugh. Most of all, I think he exuded an irrepressible joy, zeal, and energy that was infectious. He was fun to be with.
So are the saints. They sing in prison. They make jokes in jail. Even in their hardships–especially in their hardships–they were able to crack a joke as their heads were being cracked open, or laugh their heads off as their heads were being lopped off. St. Thomas More asked for help as he was climbing the scaffold, and commented, “Thank you. I will not need your assistance to get down.” When he was being roasted on a gridiron, St. Lawrence said to his torturers, “You can turn me over. I am done on this side.”
In these dark days when black-hooded thugs behead children and threaten global terror, in these days when we are besieged with the most deadly serious religion to ever threaten humanity–Islam–it is ever more important for Christians to be hilariously joyful. We should take every security against their deadly seriousness, but perhaps our most effective weapons against the Islamic terror is to ridicule it. We should tickle the terrorists and joke about the joyless Jihadists.
Remembering that we are engaged in spiritual warfare, Christians should be laughing cavaliers, happy warriors, and hilarious evangelists. Like Cyrano de Bergerac we should skewer our enemy with a poem. We should jest as we joust and engage in wordplay as we duel in swordplay.
In a world of overly serious ideologues we should take ourselves lightly, enjoy the joke, and radiate an eternal lightness of being.
Or one day the joke may be on us.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.