I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Church, Jokes, Jesus

There has been much talk as of late about the place of humor in religion. Needless to say, most of it has been centered on certain Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. This is a tragic situation that is grounded, in part, in differing religious expectations and the complexity inherent in relations between different groups with differing amounts of power (here is what Sojourner’s has to say). Here is another article about this very tragic situation.

However, today I want to focus a little closer to home and ask one important question: Why aren’t liberal Christians funny? It may seem a strange thing to ask when we have so recently seen what can happen when bad "humor" can spark riots around the world. However, I do not think humor is the problem there so much as bigotry. Our ability to laugh remains one of the most important aspects of human existence. This ability seems to be somewhat challenged in the daily functioning of many of our church leaders. Sadly, when this occurs, we are neglecting a major part of our broad church mission.

Sure, some of us are (some of the time) and many have been known during moments of extreme weakness to crack a joke that has nothing to do with evolution. Still, when you go to church, how often do you find yourself generating more than a light chuckle about anything that contains theological or spiritual meaning? Ministers in particular, it seems are incapable of anything more hysterical than, say, Family Circus. It makes us look a bit stiff, surely. It also contributes to a view of church that is remarkably one-dimensional.

Many people, I think, are surprised when they encounter real humor at or near a church, even their own. They do not expect to and, even though they might find some cause to laugh at the preacher or the organist, they often seem to rest secure in the complete piousness and dullness of the church. In fact, many of them rely on this assumption to assure themselves of their own rebelliousness when they stray from the true grim road.

Am I making this up? Well, I may be exaggerating a bit. But try going to a party some time where nobody knows you. Tell them you’re a minister (if you’re not, its okay to pretend just once) and then start cracking jokes and sending up one-liners. You will probably experience the same thing many church people do amongst their un-churched friends and many ministers do wherever they may be. If there is more than one witness they might glance at each other in surprise, giggle a bit, and then (depending on how funny you actually were) respond as if you were a “normal” person possessing whatever humor skills you displayed. The point is, it is funny to them that church people are funny in a “non-PG” way. Sometimes you can actually see them come to terms with the disconnect. The problem is, they think this because there is some truth to the stereotype.

This should be an area of concern for us all. The fact is, when we are unable to laugh at ourselves and our tradition, we run the serious risk of becoming too brittle to survive in the real world and too boring to be relevant. We need to be comfortable shocking and prodding folks from time to time. Sometimes the folks who need prodding are us! We need to be less concerned with polishing our reputations and our communion silver and more concerned with making a difference. Faith needs to speak the language of the people which, for the vast majority of us, includes the occasional laugh. It includes being tasteless, even. Fortunately, there are some who are trying to do something about this.

First, I refer you to the work of Chris Yambar, featured recently in an interview in the Wittenburg Door, a magazine I have mentioned here before. Also, please note this intriguing article about humor in Christianity from the UCC, possibly the funniest denomination in existence (Their “Spongebob Visits Headquarters” piece is still a great pick-me-up on an otherwise dreary day). The UUA is not so funny, which is too bad, because I have always found things about them (I should say us) to laugh at (and with).

Anyway, this has become quite a bit longer than I meant it to be. Remember these words of the ancient Greek poet, Pindar, "A thing well said goes forward with immortal voice, crossing the fertile land and the sea". So stay relaxed, love Jesus, and be funny.