I just finished reading Robert Darden’s book Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008). This is a topic I’ve become very interested in recently, so interested that I even audited a course at Aquinas School of Theology this past fall.
I really enjoyed this little book (138 pages). I only wish I had read it before I preached this past Sunday! I preached on “joy” and could have used some of the material in this keeper. I had mentioned that Christians often view Jesus as “Mr. Stoic,” a person who never smiles. Of course, Hollywood hasn’t helped with this faulty perception. The only Christian film I can remember that depicts a Jesus who enjoys life is the movie Matthew. It’s worth seeing because it will help change your image of Christ.
One of the things I mentioned Sunday was how Christians walk into church and “get serious.” After all, the church is apparently no place to be acting up. Darden sheds light on why Christians avoid having a good time at church. He notes that some of the early church fathers propagated the boring Jesus.
John Chrysostom actually said, “Woe to them that laugh.” He went as far as saying that Jesus never laughed! Augustine and Tertullian also quenched the fun. Tertullian once said that “nothing is more due to vanity than laughter.”
In the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) got in on the act and said Christians should not “think of pleasing or joyful matters” and furthermore should not laugh or say anything that moves to laughter.
As bad as those may seem, Darden says that the “best-known proponent of a joyous lifestyle was St. Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscans). And running a close second may have been Increase Mather, the most influencial Puritan of his day (late 1600s). This Harvard president “vowed never to smile in public.”
Darden notes that H.L. Mencken “blamed the Puritans and their successors for America’s (and, by extension, the American churches’) aversion to laughter.” Mencken mentions the Puritans “unrelenting assault on humor and laughter.” Darden summarizes by saying the “humorless Puritan had been the norm for more than two hundred years of American life. Accurate or not, that was the model most American churches emulated. It wasn’t until midway into the twentieth century that anyone began to question the veracity of that picture.” Luckily, two of the most influential Christian thinkers of the twentieth century came to the rescue: C.S. Lewis and Karl Barth.
The Gospels do not portray a stoic Jesus who knows no laughter! Think about it. He’s depicted at times as hanging out with the children. How many boring people are popular with the kids? Darden’s slant is a bit different. He says, “How do we know Jesus laughed? Because Jesus also suffered pain, loss, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and everything else that besets us.”
We fail to see Jesus’ use of humor because of three reasons. First, Jesus uses a lot of literary forms that we don’t acknowledge. For example, He uses hyperbole (exaggeration), litotes (understatement), irony, puns, etc. Second, there is great historical distance between us and the text. How in the world are we supposed to understand all His little quips (often directed at those in authority). Lastly, sometimes we’re just so familiar with the text that we don’t see the “surprise” any more; surprise is often an important element in humor.
Yes, Jesus laughed … and He made the people around Him laugh too. Darden says, “Jesus laughed because it is a good thing. Laughing – for Christian and non-Christian alike – is a catalyst, a for for good, a force for sanity.”