Some time ago I mentioned the relevance of tears to the spiritual life. I hope to return to this topic, but meanwhile I wish to reflect on the apparent opposite, the existence of laughter. Humour and laughter represent a culture that crosses age, class and race. We laugh at the absurdities that are revealed in the programme ‘Have I got news for you’ on Friday evenings. Most of us can find humour in our immediate environment and we also admire the people who can stand on a stage, sometimes with no props, and make us laugh.
What is humour? Although there is a humour and laughter which is linked to the humiliation of individuals, the humour with ‘bitter springs’ as John Masefield put it, most laughter enables us to take a relaxed view of the world and of ourselves. To be able to laugh at ourselves means that we let go of over-seriousness and pomposity. Humour is also a great community builder. To share a joke is to share something human with others and it is difficult to feel animosity towards the person who has laughed with us.
This morning I was talking to the local hospital chaplain about the importance of humour in the ward. I do a regular general visit of two particular wards on her behalf and I find myself wanting to encourage a smile on the faces of those I visit. I don’t in fact crack jokes but I may gently point out some point of incongruity in the environment. If there is a ward ‘joker’ I tell them that they have a very important job, keeping up morale in both staff and patients. In the literature on healing, there is an important book, Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. This is an account of an American journalist who healed himself through the practice of laughter. His sense of humour, watching endless Candid Camera programmes, might not appeal to us, but he recognised intuitively that humour could change the course of his illness. It appears he was right.
Why is humour and laughter important to our theme? It is important because where there is no humour or laughter something sinister may be going on. There is no humour in a terrorist camp where people are plotting to kill or maim others in the name of Jihad. There was no humour to be found in the encounter that I reported as taking place in Skegness last week. An inflexibility of approach towards other people and lack of humour are frequently found in the same person. When someone speaks to us with the words ‘What I always say is ……’, it is hard to imagine that they will find it easy to enjoy laughing with us. A readiness to laugh and the ability constantly to learn new things seem to go together and these are attractive qualities .
Those of us who have a flexible approach to life, or indeed Scripture, can respond reasonably well to the unexpected. Not always knowing the answers means that we do not fret when we meet something for which there are no set responses. The honesty of not having a complete answer to a problem will generally be accepted by another person. It is certainly preferable to the hypocrisy of pretending that we are infallible in knowledge or expertise. To make out that the Bible has an answer to every conceivable problem is actually dishonest and unrealistic. The person who, thanks to the Bible, ‘knows’ the answers to all life’s problems may believe he is superior to the seeker. But because the assumed superiority is based not in reality but in a fantasy about the purpose of scripture, it will always have a an air of defensiveness about it. As a lot is at stake in this defensiveness there will be no room for humour. The opponent who wants to argue for a liberal approach to Scripture is, it may be thought, trying to deflect you away from your state of ‘blessed assurance’. You will defend your right to this, your place in heaven and your access to infallible truth with a grim determination. Am I the only person to notice a humourless unsmiling steeliness among many conservative Christians?
References to laughter are not frequent in Scripture. The only one that comes to mind is the account of the visit of angels to Abraham at Mamreh when Sarah was heard to laugh at their promise of her fertility. Nevertheless there is something of humour in the way the parables are told. Was Jesus not speaking with humour when he referred to the beam in the eye of the one criticising the man with a mote in his eye? The ability of Jesus to pluck illustrations from life shows gifts of imagination, flexibility and yes, humour. There is nothing legalistic about Jesus, tying him to a script of ‘correct’ answers and solutions. We could even claim to see Jesus in a process of learning through experience. His first response to the Syro-Phoenician woman, who called after him to heal her daughter, was somewhat legalistic and defensive. But we see in his subsequent reaction that he accepted that she was teaching him something by her witty and apt reply. Such flexibility and readiness to learn, gives us a glimpse of a person of humour, who was never proud or pompous with those he met.
Christianity without humour is something depressing and grim. It denotes a legalism and heaviness which Chris and many others want to flee from. Becoming a Christian is supposed to remove burdens but instead it has become increasingly oppressive. A good motto might be that where there is humour and laughter, there is also freedom, lightness of touch and the ability to experience joy. Surely all these things qualify as part of the fullness of life that we believe Christianity wants us all to have. Sadly they are often absent in places of legalism, oppression and fear.