I’ve got this theory that one of the great signs of authentic Christianity is comedy. I’m reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor at the moment and one of her great gifts is a razor sharp wit. She’s funny, and one of the reasons she’s funny is that she makes fun of herself. She takes herself lightly…even when she knows she dying of lupus.
On the other hand, it is also a sign of the ideologue and heretic that they take themselves extremely seriously, and not only that, they insist that everybody else take them seriously. Think about it for a moment and consider all the po-faced, pious, self righteous ideologues out there of every religious and political variation. All the boring activists and religious zealots with their posters and placards and complaints. Do these people ever laugh? Do they express any joy in life? It doesn’t matter whether they are extreme feminists, LGBTQ campaigners, neo-Donatists, liberation theologians, people protecting puppies, Ku Klux Klan members, Black Lives Matter, vegans or carnivores…if they’ve all got some serious campaign to change the world which ultimately amounts to changing other people…by force if necessary.
If you should dare to poke fun at the whole super serious campaign they’ll turn on you–the mask slips and their patronising smiles suddenly turn to snarls.
Have you ever noticed when there are arguments going on–whether they are religious or political or social or familial the argument always gets ugly and voices start to be raised when people start blaming others for being bad? We never blame ourselves, and as soon as we start blaming others for their faults things get oh so very serious and the temperature rises.
Here’s a good joke. Try this sometime: When you’re in a conversation where somebody is blaming somebody else for the world’s problems stop and ask them what they are doing about the problem. So, for example, you’re arguing with your grumpy old conservative uncle who is complaining about the leftists who are “all a bunch of scrounging lazy drug addicts…” Ask him what he is doing about the problems of drug addiction and unemployment. Then ask yourself what you’re doing about the problem.
Believe me. It’s a sure fire way to stand things on their head and stop arguments dead.
There are two reasons why comedy is a mark of true Christianity. The first is because the Christian takes the wider view. He knows that “all things work together for good for those who love God”. In other words, everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it’s not the end. A trust in divine providence means one can treat even the heaviest of times with a light heart. This wider view puts things into perspective. You are able to laugh and say, “Are you really so worried about a picture of an angel on the front of a pew missal that might just be similar to the statue of the angel Moroni on top of the Mormon temple? The angel Moroni himself is a joke no? I mean who would name their dictating angel after a moron?” With the wider view the petty foolishness of so many things we believe are great big baddies is put into perspective. We see how funny it was that we got ourselves all worked up and serious because Father wore the wrong sort of chasuble or Mother wore the wrong earrings or somebody said something somewhere on social media that may have offended someone somewhere in the universe.
The second reason comedy is a mark of authentic Christianity is that, at the heart of authentic Christianity is this absolutely genius concept of repentance. Think about it. What other religion has as its very first step the radical idea that a person should stop and say, “I’m wrong.”? Surely every human instinct is just the opposite. Because we make a choice we have power and that power brings with it pride and pride is the simple, rock solid, basic underlying, no questions asked assumption that ” I am right”. Furthermore, a religious person is REALLY right. That’s why they’re religious. They want to be right. They have to be right. They are right. But this is the great joke. The only way you can be right as a Christian is to admit that you’re wrong, and that basic first step of authentic Christianity is the greatest paradox and joke beneath it all.
If we truly and honestly repent, then as the very first step every day we say, “I’m not right. I’m wrong.” This action and mindset is wonderfully liberating. You don’t have to be right about everything all the time. You can relax. You can laugh at yourself and your mistake and your foolishness. You can shake your head at the dumb things you’ve done, the fool you’ve made of yourself and have a good laugh at your insignificance in the cosmic scale of things. Furthermore, once you’ve said, “I’m wrong” you have automatically begun to set aside your prejudices and self righteousness. You’ve also set yourself up to actually learn something new, and how very cool is that?
It is this gift of repentance and seeing the big picture that allows saints to be witty and even for martyrs to crack jokes in the midst of their martyrdom. So St Thomas More can forgive the executioner and draping his beard across the chopping block say, “Try not to injure the beard. It has offended no one.”
Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” The authentic Christian is like an angel in that respect. We ought to be so filled with the weight of glory that we are weightless and float about up in the ceiling like Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins. That most serious of theologians, St Thomas Aquinas made a similar joke. There was a nun in a neighboring convent that was granted the wonder of levitation. When praying she would float, like Uncle Albert and St Joseph Cupertino up to the ceiling. Everyone was flocking from miles around to gawk at this prodigy and some of the novice twisted St Thomas’ arm to come and see the flying nun. He saw sister rise up and when the novices asked St Thomas breathlessly what he thought he replied, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.”