The Ethics of Funny
Many moons ago, I wrote an article titled The Divine Art of Funny, wherein I described the nature and purpose of humor from a Christian perspective. In short, humor is the study of incongruities in life and the world, and those incongruities which elicit a pleasure response like laughter and smiles are what we call “funny.” Whereas materialists are only able to describe humor in terms of evolutionary and psychological causation, I suggest that there is something more mystical to humor: that we laugh at the difference between how the world is and how it ought to be. We laugh at both unexpected joys and at the realization of injustice, feeling both the sublime of the divine and the longing for a righted world.
Today, I’d like to discuss the ethics of funny for believers. Humor is somewhat of a minefield to navigate, given the subjectivity of humor and its heavy reliance on personal and cultural context. What is incongruous to one person may seem normal to another, and what is a new observation to me might be old hat to you. The latter one is particularly tricky, given that information flows through the internet well beyond the speed of light. I heard a recent podcast where a host complained about friends laughing at memes that were two weeks old. Two weeks! Many of us are still catching up on memes from two years ago.
Beyond personal expiration dates for jokes, there’s plenty of variation in what is and isn’t funny. I’m sure there are plenty of worldly institutions with their own guidelines for mockery and jest, and I believe Christians may be tempted to appeal to them when their own jokes hit a sour note with an audience. However, as Paul writes in Philippians 3:20, we are citizens of heaven. We live by a unique authority, and we live by the examples set by our Lord and the ethics prescribed in the Scriptures. It’s tautological to say that Christians are a Gospel people, but it’s a worthwhile reminder. We’re called by God and bathed in his mercy and grace, and because of that, we are called to a new standard. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1 ESV). Christianity doesn’t simply transform your schedule—it transforms all of you.
That goes for humor, and the biggest offender of transgressing that ethic in “Christian humor” (I put that in quotes because as a general category it sounds loathsome) is by far satire. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with satire in and of itself. It’s a category, not a crime. Satire serves a prophetic function, in that it exposes the follies and vices of the errant. It can show us where we are weak and where our hypocrisies lie. It can also be amusing to read, though this is more rare than I suspect authors would like to admit.
The trouble with satire is that the line between a rebuke in a spirit of gentleness and, well, being a jerk, is a rather fine one. Christian humor site (there’s that phrase again!) The Babylon Bee came under fire recently for an article satirizing the late prosperity gospel preacher Jan Crouch while the corpse was still warm. Doubtless, peddlers of the prosperity gospel, a modern heresy if there ever was one (see Russell Moore on the topic), are fair game for satire. It’s a damaging distortion of the Gospel, and frankly its celebrities are pretty weird. However, to publish an attack piece the same day as the death of its victim betrays a staggering lack of decorum. Since we’re pedantic about a Scriptural ethic, I’ll pick the spiritual fruits of “self-control” and “kindness” as being notably absent from the act.
There are other pieces shared on social media by acquaintances that come with their own share of grumbling as well. The response that I’ve seen from proponents, and even writers of satire, to complaints has, in my experience, been to simply say “It’s satire”—as if that alone explained and excused any possible fault of the article. It’s a failure of logic (circular reasoning), and in the case of the Jan Crouch piece, it’s ironic—part of the corruption of the prosperity gospel, or “name it and claim it” theology, is the belief that merely by wishing a positive outcome, that it will occur. Naming a piece satire does not make beyond reproach, and wishing it beyond criticism does not make it so.
Blaming a reader for having thin skin is also a problem for Christian humorists, as if ad hominem attacks resolve problems of charity, rather than compound them. I’m a former Marine. I heard—and said!—more offensive things in the few short years of my enlistment than a roomful of smug seminarians and grad students will in their entire lives. I understand smack talk and rude humor. I really do. Still, I recognize that my words can both harm hearers and become a stumbling block. That’s why context, reserve, and empathy are of the utmost importance in funny writing. Humor is meant to be a signpost to God, not to one’s own cleverness. It can be easy to lose sight of that when riding the high of a good joke.
Making others laugh and opening their eyes while doing it is one of the life’s greatest joys. I know it. I’ve wanted to be a humorist since I was a child, when I’d eagerly await the Sunday newspaper for the latest funnies page and Dave Barry column. However, with great funny comes great responsibility. Christian humorists must remember that we’re not servants of a literary genre but of Christ, and there is a clear ethic of kindness and charity given to us in Scripture.
Photo courtesy of forzadagro at Flickr Creative Commons.