Holy Laughter

The Funny Side of Faith

Most people in a faith tradition similar to mine will share my experience: there are few places other than church (or settings involving churched people) where you can find so many, and such high quality, laughs. Not in all my years of university, the thousands of phallic jokes made by my engineering class, or comedy television, did I derive nearly so much humour as I did from being a part of the church.

I have never encountered another ordinary, everyday circumstance in which people—most of whom would otherwise be strangers to each other—are placed in close contexts for sufficient periods of time to produce such unique humour. Coupled with the unwritten rule that humour “should” remain PG in a Christian setting, a certain tension arises that ramps up the amusement: the titillating possibility of treading on the sensibilities of others.

The facet of this that I wish to examine, however, has absolutely nothing to do with what I just wrote.

I wish to note that the topics we joke about extend beyond the everyday, and into our very faith itself. While we may not make light of our faith directly, we often invoke it as method of creating humour. We make jokes about our own faith, in ways that seem to indicate we do not really believe it.

It takes little effort to invent a few examples:

“Look, I don’t want that in my closet when Jesus comes back.” [1]

“I should watch this now—it’s probably banned in heaven.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with watching this guy’s comedy. He’s the one going to hell, not me.”

“I swear, man, if you hang that in your room it will like… bring forth demons.”

The words to songs are sometimes mistyped on the PowerPoint slides. Angels become angles. The lion of Judah becomes the loin of Judah. This, far from blasphemy, is taken as mild amusement.

The above examples are, in fact, still quite distant from the subject. In many cases, speculation ensues on the finer aspects of belief. It is often accompanied by ad-lib dialogue and the ascription of humourous statements to God.

We imbue most of these jokes with the same tone that we find in the back of our high school yearbooks: “Call me when you make your first million.” The person who wrote that highly doubts you will make a million dollars; it’s just something he or she would like to believe, with only a wisp of truth to it. Is that how I feel about my faith, though I may not acknowledge it? Are my friends and I paying lip service to belief, yet betraying the existence of deeply recessed unbelief through our humour?

Yet the medium is not always humour. I am reminded of a conversation that I’ve had several times with a friend of mine, Will Ivy—we often talked about the excitement and horror we felt upon first playing the PC game Diablo:

“It’s because you’re Christian,” he’d laugh. “That menu popped up with a gigantic demon on it … and you got the feeling that if you played that game, a crack was going to open up underneath your computer leading straight to hell.”

“But you couldn’t deny it—the only thing you wanted to do at that moment was play the game.”

“It was exactly what you wanted.”

It was true. In my early teens, I wanted nothing more than to hack pink-fleshed demons to bits with an axe, freshly sharpened by the town blacksmith. My mom made me return that game the first time I bought it (it was quite violent, and rated 17+). It wasn’t that long, however, before I found myself scouring the labyrinths beneath the town of Tristram. My belief in the possibility that there might be fire-breathing goats in hell (if anything) was reduced. This was, after all, just a computer game. At the end of the day—when I had finished exploring these ideas on the virtual stage—did I think that the spiritual aspects of this game alluded to anything real?

Having considered the matter at length, I do not think we make jokes about our beliefs because we have doubts about them. [2] I think that we joke about our beliefs because we believe that our conceptions of them are not so accurate as to be above mockery.

We have borne witness to things that have engendered faith in us, but of things unseen, we have seen very little. The finer points of doctrine cannot remain in a vacuum, and we are forced to give them shape at times. Nonetheless, it is a small thing for us to tear down these shapes, and build them once again. [3]

Faith, after all, does not demand things of us that would preclude such humour. It does not demand razor-sharp conceptions of the divine; it does not tell us how our sentiments are to be affected by it. Although I have written this before, I repeat myself because I believe it has special explanatory power here.

The particulars of faith, as seen through the mind’s eye, are like a field of straw men that burns without end.


[1] I was going to use jokes about the rapture as an example, but I’m not a fan of End Times (with capitals) speculation and theology, and thus it would not support my conclusion.

[2] More explicitly: I think that all the sane among us have some doubts about our beliefs, but I do not believe that we make light of them solely on account of it.

[3] One might ask how this explains humour that seems to cut to the core of Christian beliefs, making light of them. I’ve heard such jokes from Christians, and I myself have surely made a few.

It is not a matter of the subjects addressed, but the manner in which it is done. I think that in making these jokes, we are recognizing something that is very true—the phrases we use to describe certain beliefs have either no experiential meaning to us, or lead us to absurdity as they take on a life of their own. Having accepted our limitations in life, we accept this as well.


3 Responses to “Holy Laughter”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Oh, Diablo. I’ve only played the sequel, but I love it. Cultural representations of spiritual powers are fascinating, whether they crop up in Greek mythology or on primetime television. This must be because they allow us both to laugh at the limits of our fantasy and wonder at the possible realities of what we do not see. “[Do] the spiritual aspects of this game [allude] to anything real?” I think so–but more as an examination of human imagination, which is chock-full of truth, just not the concrete or quantifiable variety. The straw may burn, but it leaves a few needles along with the ashes.

    Also, I think there’s a twist in your logic near the start: those examples of jokes don’t poke fun at faith so much as they do a misunderstanding of faith. Which would indicate more belief than un-. Similar to the dubbed “Jesus videos” on youtube.

  2. Ha! Thank you for this comment.

    I was not referring exclusively to jokes that poke fun at the faith, so much as any joke that you imagine you wouldn’t make if you took the subject matter “seriously.” There are more (and better) examples, but I figured I’d keep things light.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    Ah, fair enough.

    Out of curiosity, what other games do/have you played?

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