Religion and Humor

A man dressed up as a jester

Laughing at Ourselves

If we can laugh at ourselves and take pleasure in life’s absurdity, we tend to feel happier. We may forgive more readily, love more easily, feel more grateful, and have more fun. If we have a good sense of humor, we’ll have an overall feeling of peace because we’re less likely to react with anger at the stresses and disappointments of each day. If we could all laugh a little more, we’d get along better.

I’m not talking here about humor that shames others, that is crass, cutting, or sarcastic, that is used to assert power or to bully. I’m talking about compassionate laughter that bonds us, about silly puns and gentle witticisms. A light and caring heart laughs with kindness.

The Gentle Humor of Muhammad

It’s that kind of humor that Muslim writers describe in the prophet Muhammad. For instance, Ismail Yakit explains that, though Muhammad enjoyed teasing friends and family, he was “warmhearted,” joking gently and playfully. As an example, Yakit recounts a story that one of the prophet’s wives used to tell. She and Muhammad were traveling together with some friends at a time when they were both young. She was thin and in good shape.

At one point, with a glint in his eyes, he instructed their companions to go ahead while he and his wife hung back. She wondered what he was up to, but he said nothing until their friends had walked a distance ahead of them. Then, suddenly, he challenged her to a race.

She agreed, and she won.

In that moment, they shared a bit of fun, and she thought that was the end of it. Yet years later, after she had put on weight, he did a similar thing. They raced, and this time, he won.

Laughing, he said, “Now we are even.” [1]

Muhammad did not do this out of anger. He had not minded losing to her that first time, so felt no need for revenge, yet when the opportunity presented itself for a little play, he couldn’t resist. Nor did his wife feel hurt by it. Indeed, she would laugh when she told the tale, for she enjoyed the joke as much as he did. It did not diminish them, but brought them closer together. That’s what good humor does.

Eastern Religions and Humor

Reading about the Muslim prophet, I wondered about other religious leaders. Richard A. Gardner and Scott Davis, in their encyclopedia.com article about humor in Eastern religions, describe an ambivalence toward humor in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Apparently, Buddha didn’t laugh, which is strange because there are so many humorous stories about him and about enlightenment itself. The apparently serious Taoist, Laozi, was the victim of lampooning by his compatriot Zhuangzi, who parodied the Tao Te Ching. Similarly, Confucius’s rigid followers laid themselves open to teasing and jesting, though Confucius himself enjoy puns. [2]

It’s not only the religious leaders who enjoy a joke now and then. The stories and myths of scripture contain humor. The Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, for instance, when offended by her trickster brother, hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. To lure her out, the other gods huddled at the cave’s entrance and told lewd jokes, laughing uproariously.

Their plan worked. Eager to join in the fun, Amaterasu joined them, delighted when they replayed their joke for her. Even the gods enjoy laughter.

Certainly, the god of Abraham. For instance, the Hebrew God sometimes took breaks to play with Leviathan. “There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic with” (Psalm 104:26). When God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their great, old age, Sarah laughed. God got the last laugh, though, not only because she did get pregnant, but because he instructed them to name the boy Yitzchak, or Isaac, which means “he laughs.”

But Sarah didn’t mind. “God has made laughter for me,” she said, “everyone who hears will laugh over me” (Genesis 21:6 ESV). She could take part in the joke because God laughs with us, not at us.

Humor in Scripture

But some people might not like the idea of looking for humor in scripture. In his article about humor and the Quran, Mustansir Mir acknowledges this. After all, the Quran is a “solemn” text meant for “reverence and awe.” [3] This is fitting, for we ought to respect the deeper message, honor the beliefs and deities of a person’s faith. Awe and wonder at the mystery of the divine are appropriate. We may fear that joking about something means we don’t take it seriously. That is not necessarily so. We can appreciate the humor in a situation without ignoring the sacred message. In fact, sometimes humor makes it easier to learn. Humor invites us in, making us less likely to resist a teaching we might otherwise not be ready for.

It’s important, though, according to Mir, that the joke is not the whole of the message. As he points out, humorous vignettes in scripture start out with a serious statement regarding the point of the passage and end with a message we are to take away with us, one we are to use to guide us in our life as people of faith.

Humor in scripture isn’t only about teaching, however. In some instances, we can come to better understand the characters involved, and thus ourselves. Take Moses, for instance. Without his quirks and his delightful naivete, he would be too imposing for us to relate to. We see this best in the Muslim Moses.

A man dressed up as a jester

Moses in the Quran

As an example, Mir describes the future prophet’s meeting with God at the burning bush. At the time, Moses is a lowly shepherd, holding the tool of his trade–his crook–in his hand. God asks him what he’s holding. Enthusiastically, Moses explains to God the stick’s many uses, as if God did not know this. Indeed, in his innocence, Moses doesn’t understand what the reader already knows: God asked the question not to hear an explication of the object’s uses, but so that Moses might focus on it, for God is about to tell him that his staff is now magical. [4]

You might suspect this Muslim God could become impatient with Moses, but I imagine him smiling indulgently as he listens to the young man’s recitation. Moses is so guileless. We, the reader, may laugh because we feel superior, because we know better than Moses did.

In truth, however, we are like Moses. We try so hard to appear strong and wise and in control. Often, we try to please, without really understanding what is needed. Yet no matter what we do, we cannot fool this God who knows us intimately and loves us completely. Moses, like we are, might be a fool at times, but he is an earnest and faithful one. There are worse things to be.

So laughter can help us identify with the biblical characters. It can also, as Mir suggests, remind us that life is filled with joy as well as woe. Laughter breaks down barriers and inhibitions between us and one another, and it can also bring us closer to God. In the end, though, humor in scripture is there to enhance the biblical teachings. [4]

What Is Humor?

But what do we mean by humor?

In his book about powerful women in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, F. Scott Spencer identifies some elements of humor. He tells us about stock characters who are lampooned, about death and sexuality jokes, and about storylines or subjects that turn our expectations on their heads, such as the parables or those about courtesans who trick heartless patriarchs. Perhaps, as Spencer suggests, it’s the old “laugh to keep from crying” idea. [6]

More important to an understanding of humor in scripture, however, are the five elements he lists: incongruity, ingenuity, inferiority, inelasticity, and imperceptibility.

The incongruous is funny because it contains within it an element of ironic surprise. Things are not as we expect them to be. The best scriptural irony contains joyful spectacle and farce, festivity and happy endings, such as the book of Esther, which shows her using wit and guile to bring down an anti-Semitic villain, or the story of Jonah who tried to flee from God, with ridiculous results.

Spencer, like Mir, uses the example of Sarah to explain the incongruous. He explains that her laughter bubbled up spontaneously as a result of her astonishment and wonder. It contained within it a bit of joy, for what a wonderful thing to have a baby at her age, even if it is unbelievable. [7]

Strong, Clever Women

We see ingenuity in the story of Esther, as well as in those of Ruth, Tamar, and other strong and clever biblical women. For instance, Tamar, twice a widow to Judah’s sons, should have been offered his third son to marry, but the patriarch refused to allow it. Being childless, Tamar now had no standing in the community. To gain her rights, she dressed up as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her. She became pregnant. Later, she proved he was the father, giving her the last laugh.

Like the Pharisees that Jesus so frequently condemned, let his self-righteousness get in the way of his compassion, Judah was made the fool, but he had the grace to publicly admit Tamar’s greater virtue. “She is more righteous than I,” he said (Genesis 38:26).

Tamar’s story lifts up the powerless and vulnerable, vindicating the underdog. Manipulation and trickery are not, perhaps, laudable skills. If instead, the patriarch had tricked a poor widow, the story would not have been comical, but terrifying. Such humor is only funny when the butt of the joke takes himself too seriously or lords it over those in no position to assert themselves.

Muslims who write about the humor of the Quran or of the prophet Muhammad himself are careful to point out that cutting and cruel jokes have no place in the Muslim faith. The humor Mir describes is grounded in “geniality and kindliness.” It’s playful and witty, but compassionate, too. [8] The humor found in the holy text arises out of comical situations and human imperfections. The Quran uses irony, incongruity, satire, and caricature, yet with gentleness and respect. It is important not to hurt people’s feelings.

Jesus and Humor

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are not always so concerned with such niceties. In Proverbs, there are many quips that belittle women and fools, and Jesus can be quite forceful in his condemnation of Pharisees and other hypocrites, but sometimes he does it with a great joke.

For instance, while railing at them for following petty laws while ignoring great wrongs, he said, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).

To fully appreciate this, it helps to understand that some of the holy men strained their drinks to keep the water pure, while not even noticing the enormous camel they had swallowed. It’s an example of hyperbole used for comic effect. It’s also a pun. In Aramaic, the word for gnat is galma, while the word for camel is gamal.

Humor surrounds Jesus in other ways, as well. As a young man, for instance, he acted like an exasperating teenager. When he was twelve, he stayed in the temple for three days, learning and asking questions, which was considered a great thing. The people there were amazed by him. His parents, though, didn’t know where he was, and they searched anxiously for him. When they found him, they chastised him. In response, he asked, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).

Of course they didn’t. They were his parents, not his god.

A few years later, at a wedding in Cana, Jesus grudgingly did as his mother requested by helping out the hosts when they ran out of wine. Finding some casks of water, he turned them into wine that was better than any that had been brought out before (John 2:1-9). He did this flippantly, but with surprising results.

Shaking Us Up

Jesus often did the unexpected, sleeping during a storm, telling parables that made no sense, cursing fig trees, eating with sinners, riding into town on a donkey, and basking in the attention of a woman of ill repute who slathered him with expensive oil. What we think is holy, such as righteousness and the law, he turns on its head, and what we think is sinful, he embraces.

He’s trying to shake us up, to help us see what we can see only with our hearts. Humor does this for us. It helps us see the hyperbolic log in our own eye rather than criticize the mote in someone else’s. When we can laugh, we can lighten up; when we can lighten up, we might become more forgiving, kind, and compassionate.

We’re not all comedians, nor do we need to be, yet if we cannot appreciate a bit of harmless irreverence or gentle ribbing, our lives will be dull and dour. When we take our religion so seriously that we cannot imagine God playing with Leviathan, disavow any questioning of the Lord, or deny that Scripture can be ironic, we lose the point of faith.

Religion doesn’t exist so we can flagellate ourselves or condemn others. It exists so we can bond with the divine and with one another, so we can open our hearts to kindness and generosity. Religion encourages us to stop taking ourselves so seriously. We are all imperfect. None of us escapes foolishness at times. So be gentle with yourself, appreciate the gifts of those around you, and enjoy life.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See Yakit, Ismail, “Jokes and the Humor of Prophet Muhammad,” Last Prophet, May 3, 2010, https://www.lastprophet.info/jokes-and-humor-of-prophet-muhammad, accessed August 1, 2022.
  2. Gardner, Richard A. and Scott Davis, “Humor and Religion: Humor and Religion in East Asian Contexts,” Encyclopedia.com, 2005, Humor and Religion: Humor and Religion in East Asian Contexts | Encyclopedia.com, accessed August 2, 2022.
  3. Mir, Mustansir, “Humor in the Quran,” The Muslim World, Vol. LXXXI, July-Oct 1991, No. 3-4,179-193, 180, https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/72107/j.1478-1913.1991.tb03524.x.pdf;sequence=1, accessed August 3, 2022.
  4. Ibid 183 and 188.
  5. Ibid 191.
  6. Spencer, F. Scott, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth, New York: Continuum, 2004, 26.
  7. Ibid 27.
  8. Mir 182.

Photo by Austin Lowman on Unsplash

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