Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: Jesus Laughed

It's tough to be funny. It's even tougher to be funny on paper, and to have that printed comedy survive round after round of editorial review and revision, and to have that printed comedy consistently serve a single thesis. And it's especially tough to be funny when writing a book about how being funny relates to the salvation of the world.

Robert Darden is a funny guy. And he's a tough guy: tough enough to take on just that challenge in his new book Jesus Laughed, published by Abingdon Press.

Full disclosure: I requested a copy of Jesus Laughed to review after the publisher made an open offer to bloggers. I requested it because (a) I enjoy reading about the idea of humor and (2) Darden endorsed both my books, and I wanted to return the favor. This is not an endorsement, however; this is a review, so I'm hoping you'll get the sense of this book--both its achievements and its shortcomings--and go on to support not only the author but the enterprise of reinvigorating the humor of the church.

One further advance confession: I'm an editor by trade, and so my review may be a wee bit wonkish from time to time. I'll be reviewing not only the writing, not only the ideas, but the way the book is organized. I apologize if that becomes laborious; please don't punish the author for the reviewer's peccadilloes.

I've not met Robert Darden, senior editor of the groundbreaking religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door and professor of journalism at Baylor University in Texas. I imagine, however, that he writes like he talks. This book felt to me like a brisk walk through the multi-storied skyscraper I imagine the Wittenburg Door offices to be. I strain to keep in step as his monologue is punctuated with the dings of elevators and the screeches of photocopier paper jams. As each cubicle and conference room along this power-walk elicits a new thought, I realize that Darden is a busy man, and Jesus Laughed is an interruption in his busy day.

It's an interruption, but a manageable one. Darden's theology of humor is thoroughly integrated into his life: born out of his work and shaped by his ecclesiology and his interpretation of the history of the church. The church and its people have regularly done things that are laughable, sometimes bitterly so, and the Door and its editorial staff have done the church a service in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to confront its earnestness, its selective memory, its conceit. The title Jesus Laughed suggests that this book will prove Jesus' sense of humor and, by extrapolation, God's sense of humor. But the book's real argument is only barely hinted at in the subtitle--"The Redemptive Power of Humor"--and better captured by the title of chapter five, a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: "The redeemed ought to look more like it!"

There's a lot to work through before chapter five, however. The Bible is not as funny as Darden wants his readers to acknowledge--at least not as knee-slappingly, deep-breathingly, tear-jerkingly funny. Regardless of how amusing a particular scene from the Bible might be once we step away from it and think about it, in the momemt the Bible rarely causes a person to laugh. It's not surprising, given the way we read the Scriptures, that people have to be reminded that there's humor in it. The Bible is not a collection of Henny Youngman one-liners but a long, long, long story--a slow-cooked joke, like Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" or Andy Griffith's "What It Was, Was Football." I struggled my way through two chapters that function as a concordance of laughter in the Old and New Testaments; had I been the editor, these would have been one digested appendix.

That sounds gross--I apologize. What I meant was that these are two chapters of references with commentary and as such belong in a reference section, not in the discursive flow of the book. Besides, they're beside the point. The point of the book is that people need to be instructed to find the Bible funny because it's not written with the comedic principles we've come to expect. There's one punchline to the Bible--death put to death, the world in a wedding dress--and the incidental humor that appears along the way from "In the beginning" to "Amen; come Lord Jesus" is just that: incidental, tightly knit into its context.

Darden shines in his historical theology (chapters four through six) and his ethics of humor (chapters one and seven). Here, amid a shocking breadth of quoted material, we see the character of Christianity losing its laughter and taking on a sobriety, a severity, that seeds the clouds for a humanist backlash. I'm reminded of the scene in this summer's The Dark Knight, in which the disturbingly tragicomic Joker confronts the humorless Batman: "Why so serious?" Did the latter create the former? Did the church's neglect of the humor of God create the nihilistic ribaldry that passes for humor today? It's hard to say, but Batman acknowledges in the film that his city needs more light and less dark, and Darden ably defends the notion that the church needs to recapture a sense of humor that leans into Julian of Norwich's maxim: "All will be well, all will be well."

That's where the ethic of humor comes in. Darden isn't arguing for the church to be less holy in its effort to be more humorous; he's actually arguing that we emulate the humor of God. God's humor is not abusive, and so our humor should not be directed down toward the vulnerable other but toward the cult of power both above and within each of us. Good humor confronts ego and confesses finiteness. Here's a sample quote that shows Darden's wisdom on the matter:

Just as there is no limit to what can get done in a community when nobody cares who gets the credit, there is no limit to the joy you can spread if you are totally without ego. . . . If, like the tumbler or jester, you'll do or say anything without regard to making yourself look good or justified, then there is no limit to the happiness you can spread. (p. 71)


God's humor turns someone like Sarai's bitter laughter into the joy of Isaac, allows bitter Naomi to laugh at the days to come, turns mourning into dancing. God's humor is itself humorous because it's absurd in the way that miracles are absurd. When we consider humor a function of a redeemed ego, we find a new voice with which to share good news with the world, and we find new hope in the audacious yet common-sensical notion that Jesus, fully human and fully God, might have occasionally laughed.

1 comment:

Una said...

Yes, your review is a bit wonkish. But, you are forgiven for referring to Alice's Restaurant. Thanks for writing. I like reading it and yes, chortling along the way.

Una