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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Best Books Are Human

With this post I (happily, I suspect, to some) conclude my four-part diatribe on what characterizes the best books. So far I've argued that the best books are hard to read--not in their use of arcane language or torturous prose but in the sophistication and moral challenge of their ideas, such that we feel better reading them alongside other people. I've suggested that the best books are humble in the sense that the author has dodged the conceit of thinking he or she has the last or even the only word. I've contended that the best books are humorous in that they acknowledge the silliness and even absurdity that occasionally attends even the gravest circumstances.

That's three attributes of the best books. I draw your attention, in case you missed it, to the prominent feature in each of the letter H. Spend your life listening to sermons and you start to think that way.

The fourth and final attribute of the best books that I will address (there are undoubtedly more, which you're welcome to suggest in a comment or an e-mail, but I'm running out of gas on this concept and four Hs seems like a good stopping point) is this: The best books are human.

Now, that may go without saying in the minds of many; nonhuman animals don't have the technology to write, let alone write well. Give a hundred monkeys a hundred typewriters and an endless supply of paper and toner, and they may eventually throw the entire works of Shakespeare at you--along with their feces--but even then they're not writing; they're copying. But I'm not talking about the humanness of the author; I'm talking about the humanness of the content.

The best books strive to be authentic in their representation of the stories they tell, the ideas they convey. Last night a group of us discussed The Shack, a novel that begins with the abduction of the protagonist's daughter. I'm not arguing that The Shack should take its place alongside War & Peace and Moby Dick--far from it--but the story did remind me of one of my friends.

His daughter, about the same age as the book's abducted daughter, went missing for several days after a boating accident. She eventually resurfaced and is doing fine, but I found myself worried that my naive suggestion that we discuss a book together would prove traumatizing to my friend. So I shot him an e-mail warning him that he might find it hard to read (there's one of those four Hs).

My friend did read the book and during our discussion commented on the parallels between the story he read and the story he lived. He doesn't know what great sadness haunts the author of The Shack, but he does know that the book's description of a child gone missing as experienced by the parent "pretty much nails it." Beyond that, the reflections and emotions that emerged out of the story proved comforting to him as he processed his own experience. Through the story, the author showed solidarity with his reader.

The best books regard the human condition in a way that causes us to regard the human condition differently. Animal Farm is a human book despite the near-total absence of humans; Charlotte's Web is a human book despite the primacy of the nonhuman characters. The best books don't pummel us with the author's dogmatic assertions of what is really real; the best books crawl into our laps and ring true for us, and then we close them and revisit the human race from a fresh, even more human perspective. The best books are human because their readers, and presumably their authors, are human themselves. Through the venue of the book they each get to know one another and themselves a little better. And in that respect the best books are not only serving their readers, they're serving the communities inhabited by their readers, and in the best-case scenario, they change a generation.

So ends my rant. Given these four Hs, I'm curious what books you would nominate as the best books ever. What books do you find particularly hard to read, especially humble, uniquely humorous, profoundly human?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Roots of the Earth

I'm working--really, I am--but I'm also at home, and I'm also on Facebook, which complicates matters. My aunt and I--who have several recent shared experiences, included among them a love-hate relationship with Vacation Bible School programming, found ourselves in an instant-messaging conversation about politics as parabled at the middle-school lunch counter.

You may recall that school lunches are allocated through the use of punch card technology, which--as recent elections have shown--is not always particularly reliable. So we imagined a scenario in which children stood in line for hours, waiting for their food, while a bipartisan committee reviewed their punch cards to determine whether they had requested green beans or tater tots. As any reasonable person might imagine, most of the kids wanted tater tots, but what they were given was an eight-year supply of green beans.

All this led to the following collaborative poem, which we've titled "Roots of the Earth."

I would not have to be hungry
To eat a whole tray of tater tots.
I would simply have to be.
And in that being, I would greatly increase
Till all the earth were awash in ketchup
And all the world’s tired, its poor, its huddled masses,
Would gather at the great coastline of my monocultured feast
With spork in hand and napkin in collar
And we would all smile at one another
through our carbohydrated sweat
And wonder aloud, “Is there more to life than this?”
To which, if we were lucky,
the universe would respond,
“Stand by for dessert.”

I invite your literary critique. In other news, I've added videos from a recent book signing/reading event to my sidebar. I've been told they're reasonably funny. Hope you like them; feel free to share them.