What's So Funny about God?

A Theological Look at Humor

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Steve Wilkens
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , December
     2019.
     200 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852673.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Fairly or not, Christians as a group are not reflexively known for their sense of humor. There are many reasons for this understatement. Some of these come from Christianity’s strengths—including its transcending any single cultural or ethnic or national identity, which are often the sources of humor. (There really is no Christian analog to the Borscht Belt.) But the main reason for this awkward relationship with much humor is probably discomfiture about irreverence toward God (especially when within an irreverent culture) or with the subject of a lot of humor: matters related to our bodies.

Perhaps these restraints might be an admirable, if overbroad, concern not to diminish respect for the Almighty or make light of matters with moral implications that Christians take seriously. Salvation and sanctification for the Christian are eternally serious matters, after all. But the reality is more likely an unwitting embrace of a Gnostic-like dualism that values the spiritual so that one must treat things physical (such as sex) as somehow bad or unworthy—or at least not as laughing matters.

Though he does not quite say it this way, I sense that Steve Wilkens, the author of What’s So Funny About God: A Theological Look at Humor, wrote this enjoyable theological reflection on humor as a way of telling his fellow Christians to lighten up a bit. As he notes, there is, after all, “a time to laugh.” (Eccl 3:4b) Wilkens identifies a Gnostic worldview (which he identifies as the first big Christian heresy) as one distortion that affects Christians’ being able to enjoy humor. And he reminds his readers that humor is integral (indeed exclusive) to humans—part of how we were created by God, and thus reflecting God’s image.

The author sprinkles throughout the book his own favorite jokes (some excellent, at least by dad-joke standards) as a way of showing that one can love God and take God seriously and still laugh, even about God and matters spiritual. These jokes include a few with biblical predicates. But none really approach even restrained naughtiness. It seems even if Wilkens doesn’t share his fellow Christians’ wariness about certain types of jokes, he, too, avoids them for the most part. A shock or two might have been more effective in making his point about how natural and even appropriate these can be.

The strongest part of the book is its case for humor as entirely consonant with living as a faithful Christian. Humor, especially of the self-deprecating sort, fulfills a need to admit our inadequacies, keeps us humble, and enables us to connect with others. Humor acknowledges our faults and foibles and embraces the habit of honesty, making us vulnerable to others as we as confessors of a sort await their judgment. Humor—perhaps especially of the earthy sort—forces us to admit our nature as people who were created with necessary (if at times preposterous) bodily functions that define who we are, how we stay alive, and how we are able to create other humans. Humor stares down disease and death when it makes those objects of ridicule—a reflex consistent with the Christian view of death as having been defeated. Humor brings joy and laughter, responses God wants from us as we enjoy God forever, as the Presbyterians put it.

The best humor, of course, the author reminds us, is where there is contrast of the unexpected sort: “incongruity, surprise, misdirection, reversal, and other elements that shatter expectation” (3). Creation—and humans especially—provide endless material for such twists, turns, and delights. Wilkens thus prepares the reader for the second section of his book, where he shows that scripture is full of these sort of surprises—from creation itself, to the stories found in the Bible, to the incarnation and resurrection.

But the presence of these conditions for the best humor does not logically mean that what follows is, in fact, humor as most of us would recognize it—and this is where the author’s case is at its weakest. Much irony, for example, is tragic and not at all funny. While surprises abound in the nativity narrative, in the calling of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of his son, and throughout the Old and New Testaments, that does not mean these shocks and juxtapositions are themselves humor. The author likewise stretches the term comedy (in its literary sense of a story that ends happily) into evidence of humor—which is also not necessarily so. His strongest example, the book of Esther, with its embedded satirical elements, is not necessarily what most of us think of as “funny”—and the question the book’s title aims to answer is What’s So Funny About God? Unfortunately, if the reader sees these examples as failing to make the case for funniness, the title question may seem still hanging, unanswered. Worse still, the reader might conclude that perhaps God (and a life dedicated to God) . . . well, isn’t so funny after all.

The best answer about God’s being funny and encouraging humor is not to be found in these biblical proof texts, but in how humans were created in God’s image, reflecting the very nature of God as we laugh, with the potential for humor to be found in all of creation. If we laugh and see humor as part of who we are—and all humans do—then one must see this as reflecting a characteristic of God, if we believe that humans reflect God’s image. Wilkens in fact makes this case in compelling fashion, especially when he shows how humor is a reflection and expression of love.

There is a beautiful image of just this in the literal translation of the third verse of Joseph Mohr’s lyrics to Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” [emphases added]:

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, oh how laughs

Love out of your divine mouth,

For now the hour of salvation strikes for us.

God’s love here comes forth into the world in the incarnation as laughter, reflexive and unstoppable, springing from God’s very nature—laughter as love, love as laughter. And this laughed love comes at the very moment of our salvation.

            As Christians we do need to loosen up, to take ourselves less seriously, and to see and use humor as a gift from God that is integral to who we are as humans and as Christians. And this approachable, lighthearted book is a worthwhile reminder of just that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander Whitaker is president of King University in Bristol, Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
October 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steve Wilkens (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of philosophy and ethics at Azusa Pacific University. His books include Hidden WorldviewsFaith and Reason: Three ViewsChristianity & Western Thought (volumes 2 and 3), and Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics. He has also taught as an adjunct faculty member at Mount San Antonio College, Glendale Community College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Azusa Pacific University's C. P. Haggard Graduate School of Theology.

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