Most of those who practice Christian theology think they are engaged in a serious science. This should not be surprising given the reality that at the center of Christian theology is a crucified Savior. Moreover, theology must well deal with the fundamentals of life—that is, life, death, and all the stuff in between. Stuff like love and the betrayal of love. Sentimentality and superficial nostrums must be avoided. Humor can be one of the ways that sentimentality and superficiality can be defied.
I do think, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that theology can and should be, in some of its modes, funny. Theology done right should make you laugh. It should be done in an entertaining manner. Humor is not the only mode of entertainment the discourse of theology can take, but it is surely the case that we are often attracted to speech and writing that is funny. This calls into question the presumption by some that if you want what you have to say to be entertaining, then what you have to say cannot be serious. I have tried to defy that presumption by attempting to do theology in a manner that “tickles” the imagination.
A number of times, when being introduced before giving a lecture, the story is told of my encounter with a student at Harvard. It seems I was walking across Harvard looking for the library. Not sure I was going in the right direction, I asked an undergraduate if he could tell me where the library is at. He responded by observing, “At Harvard we do not end sentences with a preposition.” I am said to have responded, “Can you tell me where the library is at, [expletive]?”
There is just one problem with that story. It did not happen. However, the story now seems to have reached a canonical stage.
I relate this phenomenon because the story also reflects the general presumption that I am a “funny guy.” Some even think I have a gift for the one-liner. It is not for me to claim to be funny, but I do hope that I have been able to do theology in a funny manner. I think my work is funny in at least two ways. First, I hope that people laugh out loud about something I have said or written. Second, my work is funny because I try to find ways to “do theology” in disguise. So I push the limits of the presumptions about “serious” theology in the hope that the difference might make a difference for how we live.
It is one thing to suggest that theologians need a sense of humor. It is quite something else to argue that their theology must be funny. I acknowledge the distinction, but I will maintain that not only should theologians know how to laugh at themselves but also their theology should manifest the joy that reflects the glory of God. Of course, joy is not the same as what makes something funny, but what is funny depends first and foremost on a joyful recognition that God is God and we are not. The joke is on us.
This excerpt is adapted from parts of the chapter, “How to Be Theologically Funny.” Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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