In the midst of our study, research, and writing, it's good to let loose with an old-fashioned belly laugh now and then. This is why at least part of the latest issue of Word and World (vol. 32, Spring 2012) should be read by all seminary students. The entire issue is a mostly "serious" look at humor, with academic articles that actually discuss the role of humor in ministry, etc. The faux intro, however, by Frederick J. Gaiser, is a hilarious parody of academic research.
Gaiser begins by declaring that since "pretty much nobody cares" about important issues in theology anymore, they are changing the journal's name to Whirred and Whirled: Fluff for Whatever (the vote on the editorial board was 15-2, with ". . . . the two traditionalist diehards being one who still reads the Confessions only in German and Latin and one who thought the Da Vinci Code was the combination of the lock that protects the Mona Lisa").
Gaiser then lays out a whole year's worth of future articles that would be more relevant to "modern" Christianity. The Summer issue, for example, will focus on "Bats in the Bible" with such articles as "From Sparrows at the Altar to Bats in the Belfry: A Fascinating Look at the 'Wirkungsgeschichte' of Psalm 84:3" and "Archaeologists Uncover the Club of God's Fury (Isa 10:5): They Remain Puzzled over the Inscription ('Louis[b?]ille S[n?]ugger')"
The Fall issue of W&W will then focus on "The Numbers Racket," with such ministry-related articles as "Happy-Talk Mission Statements Make Bigger Congregations" and "On Preaching to the Crowds (Matt 5-7): How Faithfully Proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount Will Solve Your Seating Issues and Parking Problems." Seriously, folks, it will brighten your day if you take a look at this piece.
Academic studies and humor should not be mutually exclusive. Listening to N. T. Wright and Michael Bird at the 2010 ETS in Georgia has convinced me of that. Many scholars have a certain wittiness about them that makes them a joy to listen to. Others are true wordsmiths that can elicit a chuckle through wordplay, hyperbole, etc. Even Christ, I believe, used occasional humor in his teachings via hyperbole and irony (e.g., the image of trying to clear a speck of dust from one's brother's eye while having a giant beam protruding from his or her own).
Yet care must be taken. Occasionally it may be small step from humor to sacrilege, whether in speaking or writing. Indeed, I have in mind one specific magazine, devoted to a parody of Christian culture, which is occasionally hilarious but also occasionally sacrilegious.
I would suggest, then, that knowing how not the cross the line in religious humor depends on knowing what to reverence and fear. True Christians should know how to laugh, but the following are worthy only of reverence or sadness and thus should be off-limits in our humor: 1. the holy character of God, 2. the person and work of Jesus Christ, including his personal character, 3. The nature of the blood atonement, and 4. the eternal condemnation of the lost, which we should all agree is no laughing matter. I'm sure there are others, but these first come to mind.
Christian humor, however, works best when it makes fun of us humans and all our foibles (one of the funniest books I've ever read is Jan Doward's Even the Angels Must Laugh Sometimes, a collection of real-life church bloopers). Gaiser's faux intro, for example, is funny because it pokes fun both at our academic stuffiness and culture's obsession with the irrelevant (reality TV, for example, specifically comes under Gaiser's gentle critique). Also, great Biblical puns can induce a chuckle or a groan without depleting any of our reverence (e.g., "baseball in the bible" where "in the big inning . . . David struck out Goliath, the prodigal son hit a home run," etc.)
In conclusion, then, we were made to laugh, sometimes we need to laugh, and it is possible to joke around without treating lightly what should not be treated lightly. As Solomon said, there is a time for everything under heaven, including laughter. Thus kudos to Gaiser for a worthy piece of Biblical and academic humor.
I leave you, dear readers, with this thought:
Three pastors, a Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist, went fishing on the lake together. A few minutes into their excursion, the Methodist said, "I'll be right back, I forgot my bait." He then promptly got out of the boat, walked across the water, got his bait, and returned. A few minutes later the Presbyterian said, "I forgot my lures; I'll be right back too," and did the same as the Methodist. Finally, the Baptist thought to himself, "I can't let these guys show me up. I forgot my lunch." He stepped out of the boat and promptly sank like a rock. The Methodist turned to the Presbyterian and said, "Do you think we should have told him where the rocks were?"
With thanks to Mom and Dad, who always kept some great joke books around the house. :)