- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Jack was in front of me coming out of church one day, and, as usual, the preacher was standing at the door shaking hands. He grabbed Jack by the hand and pulled him aside. The preacher told him, "You need to join the army of the Lord." Jack replied, "I'm already in the army of the Lord, pastor." The preacher asked, "Then how come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?"
Jack whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."
Would God like that one?
Would he mind if the rest of us laughed? Should we do it behind our hankies, or is it OK to snicker in places of worship?
Religious jokes can be funny and revealing, and sometimes cross the line. What we laugh at reveals as much about us as the object of the joke. What we scowl at reveals something, too.
In many ways, religious jokes and religious humor are no different from other humor. But sometimes laughing about religion makes us nervous. Should we tell the one about Jewish mothers in front of the rabbi? What about poking fun at priests while the priest is over for dinner, especially in these scandal-ridden times for the Catholic Church?
"At first glance, you think humor really doesn't have a place in the holy of holies, that it belongs out in the vestibule or out in the street," says Conrad Hyers, a retired college professor and author of "And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy." "That's tended to be the approach to keep humor and religion as far apart as possible."
But Mr. Hyers, one of just a few academics who has studied laughter and religion, argues that humor is an inherent part of being human and being true to God's creation. He doesn't think jokes about religion should be taboo, even if they are about our deepest-held and most self-defining beliefs.
An increasing number of religious leaders agree with him.
They find value in connecting humor and laughter with faith and religious beliefs. They greet happier congregations when they start their sermons with jokes or funny stories. They even laugh at the Bible occasionally.
"There's not a lot of humor in the Bible," says rabbi and stand-up comic Bob Alper of Vermont. "But there is some."
Think of Abraham. In Genesis, God told him he and his elderly wife, Sarah, soon would have a son. "Abraham began to laugh when he thought, 'Can a man have a child when he is a hundred years old? Can Sarah have a child at 90?'" the passage reads.
In the next chapter, Sarah also laughs at the news. But when she had that child, she named him Isaac, which means laughter. Mr. Alper adds, "This is pre-Viagra, by the way."
A man trying to understand the nature of God asked him some questions. "God, how long is a million years to you?" God said, "A million years to me is like a minute." Then the man asked, "God, how much is a million dollars worth to you?" God said, "A million dollars to me is like a penny." The man thought for a moment and asked, "God, can I have a penny?"
And God cheerfully said, "Sure, in a minute."
Does God have a sense of humor? Is he out there somewhere chuckling at us?
Many religious leaders say yes, especially if they believe people were created in God's image with laughter that's obvious even in infants.
"It does sound odd to put it that way, but I think God does have a sense of humor," Mr. Hyers says. "Instead, we would tend to picture God like we picture Aunt Gladys."
That is, stern and frowning. Instead, Mr. Hyers thinks houses of worship need more humor inside them.
"Not to the point of frivolity, but if we are the children of God then we ought to act like it," he says. "The parent that tells the child in church to be serious and that these are things of great importance; well, they are, but ultra-seriousness can be a dangerous thing."
Mr. Alper also believes humor comes from God, although he doesn't like to attribute human qualities to God.
"My flippant answer is yes, [God has a sense of humor] because God created Rush Limbaugh," he says. "But I really see humor as a divine quality with a lot more importance than diversion."
Like distracting him and his wife recently from their worries about her health.
"Laughter," he says, "has a way of helping us cope with really grim fears."
Two lifelong friends had a running argument. The black friend argued that God was black, and the white friend argued that God was white. One day, they decided to go fishing. On the way back, they were still arguing when they got into an accident and found themselves in heaven. St. Peter met them at the pearly gates. Again, the question was brought up. "Is God black or white?" St. Peter told them to have a seat in the waiting room and God would come out and talk to them. While they waited, they continued arguing. Then they heard some loud footsteps coming and turned to see God. The door swung open and God stepped in and said to the men, "Buenos dias, senores."
Mr. Hyers says humor needs a bigger role in our religious traditions, especially for its ability to keep people and faiths healthy. People who can laugh at themselves and their beliefs feel liberated, he says, because they don't feel responsible for the world. They know that's God's job.
"One of the big evils that we see and recently Muslim fundamentalism is an all too vivid case is when people take themselves and their beliefs with such absolute seriousness, it becomes dangerous," he says. "It leads to absolutism, which in turn leads to human strife and warfare."
So it's probably OK to laugh about some aspects of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal, Mr. Hyers says. That doesn't mean laugh at victims. But it might mean it's wise to realize the absurdity of nearly 300, presumably celibate, mostly old, white, male bishops sitting around a conference room in Dallas as the U.S. bishops did last month talking so much about sex and sexual abuse.
"With humor, there's more of a tendency to be willing to admit we might be wrong or we might be foolish," he says. "And in fact, we become even more foolish by not having a sense of humor about ourselves."
But it's easy to fall into bad taste with jokes. And the ones that put down others aren't healthy for anyone, Mr. Hyers says.
Many of those kinds of jokes reinforce stereotypes or degrade a religion. They're built on hostility, racism or other bad feelings. Many of the jokes circulating about Catholic priests these days would fall into these categories. Mr. Hyers would avoid these.
So would Randy Ross, pastor of New Community Church in Wellington, Fla., who prefers to see humor as an opening for introspection and even a reflection of our godly characteristics.
"It lowers the guard and lets people look at their lives," he says. "While the message of the Bible is eternally serious, God by his very nature is incredibly creative and passionate, and the author of every emotion. And that includes humor."

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