Is The Gospel A Laughing Matter?

“Some people think it’s difficult to be a Christian and to laugh, but I think it’s the other way around. God writes a lot of comedy; it’s just that he has so many bad actors.” – Garrison Keillor

The nicest thing that has ever been said about my spirituality was in my first year as a Christian. A friend said, “I can see Jesus in your laughter.” And it was true. Encountering Jesus at a time when I had wanted to end my life had a revolutionary effect on me. I was filled with hope and my mourning was replaced with joy. I was subsequently an extremely happy young man. I laughed a lot and made others laugh too. Many things have since been said about my spirituality, none of them quite as complimentary (an occupational hazard of pastors). More to the point, nobody has since connected laughter to my spirituality.

Things got pretty serious soon after that compliment was paid. I was pressured into getting rid of my music collection, advised to turn off “secular” radio and the process of becoming a seriously committed evangelical through retreating from “the world” began. The little humour left in me was then hammered out during my time in Bible College, where we wore a collar and tie to lectures because this “denoted an attitude of seriousness” when it came to preparing for ministry.

My subsequent experiences as a pastor have underlined the seriousness of church life. I have endured conflict on anything from Constitutional changes through to the replacement of pews with chairs, and a memorable battle to install air conditioning in the tropics. I have seen people traumatised by their experiences in church and I have been traumatised myself. From this perspective, the Gospel is no laughing matter.

The typical caricature of Christians as a humourless and severe people is partly true. This perception that we are collectively a judgemental and joyless bunch presents a significant stumbling block to many Australians even considering Jesus as an option. This is despite the large portion of the population who have a spiritual yearning. The spiritual openness of many Australians does not extend to considering the claims of Christ, and Christians shoulder at least some of the responsibility for this massive bypass of the church. Consider the churches just in our movement alone who have split or are in turmoil. Consider the issues over which we find ourselves in conflict and often divide.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Could it be that in turn our perception of who Jesus is informs a large part of the joylessness we often encounter in the church? A number of years ago I was confronted by a book I read by Michael Frost entitled Jesus The Fool. In the book, Frost attempts to help us reframe Jesus and to see him in a new light. The Jesus of evangelicals could hardly be accused (as he was) of being a “drunkard and a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:33-34).

As imitators of Christ should we not reflect the Jesus we encounter in the gospels? Would those outside the church imagine in us the Jesus who performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana saving the day when the wine ran out, the man who stopped to watch the lilies of the field swaying in the breeze, who laughed and played with children, who was criticised for enjoying himself too much, the enchanting storyteller who told parables that were often humorous, the orator with a satirical twist who saw logs when others pointed out splinters, the radical with a whip who dared call those who were trying to cash in, the jester who showed up the hollow logic of the Pharisees, the man who had no place to lay his head, the curious miracle worker who spat in the mud, the host to social lepers, the bridge builder to undesirables, the king who chose an ass for his grand entrance to Jerusalem, the man more at home with a saw than a sepulchre, the Saviour who died with a mocking sign above his head that was actually true?

Frost relates the story of the legendary Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo who, as a young boy, decided to alter a painting of Jesus that he found too stilted. He recreated it into a new picture of Christ. “Upon their return home, the Murillos were aghast to see their Lord has been transformed. The stern, unflinching face now had a lively grin. His eyes were alive with mischief. The halo had become a battered straw hat and the plastered down hair had become tousled and unruly. His crook had been transformed into a gnarled walking stick and the limp and sad looking lamb at Jesus’ feet was a now a troublesome puppy. “The shepherd boy had become a lively and excited hiker in search of adventure”.

Perhaps it is time we took the picture down off the wall and made changes to our own image of Jesus where it has become out of whack with the Gospels. I am convinced that often people equate becoming a Christian with adopting an approach to life they find very unattractive. I don’t blame them. I became a Christian because I was willing to take a punt that when Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) it was true. I became a Christian because I wanted to exchange my sadness for joy and my brokenness and bitterness for healing. Encountering Jesus put smile on my soul and my face.

The Gospel as a laughing matter

A few years ago I found myself in charge of our annual Christmas Carols. Bereft of any other ideas I wrote a play that described the events of the Christmas story through the eyes of the fictional barman at the Bethlehem Inn and a local barfly who propped up the bar every day. We had great fun with Mary and Joseph, especially when Joseph told us that his wife was pregnant but not to him, and then the revelation that it wasn’t actually another bloke. We fell about when the shepherds turned up, and gave the wise men stick (yes I know they came later). I played the barman and my pastoral colleague played the barfly. Our cynical take on the events appeared to be aided by the drinking of more beer, but so did our willingness to explore the ramifications of the rather unbelievable story turning out to be true. There was no fairy tale happy ending, but the events did get us thinking, and asking the kind of questions you would hope the Christmas story poses. The feedback was interesting. A number of church members did not care at all for the script, for predictable reasons. However, the feedback from people who did not normally go to church and did not count themselves as believers was enthusiastic. Some communicated that they had not expected to come to church and laugh. Some expressed great surprise that the actors were pastors in real life. Most expected a traditional portrayal of the Christmas story, and many had simply come because their kids were performing in a choir.

It reinforced what I already knew to be true: that people who aren’t Christians don’t expect to laugh when they come to church. Many expect to be bored and to encounter humourless, judgemental people. When they find themselves laughing it changes everything. Having their preconceptions of Christians changed, they are then more open to comprehending the claims of Christ. Not having to become something they dislike opens up new possibilities.

The Gospel is no joke, but laughter is inextricably linked to salvation. The joy and happiness that come with our liberation from sin and the bestowal of hope and grace are direct outcomes of the Gospel. Churches can try and be funny if they want to be (and there’s a lot to be said about humour), but the best laughter comes from a freed soul, a healed heart, and a hopeless person who has found hope in Christ. In this way, laughter can be an essential ingredient to our missional intent. We need to put aside those things within our church culture that are joy quenching, and learn to laugh again through Jesus. Then we may find a more receptive audience.

Quotes from Jesus The Fool used with permission. ‘Jesus The Fool – The Mission Of The Unconventional Christ’,  Urban Neighbours of Hope Publications Springvale, Australia 2007

Stan Fetting is Interim Director of Crossover. He used to be a really funny guy.

This article appeared in the Spring 2011 Edition of PRAC Magazine.