Humor and religion. For many Adventist Christians, they mix like oil and water. Religion is a life-and-death business while humor can trivialize important beliefs. And of course, have morally dubious grounding.
But religion – with its adherents’ shortcomings and hypocrisy – is such a fertile field for humor. And a wonderful antidote for fuzzy thinking and pomposity.
We Adventists have long struggled for balance in understanding grace and works. So it is no wonder then that we might also struggle to draw a proper line between helpful and harmful humor.
Can we laugh at ourselves? Try this one on:
Jews don’t recognize Jesus.
Protestants don’t recognize the Pope.
Adventists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.
Well, to explore this topic a bit – but also just to lighten-up the weekend – let me consider a few jokes and their religious implications.
[Note: I’ve shamelessly lifted, with modifications, most of the jokes below from a wonderful book on philosophy entitled Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. I’d encourage you to rush right out and buy it.]
Legalism and Hypocrisy
This is fertile ground. We are the best targets because those high Christian ideals clash so frequently with our poor execution. And skewering this double-standard myopia is just too good to pass up. We laugh – but typically because we see the joke in the other guy.
‘Be ye perfect’ is the admonition. But we’re a lot like Augustine, who wrote “Give me chastity and continence - but not yet.” [Confessions Book 8, Chapter 7].
Here’s a joke that captures this perfectly:
Moses trudges down from Mt. Sinai, tablets in hand, and announces to the assembled multitudes: “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is I got Him down to ten. The bad news is ‘adultery’ is still in.”
Or perhaps you’d prefer this cartoon:
God, on Sinai, is handing Moses the stone tablets, and says:
“Then, each month, you’ll receive a new set of commandments. Cancel anytime and keep the first set, absolutely free.”
God’s rules have the twin ethical goals of human-flourishing and social-justice. But we so much want to adhere to just the letter of the law:
Armed robbers burst into a bank, line up the customers and staff against the wall, and begin to take their wallets, watches and jewelry. Two of the bank’s accountants are among those waiting to be robbed. The first accountant suddenly thrusts something into the hand of the other, and says: “Here’s the 50 bucks I owe you.”
And, if we inflexibly want to uphold the standards then we have to live with the consequences, even when a little ‘grace’ might be to our advantage:
A union shop steward is at a convention in Paris and decides to visit a brothel. He asks the madam, “Is this a union house?”
“No, it’s not,” she replies.
“So how much do the girls earn?” he asks.
“You pay me $100, the house gets $80 and the girls get $20.”
“Why that’s crass exploitation!” And he stomps out.
Eventually, the guy finds a brothel that the madam says is unionized.
“So, if I pay you $100, how much does the girl get?” he asks.
“She gets $80.”
“That’s great!” he says. “I’d like Collette.”
“I’m sure you would,” says the madam. “But Michelle here has seniority.”
Reality-Grounding our Religion
And speaking of sometimes missing the implications. Within Adventist subculture there are a lot of unspoken do’s and don’ts. Newbies don’t always know how to play the game. Assumptions are frequently made about such diverse topics as health-reform or eschatology. So when there is dissonance, who should shift, the individual or the subculture? And how should that work?
A Chicagoan walks into a North Side bar, orders three pints of beer, and drinks them down, taking a sip from one, then a sip from the next, then the third, until they’re gone. The bartender says, “You know, they’d be less likely to go flat if you bought them one at a time.”
The man says, “Yeah, I know. But I have two brothers, see. One is in Europe and the other’s in Australia. We’re so far apart now that we promised each other we’d drink this way to always remember those wonderful days when we drank together. Each of these beers is for one of my brothers and the third is for me.”
The bartender is touched, and he says, “What a great custom!”
The guy becomes a regular in the bar and always orders his beer the same way.
Then one day he comes in and orders only two pints. Everyone notices and a silence falls over the bar. The bartender quietly says to him, “Please accept my condolences, pal.”
And the guy says, “Oh no, everyone’s fine. But I just joined the Adventist Church and I had to quit drinking.”
Obviously a disconnect in this guy’s doctrinal assimilation.
But religion sets up its norms – ostensibly from God – and expounds them via theology. So what test, if any, should those dogmas be subjected to? If none, then the potential exists for doctrinal perversion to produce a philosophically twisted disciple. All because authority was insufficiently questioned. Consider the next joke to be something of a metaphor on this point:
A man tries on a made-to-order suit and says to the tailor, “I need this sleeve taken in! It’s two inches too long!”
The tailor says, “No, just bend your elbow like this. See, it pulls up the sleeve.”
The man says, “Well, okay, but now look at the collar! When I bend my elbow, the collar goes halfway up the back of my head.”
The tailor says, “So? Raise your head up and back. Perfect.”
The man says, “But now the left shoulder is three inches lower than the right one!”
The tailor says, “No problem. Bend at the waist way over to the left and it evens out.”
So the man leaves the store wearing the suit, his right elbow crooked and sticking out, his head up and back, all the while leaning down to the left. The only way he can walk is with a herky-jerky, spastic gait.
Just then, two passersby notice him.
The first one says: “Look at that poor crippled guy. My heart goes out to him.”
The second says: “Yeah, but his tailor must be a genius! That suit fits him perfectly!”
The Golden Rule
“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” [Luke 6:31 KJV]
It is tempting to reduce religion to the precepts embodied in the Golden Rule. And this concept appears in most ethical and religious traditions, not just Christianity. That’s understandable, as it is so clearly sensible. But there is a problem – the ‘as ye would’ part. If our moral compass radically diverges from normative behavior is it really ok to operate that way? Consider this one-liner:
A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule.
Or perhaps you like:
“Hit me.” said the masochist. “No!.” said the sadist.
The Golden Rule alone is really insufficient. It cannot be grounded in just anyone’s idea of right and wrong. But usually the issue isn’t moral relativism. It’s that we have blind spots in our own morality and break the Golden Rule:
The Coopers were shown into the dentist’s office, where Mr. Cooper made it clear he was in a big hurry. “No fancy stuff, Doctor,” he ordered. “No gas or needles or any of that. Just pull the tooth and get it over with.”
“I wish more of my patients were as stoical as you,” said the dentist admiringly. “Now, which tooth is it?”
Mr. Cooper turned to his wife. “Open your mouth, honey.”
We are often confused about prayer. It is supposed to be relational, but we can’t invite God to lunch. We are told He cares for us, but then bad things happen.
And we tend to live our lives on autopilot – until some disruption occurs. Until we need a bailout. What sort of help and protection should we expect from God in a world where evil is undeniable? That question is raised by this joke, using stereotype to help carry the humor:
A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea.
She pleads, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.”
And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, unharmed.
She looks up to heaven and says: “He had a hat!”
Prayer as bargaining-with-God is certainly a dumbed-down form of relationship. But the human predicament is that we have both needs and guilt due to our failures. And God is the ultimate power and judge. So we … plea-bargain.
A man wrote a letter to the IRS saying, “I have been unable to sleep knowing that I have cheated on my income tax. I have understated my taxable income and have enclosed a check for $150. If I still can’t sleep, I will send the rest.”
This is a subject that is intensively divisive for Christians, and consequently it’s tough to step back and find any humor here. The contention, I think, derives in part from the tension between scriptural authority – and how literally and broadly we interpret it – against the degree of confidence we place in science. This is nature vs. nurture, overlaid with a most gut-wrenching epistemological meta-issue.
In all this tension there is a less frequently considered question – of identity. How much does, and should, our identity have a sexual component?
The following two jokes come at us from this angle:
It’s the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV. A cowboy sits at the bar sipping his whiskey, when a young lady sits down next to him. She turns and asks him, “Are you a real cowboy?”
He replies, “Well, I’ve spent my whole life on the ranch, herding horses, mending fences, and branding cattle, so I guess I am.”
She says, “I’m a lesbian. I spend my whole day thinking about women. As soon as I get up in the morning, I think about women. When I shower or watch TV, everything seems to make me think of women.”
Pretty soon she leaves, and a little while later a couple sits down next to the old cowboy and they ask him, “Are you a real cowboy?”
He replies, “I always thought I was, but I just found out I’m a lesbian.”
Two gay men are standing on a street corner when a gorgeous and shapely blonde strolls by in a low-cut, clingy chiffon dress.
One guy says to the other. “At times like this, I wish I were a lesbian.”
How’s that for an identity whiplash? But what about our often unconscious affinity for stereotyping sexual identity – as illustrated by these two one-liners:
- If a man speaks in a forest, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?
- How Many Roads Must A Man Walk Down Before He Admits He's lost?
Values and Certainty
Last but not least – is sorting out our values. How do we differentiate truth from error? For some, ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.’ And for ‘God’, substitute a literal interpretation of the Bible. Others find this perspective unsatisfying or untenable. Where is the role of reason and naturalistically-grounded information? What if there are instances where these two potential sources of knowledge appear to be incompatible?
People seem to diverge wildly in their tolerance for ambiguity and corresponding yen for certainty. When such different temperaments come together in a church community it can be contentious indeed. The way we can relate so differently to the same data is well-illustrated by this joke:
Four docs went on a duck-hunting trip together: a family practitioner, a gynecologist, a surgeon, and a pathologist. As a bird flew overhead, the family practitioner started to shoot but decided not to because he wasn’t absolutely sure it was a duck. The gynecologist also started to shoot, but lowered his gun when he realized he didn’t know whether it was a male or a female duck. The surgeon, meanwhile, blew the bird away, turned to the pathologist and said, “Go see if that was a duck.”
And what we hold to be knowledge then begets our values. Clarity here is integral to Christian maturity. But getting it wrong can be disastrous – or hilarious:
There was a rich man who was near death. He was grieved that he had worked so hard for his money and couldn’t take it with him. So he began to pray to the Lord for an exemption. An angel appeared and said, “I’m sorry but you must leave all your wealth behind.” The man cried bitterly and implored the angel to ask God to bend the rules just this once.
Later the angel returned and announced God had granted his wish. The man could bring one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, he pulled out his largest suitcase, filled it with pure gold bars, and placed it beside his bed.
That night he died, and was ushered to the Pearly Gates – suitcase in hand.
St. Peter stopped him. “Hold it; you can’t bring that in here!”
But the man explained the exemption and St. Peter consulted the records. “You’re right. It says here you’ll be allowed one carry-on bag. But I’m supposed to check the contents before letting it through.”
St. Peter opened the suitcase and looked inside. Then he looked up at the man incredulously and said, “You brought pavement??”
Finally, one last joke about values. It’s funny because the bottom line here is … just … so … wrong.
During a seminary faculty meeting, an angel suddenly appears and tells the Dean, “Sir, I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or 10 million dollars.”
For the Dean it is no contest. His theology is clear, and he happily chooses Wisdom.
There is a flash of lightning, and the Dean appears transformed. But he just sits there, staring silently down at the table.
So one of his colleagues whispers to him, “Say something!”
The Dean says, “I should have taken the money.”
Hope you had some ‘thoughtful fun’. If not, perhaps instead I need to repent. Feel free to let me know.
- Rich Hannon is on the board of Adventist Forum. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.