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Faith, Hope and Mischief: Reflections for September 2020
Week one: You must be joking.
George Orwell said that “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” At the very least, a joke disrupts the settled order of our everyday lives. The joke starts, and for a moment we’re carried into a world of possibilities, before being dropped from a height into familiarity. Laughter brings down the towers of pomp and power - sometimes our own. That’s why no-one likes being the butt of a joke. Where Christians are persecuted it is because they declare that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. And Caesar can’t bear being laughed at.
That’s why Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, described the pedagogy of the oppressed as a ‘pedagogy of laughter.’ When a student has an “aha” moment, and understands something the teacher already knew, there is a voluntary transfer of power between people and generations. That’s the gift that teachers give us. And when a cartoonist draws a picture of a politician with their trousers down they are using the power of the pen to redress the imbalance between us and our leaders. At best, that’s the role of satire and of education – though either can become self-serving. Of course, pricking the bubbles of the pompous may be satisfying, but if that’s the end of the story nothing much has been achieved.
Comedians may bring down the over-mighty, but they’re not always great at building up again. That’s the role of the rest of us. In the space created by laughter we see the possibility of a renewed, just world.
Psalm 37 says that “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, he knows their day is coming.” And the righteous can join in the joke. Laughter is an involuntary reaction. When an audience laughs at a comedian’s joke, a liminal community is created, which lasts for only a fleeting second before it dissipates. The people who get the joke are momentarily vulnerable. But they are vulnerable together, and there’s safety in that. That’s why, remarkably, there’s often laughter at funerals.
As far as we know the 14th Century mystic Julian of Norwich was the first woman to write a book in English. Julian was an anchoress, meaning that she spent her life alone, voluntarily walled-up in a cell. There, when she was extremely sick and expecting to die, she had a vision of the love of God. It hardly sounds like comedy gold. But in her account of the vision she says:
I laughed mightily, and that made all those who were with me laugh also, and their laughing made me happy. I wanted all of my fellow-Christians to see what I had seen, so they could all laugh with me. But I did not see Christ laugh, for I saw that our laughter is for our own comfort, rejoicing in God that the devil is overcome.
Laughter is infectious. However bad the joke, if someone is really creased up, it’s almost impossible not to laugh with them. What seems to have set Julian of Norwich off here is a radical optimism that in the end good will overcome evil. It’s a theme repeated in her writing, and it goes well beyond mere hope. This isn’t the hollow cackle of an empty universe but the joyous belly-laugh of someone who’s just worked out how the world’s joke ends.
Loving God, Through your Son Jesus Christ you have won a victory over sin and death.
Give us an infectious joy in our salvation,
So that others will wonder what’s come over us,
And join in the celebration of your love.
Week two: The last laugh.
At the end of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers there’s a remarkable, hopeful speech by the conspicuously immoral moral philosopher Archie Jumper. In a moment of revelation he seems convicted that life, not death, will have the last word. After all, he says, “no laughter is sad, and many tears are joyful.”
There’s not a great deal of laughter in the New Testament, though you can make a case that Jesus told jokes. The image of a camel going through the eye of a needle for instance: it may not be that funny now, but back in the day it would have had the disciples rolling in the aisles.
There is just one, extraordinary story in the gospels where people are expressly said to have laughed. Jesus visits the home of a synagogue elder to deal with his daughter who is gravely ill. In fact by the time Jesus gets there the little girl has died, and the house is surrounded by grieving friends and relatives. When he sees them, Jesus tells them to stop wailing, because the little girl isn’t dead – just sleeping. At which point all the mourners stop grieving and start laughing, not because they’re happy, but because what Jesus has said is so preposterous. And then of course, he raises the little girl to life.
At this distance it’s impossible to know what really happened, or what Jesus meant by saying that the girl was sleeping. But the story has a clear message that life can emerge out of death. As Stoppard puts it in Jumpers, “At the graveside, the undertaker doffs his top hat and impregnates the prettiest mourner.” Hope is making the choice to believe that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the world’s story is going to end well. Hope says that life, not death, has the last laugh.
For hope to be realised, we must decouple ourselves from the consolation of our rational experience. The synagogue leader has to publicly let go his sense of adequacy, even in the context of his own family, and beg for help. The mourners have to renounce the comfortable finality of death. To receive the laughably new, we must forsake all of our old certainties. Hope requires a reordering of our lives, and our society, towards the possibility of the ultimate yes.
Lord Jesus Christ, risen from death and at large in the world,
Help us to find you and follow you today,
In the places where we work, meet people, spend money and make plans.
Turn our mourning into laughter. Undermine our safe cynicism with risky hope.
Make us more alive today than we have ever been. Amen.
Week three: Funny Ha-Ha.
Nearly all jokes work on a very similar structure. You tell people a story about something they know well. You lead them to expect a familiar outcome. Then, boom! Something different happens. You take the story in an unexpected direction. And once you hear the punchline, it makes sense in a whole new way.
There’s an old saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, maybe. But according to one story in the book of Genesis, it works the other way round too.
Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless, and well past child-bearing age when a visitor brought a message: “In a year from now you will have a baby.” Sarah laughed. “I’m old. He’s old. What are the chances?!” She thought no-one had heard her. But like a teacher catching a student chuckling, the visitor, (who we now discover was God in disguise,) knew what she was thinking. "I heard that!” God said. “What’s so funny? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? I’ll be back in a year, and Sarah will have a son."
There’s an infectious cynicism is our culture that means we anticipate the worst and struggle to believe in goodness. It’s at the root of a lot of contemporary comedy. We snigger at the possibility that a politician might tell the truth. We scoff at the idea that a story might end well. When we’re presented with possibilities beyond our own imagination, we’re inclined to laugh in disbelief.
Like Sarah, we’re sceptical because we find it hard to envision a future outside the limitations of our own expectations. There’s nothing wrong with scepticism. It is one of the vital tools that journalists and Christians have in common. Many of the core tenets of Christian faith are so deeply unlikely, that if we buy into them too easily, we are not being faith-full but naïve. To believe that a virgin can conceive, or that God takes an interest in our human lives, or that dead people can rise to life; these are preposterous, ridiculous, laughable beliefs, and we shouldn’t forget it. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; faith and doubt play for the same team. The opposite of faith is cynicism, and we should try not to be guilty of that. Sarah's laughter is an annunciation. It challenges us to enlarge our vision of God – to stay open to future possibilities that might amaze us.
Lord God, help us to see and believe what you want to bring to birth in us.
Forgive us our lazy cynicism, and where we see setbacks and dead ends,
show us challenges and chances
Visit us today Lord, and create in us all that we are and can be. Amen.
Week four: Hilarious.
In the days of music halls, comedians would work up an “act” and then perform it night after night in theatres all around the country. Not surprisingly, they were fiercely jealous of their jokes, and guarded them like currency.
Digital culture has radically transformed comedy. Now, comedians like the wonderful Moose Allain post jokes on social media every day, and are more than happy if they are shared. Moose makes no money from his Twitter feed, but I guess his largesse is repaid in other forms. The result is a sense of joy in giving and receiving something funny for free. It’s a challenge to the entertainment economy of a previous generation.
Nothing undermines neo-liberal economics quite as much as giving. That’s why the growth of food banks, many of them initiated by churches, has been a source of political tension. Are they providing a vital safety net for the destitute? Or are they rewarding the opportunistic and undeserving? The answer is – probably both. The curious thing is, many of the people who donate to food banks don’t appear to mind very much. It’s not just feeding the hungry that’s good. Giving is a good in itself.
The early days of the Christian church also coincided with a time of austerity. Fairly soon the embryonic Christian communities worked out that they had a responsibility to help meet each other’s needs, and the needs of those around them who were struggling.
Saint Paul encouraged this, writing to the church in affluent Greece about their responsibility to their brothers and sisters in Macedonia. “God loves a cheerful giver” he said. The word we translate as “cheerful” is actually hilaron. It has the same root as our word “hilarious”. It also has a sense of spontaneity, even recklessness.
At various points in time some churches have taken that literally. I once went to a meeting where church members were invited literally to laugh uncontrollably as they donated money and offerings. Besides being the most un-British thing I have ever witnessed, it is also, of course, not what Paul had in mind. Attaching a 21st Century meaning to a 1st Century word is bad etymology. But there is still a sense that we are asked to give not grudgingly or out of a sense of duty, but cheerfully, with a light heart and a sense of detachment because, like telling a joke, the giver is blessed in the giving.
Open our hearts Lord,
And release us from our love of wealth and security.
Help us to give cheerfully and freely; as freely as we have received.
Andrew Graystone is an everyday activist. His new book is ‘Faith, Hope and Mischief’ published by Canterbury Press: for more information and to buy click here