Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Seth Pierce, M. Div.

Is Religion Funny?

I suppose a smart aleck would answer the question posed by this article by saying, "It depends on the religion.” For example, in the Digambar sect of Jainism, the monks wear no clothes, a practice that might make many of us smile in amusement. They do not consider themselves to be nude but rather wear the environment. However, if we tried "wearing the environment" in any one of our churches or synagogues, the environment would no doubt become hostile.

Then, of course, there are jokes about different religions. But not everyone finds them funny. Some get extremely offended, such as radical Muslims who became violent after Muhammad was depicted in a cartoon. Yet I find jokes about religions funny, perhaps more so than I probably should—including ones about my own faith. Like the one about... well, never mind.

There are also humorous instances that occur within a religious setting. I have laughed many times in my congregation, and not because I was supposed to. For example, one speaker lost the lapel mic down his shirt, and in his desperation to find it, he ended up sending it down his pants.

Recently, while I was attending a church in Texas, the person telling the children's story made the critical error of turning his back on the wall of children sitting on the platform steps so he could address the adults in the congregation. The Ringling Brothers would be hard-pressed to produce a better circus based on what happened. Kids were crawling around like animals, leaping off the steps like acrobats, and fighting with each other like professional wrestlers. It was one of the best children's stories I've ever witnessed.

So then, is religion funny? I guess to answer that question, we need to understand what religion is.

What is Religion? 

Though I acknowledge that learned people are reading this article and that better definitions can and will be offered for religion, nevertheless, I will offer a working definition. Webster's Dictionary offers definitions such as “the service and worship of God" and "a personalized set or institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”1

Scripture, as would be expected, also has some things to say about religion. Psalm 119:11 says, "I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (ESV). The "word" refers to an "utterance" or "speech" given by Godand in this context, it carries the idea of commands and statutes. The psalmist treasures God's word as a means to keep him from offending God and breaking his relationship with God by sinning. Religion carries a relational aspect between God and human beings.

Secondly, in Joshua 1:8, God tells Joshua what must happen before he attempts to take the Promised Land: "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (ESV). God's religious instruction guides our speech and our thoughts. And when we follow it, our interactions—whether they be conquering a new land or conquering the urge to slap an irritating family member—are made prosperous. In other words, there is a personal relational aspect of religion that helps us to relate positively to the natural world in which we live.

I propose that religion is the vehicle that governs how to properly relate to God and our fellow man, which is in harmony with texts such as Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Luke 10:27), which specify that keeping the law entails loving God and our neighbor. Religion is relational, and it permeates all aspects of life since God is the author and sustainer of life. And while relationships and life are not humorous in themselves, the interactions that occur within life and relationships are.

The Cause of Laughter

There are a variety of theories about why humans laugh and find things humorous, but one theory pointed out by Peter Berger is that we laugh because we perceive an incongruity in something. He bases this conclusion on a work in 1725 entitled Thoughts on Laughter, written by Francis Hutcheson. That work, contends Berger, is the basis for the modern comic.3 And while there are theories that highlight different nuances of humor and laughter, I am inclined to think that this principle of perceived incongruity is the umbrella under which all others fall.

For example, the fundamental reason we enjoy watching bloopers is because something that isn't supposed to happen does. I love watching the extra features on DVDs because they usually feature actors flubbing their lines or actions. They mess up what was supposed to have happened. Many times they mess up by laughing in the middle of a line because someone in the background is doing something incongruous to make them laugh, or the line itself is a piece of incongruous dialogue that tickles their funny bone, and they can't get it out without laughing.

Sports bloopers are my favorites. There is nothing like watching a soccer ball be kicked with the intent of reaching the goal only to find someone's unsuspecting head in the way. Or a basketball player may go up for the slam dunk and pull down the whole backboard or cause it to shatter. And arguably the funniest blooper of all time is when a ball of any shape or size in any sport is not caught but is rather stopped by a man's crotch.

Even jokes are based on twists at the end—something unexpected and incongruous. One of my favorite websites,, is based solely on ridiculous "facts" with no basis in reality surrounding the mighty Chuck Norris. For example, "Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door" or "Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird." Clever, incongruous, and funny.

But how does this principle of humor find itself in the realm of religion? Religion is relational and deals with every aspect of our lives, and relationships and life are incongruous at times, especially when finite human beings try to understand and relate to an infinite God.

Relating to the Divine and Living the Religious Life: I have two lower life forms in my house known as cats: Jag and Wahpeton. I don't understand them. They meow at me despite having food, exercise, and attention. They tear around the house like madmen during the wee hours. And they get offended when I see them using the litter box, and yet they walk around the house with no clothes on.

I also have a five-month-old daughter. She is cute and smart, and I love her. But I don't understand her either. (I'm told it gets worse.) She cries despite being fed, well rested, and well played with. She stares at nothing sometimes. She talks when no one is in the room and stops when someone is.

Then there's my wife. I've been married for almost five years, engaged for almost a year, dated for almost a year, tried to convince this woman that she liked me for two years before that, and I still haven't figured her out. She sees dirt I don't, smells things I can't, brings up arguments I could never think of or counter, and looks pretty at any given moment.

Then there's God. God is so beyond our comprehension, despite the revelations He has given us, that it is no wonder that we have incongruities in our relationship with Him. Instead of praying for world peace and to be filled with His love, the child at church or synagogue prays for help to be good so she won't get a time-out upon getting home. In the scholarly realm, we will "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24) when we debate the finer points of theology in ivory towers and miss out on comforting the widow who lives next door. When we reflect on our past—the sermons we first preached, the arguments we fought, the rules we thought were critical, and the people we stepped on for our ideologies—we shake our heads and say, "What was I thinking?" Our perceptions change as we learn to live in line with what God desires, and there is humor along the way. Scripture includes subtle humor in this respect as we look at the great narratives.

There is irony as God tells Sarah that she will have a child as an old woman (Genesis 18:12), and Noah survives the flood only to drown in wine (Genesis 9:21). There is sarcasm as Elijah taunts the prophets at Mount Carmel, telling them that maybe their god is in the outhouse (1 Kings 18:27), and there is incongruity when that same Elijah, after destroying the prophets of Baal, runs like a chicken to the wilderness (1 Kings 19:3). These stories can make us smile and give us comfort when we don't understand what God is doing—or what we are doing.

Humor is a part of life; after all, it is hard to imagine that humor and laughter only entered the world after The Fall. And since religion governs the way we live, there will be humor within it. Since there is humor in the lives of those who do not believe—or at least do not believe the way we do—there will be expressions of humor that will be offensive and mean-spirited. The important thing is not to throw out expressions of joy because some people distort humor.

As I've contemplated this article, it has dawned on me that God's grace is incongruous and humorous in the sense that God continues to love and offer hope to people who repeatedly misunderstand Him, doubt Him, and fail Him. Perhaps this is the "Joy of the Lord" that Nehemiah talks about (8:10). We can find joy in a God of unconditional love who loves to see us prosper. Truly, that thought should make us all smile. 

1 dictionary/ religion

2 Brown, Francis, S.R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver­ Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. 6th ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001.)

3 Peter Ludwig Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997), p. 22.

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