Why Aren't Christians Funny?
January 9, 2013
Larry Shallenberger is a pastor an author in Erie, Pa. He would very much like to be a funny person someday. He blogs at www.larryshallenberger.com.
Why can evangelicals produce worship albums, Amish romance novels, apocalyptic thrillers, marriage guides and devotionals in spades, but when it comes to producing comedy, in quantity and quality, we flounder?
There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Comedian Susan Isaacs (credits in Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation) offered up Angry Conversations With God (2009). Steve Taylor and Donald Miller gave us the Blue Like Jazz movie (2012)—and Miller's book behind it. Jon Acuff, of Stuff Christians Like comes to mind. Add your top faith-filled humorists and the list will still be meager.
We did some digging to get to the bottom of why this is and talked to some laugh-out-loud Christians who manage to beat the odds and bring the funny. Here’s what we learned.
Humor is treason in a culture war
Much of evangelicalism has embraced a hostile relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires a group of people to define itself through a conflict and identify a rival group whose very existence threatens its existence. The favor, of course, is returned, and hyperbolic insults fill the air.
Christians are serious, hard-working people. We get things done, but we’re just not the life of the party.
Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.
We work to deliver results, not punchlines
We evangelicals migrated to America from Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and England. We are children of the Reformation, one and all. In 2009, Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer addressed the Conspire Conference at Willow Creek and noted that our Protestant roots shaped us to be a serious, hard-working people. We get things done, but we’re just not the life of the party.
Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic.” He theorized that while the Reformers removed good works as a prerequisite for salvation, those values never went away. Hard work and frugality became outward signs that a person had truly experienced salvation and was among the elect. Being industrious was as valued as having correct doctrine. As a result, evangelicals just aren’t culturally groomed to value the guy cracking wise in the back row.
Matthew Paul Turner, of JesusNeedsNewPR.net acclaim, adds, “Many of us don't know how to value humor as it relates to Christianity, the Church or [ourselves]. Mostly because many Christians don't know what to do with something regarding faith that is simply funny. While most humor contains meaning or a deeper thread to its funny exterior, those deeper meanings often go over people's heads. It's not that Christians dislike jokes or humor within the context of something bigger like a sermon or story, but when something or somebody is just funny, many Christians struggle to understand the point.”
Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often they don't want to stray near the edges.
It’s hard to save the world with a limerick
It’s a bad habit, yet we do it often. We have a proclivity to commandeer artist forms for evangelistic purposes. This is true of many Christian art forms, not just comedy. Our music, movies and books are often shaped by a drive to persuade outsiders of their sin and lead them to Jesus. The problem is that in our drive to embed Gospel tracks into our jokes, we violate the genre rules that make comedy funny.
So, until it’s OK for a priest, a rabbi and a pastor to walk into a bar and no one gets saved, we’ll continue to struggle with producing quality humor.
One man’s humor is another man’s moral outrage
Several respondents learned (the hard way) just how hard it is not to offend the faithful with humor. Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, "To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it's right down the middle, it's not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don't want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile."
Chad Gibbs, sports humorist and the author of Love thy Rival and God and Football, adds, “I think with humor there is a fine line between what one person finds funny and what another finds offensive, and in Christian culture, that line is very blurry. So we err on the side of caution and produce safe humor—something bland, like ‘101 Jokes 4 Pastors.’ Problem is, safe humor is rarely funny.”
Matthew Paul Turner agrees. “The biggest reason is that whenever something humorous is created by church people, it gets beaten or edited to death by the gatekeepers,” he says. “That process is exhausting, often leading Christian people who can create funny to wonder, What's the point?”
The point, Mr. Turner, is that we desperately need people to get us to laugh at ourselves and to stop taking ourselves so seriously. If we can learn to laugh at our own foibles, we’d be taking steps toward becoming a self-aware and humble community of faith.
We don’t need comedy to save the world, just ourselves. And sometimes it takes a court jester to lead the way.