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Why Aren't Christians Funny?

On evangelicalism’s long struggle with humor.

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.

53 Comments

Dan McGowan

1

Dan McGowan commented…

This article, sadly, just reminds me again of why so much of what we refer to as "Christian" is nothing more than a collection of legalistic, man-created rules intended to keep us all in line for fear of losing our salvation - or some other totally non-biblical mind set.

First - there is no such thing as "Christian" comedy. Comedy cannot fall on it's knees and call Jesus it's Lord. Christianity is, in the end, a choice that we human beings make - it is our desire to align ourselves with Jesus Christ and be like Him - loving, serving, accepting and, if you're of the mindset - heal, restore, etc. Comedy is simply the art of creating humorous stories, jokes, anecdotes, etc. It is not "Christian" or "Hindu" or "Atheist." It is just comedy.

Second - I have performed in clubs and I have performed in churches. I prefer clubs. Here's why: People who come to comedy clubs actually understand jokes and laughter and joy and fun. Yes, most people who go to a "church" or "Christian" comedy show walk through the door with per-conceived, pent up issues - referring back to those man-made, legalistic things I talked about earlier. Many Christians are terrified to laugh at things in a church setting that they would eagerly chuckle at around a water cooler at the office. Because at church "you just don't say certain things." And, to that, I call BS. We are ALL human beings who are stuck on this planet with each other, living in societies that, often times, make it more difficult to live a normal life because of things like politics or the economy or other barriers to joy. Everyone reading this article deals with issues of self-worth, sex, money, jobs, marriage, family, and various other issues in life that, unless we let off steam about the, we run the risk of being filled with angst all the time. Being a "Christian" does not free us from any of that and walking around in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing runs completely contrary to what the Gospel teaches and to what Jesus did on the cross. As the article points out, yes - one aspect of comedy is poking fun at thing around us that some Christians struggle with. Well - man up and deal with that stuff! And if you can laugh about it along the way, even better! Bottom line, sadly, I have found the audiences in comedy clubs more honest with themselves and the world around them than in many in my Christian or church shows. In short, Christians just need to grow up and realize that their personal pet peeves about certain topics will not guarantee them a better spot in heaven and God is not MORE pleased with them for their pious attitudes. Of course there are certain topics or concepts that a Christian probably should not make fun of... and those lines will be different for every comic, Christian or not. (This is why we have so many different denominations, by the way - because we don't ALL agree on the SAME things... duh!)

Third - Christians ARE funny - if they are funny people and happen to be a Christian. It angers me to read an article trying to build a case that Christians are not funny. A comedy performance does not need to be an evangelistic presentation - there is nothing to commend that in scripture. We "witness" by WHO we are - more than by what we say. You can be the BEST "Christian comic" on the circuit with funny jokes that hint at your faith - then, get off the stage and treat people less than human. Guess what the audience will remember? Not the jokes! If you are a Christian, then ACT like one on and off the stage. Be a person of integrity whether you are telling jokes about God or jokes about gophers.

If someone WANTS to call themselves a "Christian comic" then go for it. You're not winning brownie points with God simply by adopting a moniker. But whether you are a Christian comic or a clean comic or a heathen comic - the one common denominator in all of those is - FUNNY! If you suck at being funny, then stop performing comedy.

It's like the constant battle in churches over music styles... My personal view is that we're all gonna end up in heaven where an angel will greet us and say, "You've all been arguing so long about hymns and choruses... actually, He kinda likes Wayne Newton!"

Lighten up and enjoy this life God has given us!

Jack Heller

1

Jack Heller replied to Wes Molebash's comment

Quite possibly the funniest (and most vulgar) Christian writer ever was Thomas Middleton, a playwright who lived from 1580-1624. His masterpieces of comedy were A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The Roaring Girl, Michaelmas Term, A Trick to Catch the Old One, and A Mad World, My Masters. But Middleton was not alone. Most of the playwrights contemporary to Shakespeare were Christians of some sort, and they wrote some outrageous comedies. These days, readers would have the same problems reading a Middleton play that they would have with reading Twelfth Night. But my point is that the problem this Relevant article identifies has not always been a problem historically.

Sabriya Dillard

2

Sabriya Dillard commented…

This is a great article!!! Just heard about this documentary "Comedy:The Road Less Traveled" about Michael Jr. a christian comedian, who does shows in prisons and ministers to hurting people by making them laugh...Laughter is an untapped source of healing for Christians that has been over looked for far too long!

Larry Shallenberger

9

Larry Shallenberger commented…

Thanks all for the comments. I did get some strongly worded emails yesterday, so I attempted to clarify things here: http://www.larryshallenberger.com/2013/01/10/that-relevant-magazine-arti...

Hope that helps some.

John

1

John commented…

Why is your headline purposefully misleading? I read your follow-up caveats. My favorite part of that is where you say "In my article entitled, 'Why Christians Aren't Funny?' what I didn't say is that 'Christians Aren't Funny.'" Please note that I have not said your headline is purposefully misleading. I'm sure you didn't read it that way.

JOKING! (but also serious)

I agree w/ a lot of what your article says, by the way. And I also just appreciate a discussion on the topic. But I don't even think that comedy is any different than other art forms as far as the quality of output from "Christian Artist". In other words, "secular" (whatever) books, movies, music, and art are in higher volume and quality than "Christian" counterparts. You provided a list of types of art that Christians produce lots of, but not a list of types of art that Christians are, on a whole, good (or better) at. For every Christian playwright you can name, there are 10 equally good "non-Christian" playwrights out there.

Christian community places an extra requirement on art - that it be explicitly Christian / god-honoring. This eliminates a large amount of possibilities for making good art. An artist who wants to appeal to Christians specifically has to completely remove a huge slice of life from their album, book or routine. It's kind of the same reason there's no good Accountant comics - it's a smaller section of the community and the amount of jokes that qualify you as an accountant comic are kind of limited.

Also, please allow me to share w/ you my appearance on CONAN. http://www.youtube.com/user/johnramseycomedy?feature=mhee. I'm sharing it as a matter of pride and self-promotion, but also because none of these jokes qualify me as a Christian comic and the first joke (although rated G) is an example of a joke I have to omit when I perform in churches.

Larry Shallenberger

9

Larry Shallenberger replied to John's comment

John, that was a seriously funny clip. Thanks. The issue of the headline came from the editing. However, the edits definitely did its job and drove traffic.

Again, I am not saying Christians are incapable of humor. I'm saying the Evangelical culture doesn't reward funny Christians.

Stephen B

1

Stephen B commented…

When comedians perform for His glory rather than their own, humor can be a powerful tool to spread the message of Jesus Christ. I agree with the author that the "gatekeepers" can be a challenging audience to win over but it can be done with perseverance. You can't expect that you will never offend someone. There are those who see comedy as an evil to be avoided using (incorrectly I might add) Eph. 5:4 as proof but these folks just need to be won over gently, that is after they learn what Paul meant by "foolish talk". He wasn't talking about jokes or humor, he was talking about bad theology. Christians are funny, clever, bright and creative just like secular folk and if we continue to work hard and not settle for cheap punchlines or crude content we will be able to use that talent more effectively fulfilling a higher purpose than say, making a living or becoming famous.

Larry Shallenberger

9

Larry Shallenberger replied to Stephen B's comment

The question is does humor need to be a tool of any kind, or can we just accept it as part of what it means to affirm the life God has given us?

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