Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor (book review)

Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor
by Robert Darden, Senior Editor of The Wittenburg Door
Abingdon Press
138 pages, some with cartoons and digressions

At first glance I wondered why a book called Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor would need to be written. It has been a long time since I have been involved in a community that doesn’t know how to laugh. However, reading this book did create a somewhat painful recall of days long ago where a sense of holding humor back and keeping myself in check was the norm. I was new to the faith then and believed that I was a worm and for worms to laugh was a dangerous thing because it might shake our faith loose or invite coarse jesting into the church. (Outside the church it was ok, apparently.) If anything, laughing too hard could mean that we weren’t saved enough, or that we didn’t take our worminess seriously enough. I was also a bit afraid that the book would be like the scene in the film Saved in which the hyper-spiritual Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) commands her friends to laugh and have a good time as a “witness”. The spiritual “in-group” does what she demands so they will feel included and that they are doing the right thing and ….they are each as lonely as hell. Been there. However, Jesus Laughed is written by Robert Darden, the Senior Editor of The Wittenburg Door, a satirical magazine written by folks who were the first group of people amongst us to realize that we Christians are indeed hysterically funny even without trying. Honestly, I don’t know how God keeps a straight face.

The author promises us that this is not the “Seven Keys to a Laughter Filled Life”. He offers a well researched work with a strong sensitivity to the human heart and psyche. The author moves through scripture illustrating the many different types of laughter which can reflect scorn, cynicism, derisiveness, and of course mirth and happiness. He explores how we lost our ability to laugh (I know, not your church; you’ve only read about churches with this problem) and emphasizes that playing and dancing and laughing is a means to “rid ourselves of the binds that alienate us from real life”. (This is actually a quote from Moltmann, thus proving that one need not be a curmudgeon to be a seriously cool theologian.)

Darden offers some insight into laughter itself, and what makes something funny. The key to making people laugh is (no surprise) surprise. And I didn’t ruin the surprise by telling you that because the larger point is that there is a mirth that goes deeper than the juxtaposition of ridiculous things. It is ultimately the cosmic surprise – the fact that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Behind our best laughter rings a deeper truth. This kind of laughter, the author says, “reorders the universe in new and exciting ways.”  He quotes Moltmann again (that rascal): “The laughter of the universe is God’s delight. It is the universal Easter laughter in heaven and on earth.”

It’s no coincidence that I read this book while sitting for hours at volunteer base during the Democratic National Convention in Denver a few weeks ago, waiting for the hotline phone to ring. We were prepared to offer assistance to trafficked persons wanting to leave their captors. While we waited, a social worker read a poem written by a young woman ensnared and enslaved in the adult industry. Her words were stingingly graphic, describing the violent piercing of body and soul and the slow sloughing away of the last shreds of her dignity. “I still see red, everyday,” she cried.

What does that have to do with laughter? Darden brings us back to the deep laugh of God who sees our brokenness, and who rescues, redeems, restores. It is why we press on in the face of such darkness. It is an invitation to see the world sacramentally and full of grace. God’s Laughter, he reminds us, is a laughter that says, all shall be well. I am happy to say that though the group waiting by the phones wept together, we also enjoyed long and loud laughter that echoed in my ears long after the group dispersed. One day it will echo that way for our young friend who wrote the poem.

I recommend this as a worthy read. Ultimately, it is about community and identity. We are reminded and freed to laugh together because true laughter pierces through the veil to the Kingdom. And perhaps if we are not free to laugh loud and well, it is because we do not take Jesus seriously enough.

Jesus does stand-up:

So this Pharisee with a log in his eye says, “Would you like to dance with me?” And his date says, “Would I? Would I?” p. 41

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Showing 4 comments
  • Robert Darden

    Hi Ellen:

    Someone sent me a link to your fascinating website. Thank you for the lovely, insightful review of “Jesus Laughed.” It made my day!


  • ellenharoutunian

    I hear that it is even better in the original Klingon. 🙂

  • David Orlov

    I ran across your site by looking for humorous Christmas images to send to friends of mine, your Buddy Jesus image came up. I then went to the link attached to the image to your article and really enjoyed your comments about this book, I feel that many need to know the sense of humor God has. I never heard of this book but really can appreciate the title, this is what stopped me, Jesus laughed, the redemptive power of humor, this is something I have been trying to convey to people when I tell them about the Joy of God verses the damnation that many seem to preach sometimes. Anyway, I am glad I ran across your article, thank you for the clip art and have a Merry Christmas.
    David Orlov
    Brooklyn, NY

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