True story. According to the October 30 edition of the Chicago Sun Times, a pig traveled on a six-hour US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Seattle. And he didn’t ride coach, either. Apparently, two passengers convinced an airline representative that the pig was a “therapeutic companion pet”-sort of like a seeing-eye dog-so the pig was permitted to sit with them in the first-class cabin of the airplane.
Passengers variously described the 300-pound animal as “enormous, brown, angry, and honking.” The pig was seated with his companions in three seats near the front of the plane. However, flight attendants reportedly had difficulty strapping him in. According to eyewitnesses, the pig “became restless after takeoff and sauntered through the cabin.” One passenger complained, “He kept rubbing his nose on people’s legs trying to get them to give him food.”
Upon landing, things only got worse. To quote the Sun Times, “The pig panicked, running up and down through economy class squealing.” Many passengers-also screaming-stood on their seats. It took four attendants to escort the pig out of the airplane; upon reaching the terminal, he escaped, although he was later recaptured. When asked to comment on the story, US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said, “We can confirm that the pig traveled, and we can confirm that it will never happen again.”
As I say, that is a true story. It is also a funny story, but what makes it funny? I think the answer is at least partly theological. Although it is always more entertaining to laugh at jokes than to explain them, this seems like a good day for a short theology of humor.
First, there is some humor in creation. I am thinking especially of the animals that God has made. There is something inherently comical about a pig, for example, whether or not he happens to be a frequent flyer. The humorous antics of the animals reveal the playfulness of God-his smile on all creation.
Second, a great deal of humor arises from the tragedy of fallen humanity. We were made in the very image of God (Gen. 1:27). Yet we have fallen from innocence, and there is something inherently comical, not to say ridiculous, about a creature of such obvious dignity making mistakes, moral and otherwise. That explains why a pig on an airplane is so much funnier than a pig in a pigsty. It is because, deep down, we know that we were made for something better, and yet we are always struggling with our limitations. Some of the best humor arises from the gap between our dignity and our fallibility.
What enables us to laugh at ourselves, however, is the possibility of redemption. This is a third principle for a short theology of humor. If we were beyond the reach of grace, life would be nothing to laugh about. But we live in a world where God pulled off the biggest practical joke ever, gaining victory out of apparent defeat by bringing Jesus back from the dead. It is the promise of redemption in Christ that keeps us from despair, and thus enables us to laugh through our tears.
This week the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about an art show sponsored by a church in Camden, New Jersey. The exhibit features images of Jesus, especially of his face. The article was accompanied by several pictures, including-to my amazement-one of Jesus laughing. I cannot ever remember seeing a picture of Jesus laughing. Smiling perhaps, with gentle warmth, but never laughing. Yet surely what the artist drew is theologically correct. If Jesus really is a man, as the Bible says he is, then he must be able to enjoy a good joke as much as the next guy. Maybe even better, because he knows how it will all turn out in the end. It was Jesus who promised his disciples that they would have the last laugh. “Blessed are you who weep now,” he said, “for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21; cf. Job 8:21; Ps. 126:2).
Not all laughter is redemptive, of course. Some humor comes from the unregenerate nature. There is vulgarity, what the Bible calls “coarse jesting” (Eph. 5:4). There is gallows humor, the kind workers resort to right before the next round of layoffs. A friend told me that the joke going around his office last week was that they were going to take up a collection to send their manager to the Wharton School to learn how to run a business. Then there is sarcasm, the cutting remark that uses cruelty to produce comedy.
These forms of humor are not redemptive. People who tell such jokes are really jeering at God, having a laugh at his expense. Dirty jokes are a way of saying that what God has made is unclean, and therefore worthy of derision. Sarcasm and other forms of dark humor also steal a laugh-in this case at the expense of someone made in God’s image. Sadly, the jokes that get the loudest laughs (and thus the jokes that people tell most often), fall into these sinful categories. It shows that we are depraved right down to the funny bone. If that is true, then we God to sanctify our sense of humor as much as we need him to sanctify everything else.
This week, as I looked out my office window, I noticed a bumper sticker plastered to the back of a parking sign. You can see it near the corner of 17th and Delancey. It reads, “National Atheist’s Day,” and the date given is “April 1st.” The small print contains the following Bible verse: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Ps. 53:1a). I can appreciate the humor in that bumper sticker, but I’m not sure I agree with its theology. I rather think that April 1st belongs to believers, for we serve the God of laughter.
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