Why Evangelicals Struggle to Bring the FunnyEssays, Featured — By Larry Shallenberger on May 21, 2012 at 5:14 am
While many of us held our breath for the Blue Like Jazz movie to release on April 13, I found myself wondering why its so darned hard for Evangelicals to express a sense of humor in our art. I’ve sat through one or two Christian comedy acts. Enough to know that I wouldn’t willingly do it again. It got me thinking. I can’t think of a single humorous faith-based movie. I’ve bumped across a handful of books that evoked a guffaw. A handful had me in stitches (Chad Gibb’s God and Football comes to mind).
Perhaps you like Christian comedy or can think of three movies I’ve overlooked. Let’s not quabble over that. Even granting these differences in taste, we’d have to agree that the volume of drama, mysteries, self-help, Christian living, and theology and romance books that Christians produce far outstrips the offerings in comedy. We could argue on sheer volume alone, that Evangelicals are more skilled at producing almost every genre of literature and film than it is in producing comedy.
It seems to me that there are three reasons for this.
It’s Hard to Be Funny in a Culture War
One of the reasons Evangelicals fail to create humor is that we’ve embraced a hostile and contentious relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires that a group of people define themselves through a conflict with a rival group, one whose very existence is a threat to the first group’s survival. Of course the relationship goes two ways. Each group sees the other as the ultimate threat. The insults and the hyperbole begin to fly and humor becomes one of the early casualties.
Humor requires that you have the ability to admit a weakness and to laugh at it. The joke is funny because it exposes the silliness is bound up in the act of being human.
Self-depreciation might make for good comedy, but its suicidal when you are trying to fight a culture war. For starters, its akin to loading your opponent’s gun. If Evangelicals were to laugh about our own excesses, our opponents might say, “Aha! We knew this about you all the while.” Comedy is treason in a culture war.
Secondly, comedy prevents a group of people from achieving a sense of contrived innocence. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a group of people need to convince themselves that they have the moral high ground before they feel justified in being the aggressors against another party. If Evangelicals found the ability to laugh ourselves, we’d lose the capacity to see ourselves as better than our opponents. We lose the heart to make the vicious attacks we do.
And if you are a culture warrior, there’s nothing funny about that.
Why There’s Brawling in Kentucky
In his book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell argumes that our past heritage has a strong influence on our current culture. In his chapter “Harlan, Kentucky” he tells the story of researchers who wanted to understand the culture of violence that characterized in this Appalachian town. They team explored the genealogy of the population all the way back to Scottish shepherds.
The lead researcher, Campbell explained that the Scotland’s tough terrain and threat of thieves created a “Culture of Honor.” A Shepherd had to establish himself, through public quarreling and brawls, that he was not a person who tolerated insult. This culture was passed from generation to generation. This is why we tell sing songs about the Hatfields and the McCoys today.
Those Wild and Crazy Reformers
We Evangelicals have our own heritage. We’re Germans and Scandinavians. We hail from the Netherlands and England. And we’re all children of the Reformation, at least culturally.
A few years ago, I heard Phil Visher speak at Willowcreek on this topic. He pointed out that our Protestant work ethic shaped us to be a serious, hard-working people. We have qualities that get things done, but we’re just not the life of the party.
The 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 truly experienced salvation and were among the elect. So culturally, being industrious was as valued as having the correct doctrine. It was a sign that you were truly elect and not just giving God lip service.
If Weber is correct, then who is more valued in society: The guy who sits in the back of the room and makes wise cracks or the stoic farmer who wills himself out of bed before dawn to feed the chickens? Who is graded as being more spiritual?
When we look at ourselves through this historic lens, there’s little wonder that Evangelicals don’t produce more comedy. It’s not in our breeding.
Soul Winning Humor
There’s a third reason that Evangelicals don’t produce much humorous art. 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.
There is certainly a place for stories that illuminate what turning to God looks like. Jesus, himself, told the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The problem is that we’ve elevated one story template and demanded that every piece of art we create fit that structure. And we’re willing to so these even at the expense of violating the rules of any given genre. We end up creating contrived plot lines, characters with artificial emotions, zombie songs, and jokes that miss the mark.
Karen Spears Zacharias pointed out this quote from C.S. Lewis that captures the need for “sacred writing” to respect the principles of any given genre:
“The rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general: success in sacred literature depends on the same qualities of structure, suspense, variety, diction and the like which secure success in secular literature. And if we enlarge the idea of Christian Literature to include not only literature on sacred themes, but all that is written by Christians for Christians to read, then, I think Christian Literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery might exist… That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan. In the same way, literature (or in this case a screenplay) written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like and it would aim at edification in so far as edification was proper to the kind of work at hand.”
Author, John Blase, stole some of this post’s thunder when he made this comment on Part One of this series. He wrote,
“Larry, good thoughts here, I agree fully…I read something lately about moving from a redemption theology to a creation theology, one where the call is to simply participate in the world rather than always be trying to redeem/reform/rewhatever. I realize its not quite that simple but I felt it a valid point…much of evangelical theology has been/is cast in a redemptive light (that’s fair) but that leaves ground for many of its proponents to almost always be on the lookout for a fight.”
Sean Gladding, author of The Story of God, the Story of Us, gets at it this way. He points out that our story doesn’t begin at the Fall and end on judgment day. Instead it begins at a garden and ends in a garden.
There is something God-like in creating art for the sake of creating art. We imitate the creative God we meet in Genesis 1-2. A comedian, who can make stressed and discouraged people surrender a wide smile and a belly laugh are doing the work of the Lord. It’s an affirmation that God’s world, including our laughter, is indeed good.
So when the priest, rabbi, and pastor walk into a bar nobody needs to “get saved.”