Who hasn’t been ambushed by laughter at times when the script calls for being serious? In church last Sunday,
our presider was chanting the Erasmus Prayer, which precedes the readings at St. Gregory’s—chanting in
clear, strong tones, “You are the true sun of the world, evermore risen and never going down…” But
what I heard was, “You are the true son-o’-the-world ….” The mere dropping of a final
consonant, and I was giggling inside at a feisty new image of our Lord.
Some of us, as M. R. Ritley points out in her article here, are more prone than others to having our funny bones
struck. She identifies one culprit: “the antic spirit that lurks at the heart of solemn church occasions.”
When that spirit swoops in, what do we do? At St. Gregory’s we feel free, and fortunate, to be able to go with
it, blessed by the laughter that sings out when a deacon re-energizes a scripted speech with a clever twist borrowed
from the sermon … when a preacher shares a personal banana-peel moment (before an examining board, for instance)
… or when an infant delivers a well-timed raspberry just as the heavenly anthem dies away.
Does laughter (let’s include everything from the internal to the uproarious) belong in church? or in religion
generally? Where does it show up in Scripture, and in other religious traditions? The writers in this issue take up
these questions: M. R. Ritley and Jacob Slichter mine personal experience, especially that of religion’s
often-marginalized participants: children, women, and gay people. Dave Hurlbert writes about how words and musical
forms can magically combine in hymns to produce upwellings of joyous fun. Donald Schell explores why the humor living
in sacred texts and teachings has been so often ignored, misunderstood, or suppressed, yet how it leaks through the
cracks to bring Jesus—and all great teachers—closer to their “passionate students.” And members
of St. Gregory’s congregation share thoughts about how humor fits into their spiritual practice.
The editors would love to continue this conversation about laughing in church with our readers via our website,
www.godsfriends.org. There is, of course, a warm, fuzzy body of religious jokes, and when we began discussing this
issue, we amused ourselves for a half-hour with some favorites. But we quickly realized that God’s Friends needed
to go beyond jokes if we wished to come anywhere near the heart of “holy humor.” We also discovered the
pitfalls of analyzing humor: the magic usually croaks. So we thank our contributors for being not just funny and
thoughtful, but brave.
It may seem like a weird, too-serious time for this topic, as we pray for our church to avoid schism. Both
“progressives” and “conservatives” have resorted to ironic, exclusionary humor in their
rhetoric, echoing the kind of jokes that make solidarity by targeting “the other.” We’d like to
discover in our tradition, rather, the humor that shows our common humanity.
At the same service where an odd pronunciation of chant made me laugh, a guest preacher’s full-hearted stories
made me cry. The juxtaposition isn’t uncommon, you may have noticed. I have to think that when we are responding
from our truest selves, breaking through either with laughter or tears, we reach out to the God who made us the
creature that laughs.
Diana Landau, Issue Co-Editor