I’m not sure where the practice began, but at the church where I grew up in suburban Boston in the 1970s, it was a common practice for the pastor to begin his weekly sermon with a joke. Perhaps it was meant to lighten the mood, to allow people a brief moment to settle in, or simply to provide a little break before delving into more weighty matters, there was always the opening joke.
Occasionally, I follow the same pattern by starting a sermon with a joke. But, I don’t do it very often. Although I like humor, and I like to be in situations and among people where there is the opportunity for laughter, I usually find that the middle of a worship service is just not the right place.
As I have gotten older, and have acquired a bit more (of what I hope can be classified as) wisdom, I’ve discovered that humor in the context of a sermon is a dicey business. There are times when it feels appropriate to offer something funny, but I have found that the mix of joking and sermonizing, can be a really difficult area. So, for the most part, I avoid it.
I’ve been thinking about humor and the Christian faith. It started when a certain email newsletter, that I never subscribed to, started to show up in my in-box, sometimes multiple times a day. A couple of months ago, a friend pointed me to a piece on the Babylon Bee that she thought I would find amusing. So I went looking for it. I did not find that particular piece especially funny, but somehow in taking a look at it, the Babylon Bee figured out my email address and started sending me their email newsletter.
The Babylon Bee describes itself as “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire.” It leans decidedly to the conservative side.
When I started to find the Babylon Bee in my inbox on a regular basis, I went looking for a way to unsubscribe. I didn’t really like most of the material I saw. But, after some thought, I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to unsubscribe. I felt like I should keep an eye on this newsletter.
I don’t often open the emails that I receive multiple times a day. I take a look probably once every few days. I’m troubled by many of the items that I see. Although there are a few vaguely amusing headlines about Bible stories (“Disciples Casually Ask Kid With Fish and Loaves If His Mom Could Pack Wings and Nachos Next Time”) and church life (“Visitor Expertly Weaves Past Church Greeters Like Saquon Barkley”), much of the humor seems directed at tired and cheap stereotypes about women (“Woke Alert: New Movie Features Competent Female” and “Man Daydreaming During Wife’s Long Story Praying It Doesn’t End With A Question”) and everything they can think of to pile onto the LGBTQ+ community (“Hasbro Introduces New ‘Transition Me’ Elmo Doll” and quite a few headlines connected to Bud Light and their relationship with a transgender influencer).
I have a reasonable sense of humor. I like to laugh. But, there is very little I find funny at The Babylon Bee. Its humor, and attempt at satire, is usually sophomoric, at best. If I were a teenage boy, I would probably find it hilarious. That’s not a good thing.
The world of Christian comedy is a complicated one. And I suspect it is even more complicated for organizations whose job it is to produce and provide comedy/satire for Christians. And given the number of emails that I receive from the Babylon Bee, it’s clear that they feel that it’s necessary to keep the content coming.
But there’s still a question about the relationship between the Christian faith and humor, whether it be satire or a relatively simple joke. How should Christians go about being funny and amusing? Should Christians observe particular boundaries, should they endeavor to avoid certain situations or categories or people? What is the relationship between one’s faith and one’s desire to make fun of other people or situations? Should Christian satirists practice any sort of restraint in providing humorous content for other Christians and/or the general public?
It’s one thing to make fun of the powerful, those whose lives consist of a certain level of status and comfort. It’s a very different thing to kick people when they are already down, or to take advantage of people whose lives are not at all comfortable and worse yet, to perpetuate harmful lies and distortions about the lives of people who are not straight white men.
Jesus was very clear about the most important components of the life of faith: love God and love neighbor as self. I’m not trying to be a complete fun squelcher, but I don’t think Jesus gave a pass to humorists or satirists. It’s not that we cannot ever look to our neighbors to be amused. And, it’s always a good idea to consider one’s own foibles on a regular basis. But, when so-called Christians consistently prey upon easy targets, when they further marginalize people who are already struggling, when they rely too often on stale, old stereotypes, a crucial question must be considered: what sort of faith are these “Christians” displaying?