Humor is not always a laughing matter.
At least, that is what the Rev. Christopher Leighton will argue during his lecture, “Going over the Edge: A Christian Approach to Humor,” at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Leighton will kick off Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Spiritual Power of Humor.” He said he wants to establish questions that people can ask themselves throughout the week about the character of humor.
“Humor has a jagged edge,” Leighton said. “Indeed, it’s double-edged, which is to say it can cut into a kind of smug complacency of the public at large and expose our foibles and failings.”
Leighton, who stepped down from serving as executive director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies after 29 years, has studied how humor and interfaith relations intersect. He said he has found that it can both help and hurt relationships depending on how it is delivered and interpreted.
Part of Leighton’s lecture will include teasing the humor out of the New Testament. The story in Matthew 8:28-34, in which Jesus drives demons out of two men and into a herd of pigs that immediately run off the edge of a cliff and drown, will be the conduit through which Leighton will explore the “edge” of humor. He said he likes using that story because humor is about exorcising our demons.
Humor can bring to light what’s wrong with our society and can help us learn to laugh at ourselves, Leighton said, but it can also demean and denigrate people and kill compassion. Leighton, an ordained Presbyterian minister, said he can’t make generalizations for all of Christianity.
“(The lecture is) one Christian’s take on the challenges (of humor),” Leighton said. “It’s Christian in the sense that I’m trying to access resources within my own tradition to understand how humor works.”
Leighton’s journey with studying interfaith humor began in 2013 when the ICJS decided to expand its educational mission to include Islam. He was charged with developing programs that brought Christians, Jews and Muslims together in serious exploration of their faiths.
After wondering if it was possible for these traditions to learn to honor and respect outsiders, Leighton thought he could study if humor could be a bridge among them or if the senses of humor were distinctive.
What Leighton found was that the trick to building relationships was not just acquiring new information about other faiths, but by exchanging stories. He expanded on these findings in a series of articles titled, “No Laughing Matter? A Series on Religion and Humor.”
“Unless we know what makes the other tradition laugh, our knowledge is really fragmentary and incomplete,” Leighton said.
Leighton said he was excited to be discussing these ideas at Chautauqua Institution as part of a week on humor, although he doesn’t want to be just dousing cold water on people’s appreciation of humor.
“I’m just delighted to celebrate the way in which humor connects us and binds us together,” Leighton said.