Ethicist and professor Reinhold Niebuhr had a bit of a different take on the relationship between humor and religion.
“ ‘Humor remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities,’ ” the Rev. Susan Sparks said, quoting Niebuhr’s essay, “Humor and Faith.” “ ‘It must move toward faith or sink into despair when ultimate issues are raised, and that is why there is laughter in the vestibule of the temple. Only the echo of laughter in the temple itself, but nothing but faith and prayer and no laughter in the Holy of Holies.’ ”
Sparks, an author, Baptist minister and stand-up comedian, presented her lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Christian Perspective: Reinhold Niebuhr Was Wrong,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 31 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of this week’s theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”
Her lecture covered 20th-century theologian Niebuhr’s writings and ideas, a topic she first took on in a 90-page honors thesis in college.
“So in modern-day terms, Niebuhr is saying laughter in the vestibule in the world is great,” Sparks said. “A bit of laughter, just a hint of laughter in the temple, in the church is OK; but, laughter in the Holy of Holies and the presence of God? Never.”
Sparks said this is completely wrong. Laughter “must ring clear and true in the Holy of Holies.” For people to forgive themselves and others, they have to laugh at themselves. And, in a world of imperfect people, forgiveness is essential. So, laughter is the only way, Sparks said.
“Laughter helps us live our faith in the difficult times and the silly times; it helps us with the weird contradictions that we have to live in everyday life,” Sparks said. “There are so many weird contradictions of life being a southerner in New York.”
Sparks told a story of a time she went to a fundraiser and met a man named Butler Beauregard Dixon IV, and he told her to call him “Boo.”
“The bottom line is laughter in life just helps us realize we’re a little more human,” Sparks said. “We’re all just human beings trying to get through this together.”
She said, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money one has; purses, clothes, designer cars and popularity don’t matter because “the size of our funerals will depend on the weather.”
Sparks said everyone has to learn to let go to live, and laughter helps people let go of what they are holding on to. So, laughter should ring out in the world. Sparks said laughter does not ring out enough in church, though.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor in the church,” Sparks said. “You have to.”
Sparks recalled one moment in her church that called for laughter.
“We had a guy for the longest time in our congregation by the name of Charlie McCarthy, and Charlie was hard of hearing and he loved to just spontaneously share what was on his heart in the prayers, and it always seemed to hit at some tragic national moment, right?” Sparks said. “So I’m in the prayers, and I’m trying to talk about something horrible that’s happened in our country. And, I would pause to take a breath, and Charlie in the front row would just take a deep breath and he’d go, ‘Lord, you have got to help the Mets. They stink.’ ”
Niebuhr believed laughter only echoed in the church and vestibule because laughter and power do not get along well. Sparks said humor threatens power because it’s unpredictable and opens up new ways of thinking.
“That’s exactly why Jesus was so threatening to the powers that be,” Sparks said. “His messages were unpredictable; they threatened the top-down power structure; and he used tools of comedy in his messages: irony, exaggeration, satire, reversal.”
Yet humor was demonized among many religious people, like the Baptists and Puritans. In the Middle Ages, humor was not celebrated. However, some people could infuse humor into Biblical storytelling.
“In the late 14th century, something known as the York Cycle of Mystery Plays performed Biblical dramas annually on the Feast of Corpus Christi, which freely used humor,” Sparks said. “One play, for example, told the story of the building of the ark, portraying Noah as a lazy bum. And in the drama, when God asked Noah to build the ark, Noah replies in this play (saying) that he knew nothing of shipbuilding and reminded God that he, Noah, was old and out of shape and disinclined to do a day’s work unless great need constrained him.”
Sparks said Godly humor is evident as early as the 14th century B.C.E. Such evidence, in the myth of Adapa, for example, came from Acadia. The myth tells the story of a priest, the gods and how one attains eternal life. The myth is full of humor and laughter between both the gods and the priest, Sparks said.
Sparks said there is proof that God himself has a sense of humor — in Samuel 5:9.
“The Israelites go to battle, lose the battle, lose the Ark of the Covenant,” Sparks said. “And as the Philistines are carrying the Ark home, and God is understandably upset, and it was so that after the Philistines carried the Ark about, the hand of the Lord rose against the city with a great destruction, and the Lord smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had hemorrhoids in their secret parts.”
Sparks said again: Niebuhr was wrong. Not only does laughter need to ring in the temple, it must ring in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of God. In fact, Sparks said that not only does laughter belong in the Holy of Holies, but it should be redefined because the Holy of Holies is much broader.
“God’s dwelling place, the Holy of Holies, can be found in some of the most unexpected places of life, especially in the broken and painful places of life,” Sparks said.
Sparks explained this through two Scriptures: Isaiah 43 and Psalm 57.
Isaiah 43 states, “Do not fear. Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through those rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned and the flames will not consume you.”
Psalm 57 says, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”
Some of “the most unexpected places” for the Holy of Holies, Sparks said, include times of pain, anger and judgment. And, in places where the Holy of Holies is found, laughter should also ring out, Sparks said.
“The Holy of Holies might be even found in the midst of the end of life,” Sparks said.
Sparks, at one point, did some work at a clown camp. There, she met a clown named Shubie Doobie who told her a story of going into a pediatric ward where she met a young girl named Beth, who was in the final stages of a terminal disease. Shubie Doobie walked into her room with her colorful outfit and orange hair, and Beth was apprehensive and quiet.
Beth asked Shubie Doobie why she wore the large nose, and Shubie Doobie replied, “Well, I’m a clown.”
Then, Beth asked, “What’s going to happen to me after I die?”
Shubie Doobie said, “Well, Beth, you’re going to heaven.”
Beth then asked where Shubie Doobie was going to go. Shubie Doobie said clown heaven, and explained that when a person lets a balloon go, that balloon goes to clown heaven. Beth, lit up with joy, exclaimed that she wanted to go there and asked how she could.
Shubie Doobie pulled a little red nose out of her bag and put it on Beth’s nose.
“And she said, ‘All you have to do, Beth, is go out with your nose on,’ ” Sparks said.
Two weeks later, Shubie Doobie received a call from nurses that Beth had passed away. They said she died with her little red nose on.
Sparks concluded with the preface of her honors thesis.
“The disciples sought to learn from the master, stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine,” Sparks said. “ ‘God first led me by the hand,’ he said, ‘into the land of action and there I dwelt for several years. Then, he returned and led me to the land of sorrows. There, I lived until my heart was purged of every inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the land of love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left of me, of self. This brought me to the land of silence where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.’ ‘Was that the final stage of your quest?’ the disciples asked. ‘No,’ the master replied, ‘one day, God said to me, ‘Today, I take you to the innermost sanctuary of the temple, to the very heart of God, and it was then I was led to the land of laughter.’ ”