By Anthony Casperson
A comedian, who had recently begun a podcast, sat interviewing another comedian. Part of the discussion led to talking about the difficulty of humor in the current cultural climate. When people are easily offended, then how far can your humor push against culture? How do you know for sure that something which garnered raucous laughter in the moment won’t cause the downfall of your career the next day when social media calls it offensive?
This has been on the minds of many who use humor for their main source of revenue. A couple of weeks ago, I heard something similar from a YouTube video connected with a satirical website (that also happens to be led by people who follow Jesus). And just this week, I saw a Christian comedian upload a video to their YouTube channel where they were hesitant to make a couple of jokes, saying that they might just get in trouble for saying them. Though, as they continued anyway to tell the jokes, I found them hilarious.
“Offensive humor” isn’t really something that Christian comedy usually gets called. But I found it interesting that both mainstream comedians and Christian ones are worried about being considered offensive by people who hear their jokes.
This led me to think about humor in a biblical sense. (Yeah, I know that people don’t tend to think about humor and the bible at the same time. But the two subjects do collide from time to time.)
And considering the cultural question of how far is too far, or what should be deemed as offensive, I figured that looking at a couple of biblical examples of humor might give we followers of Jesus an understanding of what holy humor can include and what its purpose is.
There are two caveats before we continue looking at the bible. First, I’m coming from a perspective that the entirety of the bible is a joint writing endeavor of the Spirit of God alongside the human authors. And so, the words of the original text are approved by the holy, sinless, loving, just, forgiving Creator of the universe. Thus, the methods of discussing events, joined with the purpose of the writing, should be considered as without sin, fault, blame, or need for judgement.
The second caveat is that I will make reference to a passage of the bible that more easily offended individuals might have difficulty taking in. So, if you believe that your sensitivities could get triggered, you can leave now and come back to a different blog. I won’t be offended at your leaving. (Though, possibly some immersion therapy could be helpful. So, come along with us as long as you feel comfortable.)
Now that everyone reading knows what they’re getting into, let’s look at what might just be the most offensively humorous story in the bible (and it’s one I’ve preached on before): Judges 3:12-30. The Israelites had rejected the goodness of God…again. So, God sent a neighboring nation, named Moab, to enact his justice against the people of Israel. And Moab’s leader was a king named Eglon.
And here’s where we get to the first point of offense. Eglon was likely not the king’s real name, because even the most awful parents wouldn’t name their child “fattened calf about to be slaughtered.” That’d be like naming a child Jabba McDouble. (As a large man who would at least be categorized as “fluffy” I can get away with saying that.)
Well, that right there is fat-shaming. Isn’t it? “Everyone is beautiful as they are,” unless of course, we actually have to sit next to such a person. Then we worry about being squeezed in the seat beside them. But up until then, we should cry out in offense, shouldn’t we?
Are God and the bible prejudiced against the horizontally-challenged? No. The girth of the Moabite king will play an important role in the story, so mentioning his weight is mostly a statement of fact. As for the humorous part of it, considering him like a healthy bovine ready to feed an army, is actually foreshadowing the events of the true tale.
And it’s likely a method of helping the listeners remember the story and its message of God’s deliverance coming to his repentant people, even in the most ridiculous circumstances. After all, humor is a good way to teach in a memorable manner. I was a guinea pig in a professor’s doctoral thesis during my first year of bible college that showcased that point, after all. And look how I turned out.
Also, before people are up in arms about making the fat king the bad guy in the story, there are plenty of enemies of Israel in the same book who are more fit. One enemy general was even shown to be quite an athletic runner when he ran away from a losing fight, only to come to a woman’s tent, ask for some milk and a nap, and then woke up to a splitting headache as she drove a tent peg into his head. But that’s a different story.
Back to Judges 3, we meet the hero of the tale. Ehud from the tribe of Benjamin, the left-handed judge of Israel. Oh wait, that’s a dextero-normative thing isn’t it? Calling out the southpaw as if that’s an abnormality.
Actually, many people from the tribe of Benjamin are left-handed. Every such sinistral person mentioned in the bible is from the tribe whose name means, “Son of my right hand.” (Am I ambidextrous enough to at least half-laugh at the hilarity of that fact?)
But again, the circumstances of the judge God called being left-handed plays a role in the story. As a matter of fact, the Moabite guards’ presumption that everyone is right-handed allowed Ehud to smuggle in a special shortsword into the king’s chambers so that he could assassinate the Moabite ruler.
And assassinate him, Ehud did. Straight through the gut and right out the sphincter, no matter how many translations try to clean up the image by translating that word as “back.” Backside sure, but not back. You don’t get to clean up that mess.
No one wanted to clean that mess up. The stench of which allowed Ehud the opportunity to escape without the guards realizing King Eglon had died. They thought their ruler was just relieving himself. Do not go in there.
Really? Toilet humor? In the bible? Yep. That might actually have been the only direction for Ehud to escape from the king’s cooling chambers if he couldn’t exit out the door. But jumping into olde timey indoor outhouses isn’t stated for sure. So, we won’t go there, even if Ehud possibly did.
Alright, so what’s the point in the humor of the story? It relates the truthfulness of the events in an exaggerated method in order to teach the people of God in a manner that will be remembered. I mean, I certainly didn’t have to re-read the passage to tell the story just now. And likely, you’ll remember this for a while.
But did we miss the message while laughing at the humor? I don’t think so. God’s deliverance can come from a variety of avenues. Whether a dramatic tale of bravery and war, or a low-brow comedy, the story of God’s deliverance requires only repentant hearts and a person willing to lead.
So, it looks like caricaturization, or exaggeration of physical realities (while still remaining true to the actual events), used to showcase the ridiculousness of a situation so that truth can be passed on to God’s people isn’t sinful, otherwise God’s word shouldn’t include such things.
(And even poop humor isn’t out of bounds. Though, it should be used sparingly.)
But what does this mean for we followers of Jesus? Can we laugh at the ridiculousness of this life? Can an exaggerated caricature of reality be used to teach us a message of God’s truth? Is it alright to poke at the extremes of culture, even at people who deem us their enemy?
Yeah. If the main driving point is to direct us toward God’s truth, not belittle others.
Such a statement means that the person’s intent is quite important in the discussion of what is offensive and what isn’t. After all, God looks at the inward things not the outward.
So, before we try to put an end to someone in a statement of offense on account of others, maybe we should ask the person who said the words what their purpose was. Then, if the intent is shown to be holy, we can laugh along with the holy humor without fear of sinning.
And maybe, we can laugh together at the ridiculousness, rather than hate each other in our respective corners.