Finding humor in holy moments

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Did Jesus laugh? Did he find humor with his friend, the disciples, as they moved through the region? Robert Darden, Baylor University professor and religious humorist, emphatically says, "Absolutely!" Learn how humor can be a part of your faith journey in this conversation Darden, author of "Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor."

Robert Darden

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This episode posted on April 1, 2022.

Transcript

Prologue

Crystal Caviness, host: Did Jesus laugh? Did he joke with the disciples and find humor in the world around him? Baylor University professor Robert Darden emphatically says, ‘absolutely.’ Today’s Get Your Spirit in Shape guest known internationally as a black gospel music scholar as well as a religious humorist discusses how the holy isn’t diminished, but rather is empowered by laughter.

Crystal: Robert, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape. We’re so excited to have you with us today.

Robert Darden: Oh, my pleasure.

Crystal: Before we get started, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Robert Darden: Well, I’m a professor or master teacher at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. I’ve written a couple of dozen books. I guess I’m best known nationally as one of the experts on black gospel music in the world. And the other thing strangely enough that I have…. I don’t know if it’s expertise or notoriety. …religious humor and satire. And I’ve written on those topics extensively. Some of your older listeners may recognize ‘The Wittenburg Door," the world’s oldest, largest and pretty much only religious humor and satire magazine, which unfortunately met its probably long overdue demise in the mid-2000s, but had a wonderful 40-year run that took us into power to be all over the world, just not very many of ‘em.

Crystal: You have a lot of expertise. And we are going to talk about humor today—humor in the church, humor in the Bible. And one of the books of the dozens that you’ve written is titled,, "Jesus Laughed." Abingdon Press published it in 2008. But I’ll tell you, Robert, it seems after reading it, the book just seems as relevant today (14 years later) as it probably did in 2008. One of the things that you wrote…one of the parts you wrote in the book that I really like, you said, “Laughter is exclusively human.” So with Jesus being 100% human he must assuredly have laughed. Right?

Robert Darden: Yes. That is my thing. Obviously we don’t have proof of that. You remember the wonderful movie, The Name of the Rose, Eco’s with Sean Connery and others. It gets into this great philosophical argument with the leader of a monastery who is ????? And part of the argument is that if we believe God is…Jesus truly is 100% human and 100% divine then Jesus would have all the attributes of a human—the good ones and none of the bad ones. And in my opinion, the good one is human and joy and laughter and acceptance and a merry church as the Bible calls it in some places. Having come this particular religious tradition, the Jewish/Hebrew tradition, which had been for many centuries and as we’re seeing in recent years once again oppressed, attacked from nearly every side. One of the great traits of Hebrew/Jewish has always been the ability to laugh—laugh in the face of oppression, laugh in the face of disaster. You find what we used to call foxhole humor. You find humor in the worst of times and places. And it astounds me at some of the places that Jewish people facing Nazis, facing intolerance, facing economic ruin today they can somehow come back and laugh and grimly smile, and use that as a tool to keep going on against all odds. And even during the times of Jesus the believers, the Roman Empire was cruelly oppressing these people. They were a small subset within many small subsets. They’d already been crushed by an outside invader at least once. And it was gonna happen again. And yet here’s this person, this Jesus of Nazareth who shows up in the middle of it, who’s hated by many, loved by some, attacked his whole life. I just can’t believe he wouldn’t be just like every other Jewish/Hebrew person before and after to be able to summon humor in it. And humor with a bit of theology as well.

Crystal: Robert, was it your hope to maybe reveal this part of Jesus with that part of the impetus behind you writing the book?

Robert Darden: Yeah, that’s where my two different areas of interest coincided, Crystal. Most of what I write about has been the black church and the music of the black church. And my wife Mary and I have been to many, many black churches, heard many black sermons and many, many more black choirs in our lives, and would go with strangers into any black church from the Southside of Chicago to the west side of Birmingham and the place is always rocking with laughter before. The pastors, the greater preachers, male and female, invariably sprinkle legitimate humor throughout what they say, not just the little kind of half-pun that a lot of white pastors do to get an inordinate response from the congregation ‘cause we’re so glad that they’re doing any kind of humor. This is legitimate, kind of sometimes risky, humor. And then afterwards the church is filled with laughter. And I’ve often wondered why…what is it about the black church that encourages this great music and this great humor. And I’ve written about the music side, but I haven’t really written about the humor side. And at the same time editing the religious humor and satire magazine where I was exposed to it every day, people finding humor. And let me be real clear. We never made fun of Jesus, never made fun of God. What we made fun is people making money off God, making money off genuine people, using religion for their own whatever purpose, their own agenda, usually political, but often money. And that humor, one again, seemed to be best expressed through those who have been most oppressed. Humor goes upward. It very rarely goes down without it looking like bullying.

Crystal: It seems that through your book one of the messages was that God made us in a way that humor was to be a vital part of our lives. And you detail verse after verse in the Bible where you think humor was involved. Yet full transparency for me, I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything in the Bible and maybe laughed or even chucked about it. I didn’t read it in that lens. And yet you did. You read it through the lens and you helped us to see how this could have humor, even varying degrees of it. Can you talk about that process—how you came to that lens, how you injected that into some of these scriptures?

Robert Darden: Well, obviously, like I said, we all have an agenda. We all have a point of view. And that was my starting point. So the first place I went… Baylor University has Truett Theological Seminary here on campus. So many of my friends who go to my church, Seventh & James Baptist, that is right next to campus, are in the seminary. And I’ve met with them first to talk about this. And particularly those who are scholars of the original languages kept saying, Oh, my goodness, the Old Testament in particular, but all through the New Testament is full of marvelous puns. It’s one of the greatest distinctives of this culture. This is word play, and that any that seem awkward today or don’t make sense today are actually elaborate, well-conceived puns where words that sound like other words or phrases that sound like other phrases are turned on their head and made something revealed from them. And I had no idea. So they tried to explain to, you know, this old tin ear of mine, why this is funny. And even through the lens of 2000 years I started getting the fact that this was not a dry, static retelling of things. This was, in fact, somebody sitting around and chuckling to themselves as they’re writing right to left, weaving into word play of little bits of serendipity for people who agreed and would hear this for years to come. So I knew I was on the right track there. My experiences in the Black church made me know that this could be done here. And finally, did just what you said, started reading, beginning to end, trying to see if what we have been so obsessed with, eager as some of my colleagues and seminarians in the Religion Department, the history. And then the other folks who are so obsessed with just the theology, just the eschatology, just the whatever of it, that there is a middle ground and there’s precedent for this. There are new bibles that are read from a feminist point of view. Well, what if there was a chance to read through it again from the lens of…these are God’s own funny people—people that have used humor to survive. Are we missing something by ignoring this completely? It unfolded in many cases before me as I read it. I didn’t go in expecting to find all the places of humor that I did. Some were obvious. Balaam’s ass talking to save him from certain destruction has comic elements in there. And there are those of my theological friends that say these kind of set pieces were real common in the literature of the day, just not all of them made it into the Bible.

Crystal: I want to talk about Peter walking on the water. I enjoyed that so much when I read it through your lens. And you talked about how his enthusiasm, rushing right in and how he probably…the disciples just gave him a hard time about it from then on out because he, you know, enthusiastically said I can do this and then he did not. And Jesus pulled him right out and you know, everybody was watching this unfold. I can just imagine, you know, these buddies were harassing him probably.

Robert Darden: The whole title of my previous book "Reluctant Prophets and Clueless Disciples: Introducing the Bible by Telling Its Stories," I go into that a little more. But what is happening to me is it’s not so much the humor as Peter standing there in that one moment before he sinks like a rock and his eyes get wide. It’s the disciples who have been together through years of terrible times and wonderful times and have created this incredible close-knit bond that people, male and female, knew when they had endured and been through and had a common goal, the fact that they can’t wait to get back to the fire as they’re roasting fish and describing Peter’s face to each other and describing how fast he went down, like a tire iron in a swimming pool. The moment he lost that faith he was headed for the briny deep. And it is fun from that lens. Is it funny that he might have drowned? No, but obviously Jesus is standing there, fishes him out. And did Jesus smile through all that? He smiled at his faith and he smiled at his lack of faith, and he smiled because he loved him. And it’s what we do. We pick up, dust ourselves off and the people around us chuckle good naturedly and crack wise a little bit and we love each other a little more because of that.

Crystal: Well, your telling and retelling of that really gave it a new depth for me. So, thank you. You know, throughout history church is this place…it’s kind of seen as a place to be solemn and reverent. I’m probably not the only child who got in trouble for giggling in church. And as…through the years the church, as you put it, lost its ability to laugh. How did that happen?

Robert Darden: I blame a lot of things on the Puritans and I think I’m not alone in that. The stripping away of a sense of holy and a sense of joy and a sense of so many things to strip it down to, you can throw the baby out with the bath water. You can throw everything away and get it as primitive as it can be in a search for holiness. Or you can embrace and envelope all of what life brings to give you. I blame Puritans. I blame the 1950s where everything got real austere again. And I am comforted by the fact that more and more places I go that are not working jokes, not working stand-up comedy, are working in the embracing of all of the incongruent, silly, goofy, scary, funny aspects of life that we live in everyday and that they’re part of our experience as well, and that the holy is not diminished by laughter. The holy is empowered. They say that in the Black church that God inhabits our praise. I think there’s a holy laughter, too. And different days in the young church the younger showed that. A church that doesn’t laugh to me is sooner or later a church that’s gonna start losing its young people. It’s gonna start losing its wounded people, which is a lot of us. It’s gonna start losing those of us who have been wounded often by toxic churches or toxic pastors through the years. It’s gonna lose everybody but those who are self-satisfied and smug and confident and set in their ways and my way or the highway, if God said it I believe it and that settles it.

Crystal: When you talk about humor, Robert, it’s tied to joy. Right?

Robert Darden: Absolutely.

Crystal: You used a phrase that I really loved, ‘a laughing soul and a joyful spirit.’ How do we find this laughing soul and joyful spirit?

Robert Darden: Well, we can’t take ourselves too seriously. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves’ personal flaws. If something happens we have to be the first one to laugh. We have to be able to turn it back on ourselves. We have to be the person that other people go to when they’re feeling blue. And we can’t be the complainer that stands around the water cooler and tells about how bad things are. We have to work at it. For some people, it’s work. You have to practice it like any other muscle, like creativity, this joyful spirit. And I think we’ve all known people like that who you just want to be around. You know, because they laugh at your jokes. There’s some smile when they see you. And they are quick to tell something silly they did or something funny they saw and to include you in this circle of laughter and love. And I don’t think you can separate the two. You know, somebody's little baby that can barely open their eyes, no matter what they do to a parent, they laugh at, the parent. There’s just that joy of exchange between somebody. We need to be more like that and treat our friends like these babies. We treat our family members like whatever they do is a gift. And it’s so happy and it’s new and it’s fresh. And I know…. God bless my wife Mary who’s the world’s greatest laugher because she’s heard so many of my stories. And yet in her giving spirit can always find the laughter. And when I preach or when I lecture I always want her on the front row. Out here in Texas where I live my friends who are in cattle. Not many anymore, it’s a tough time to be a rancher. They have one cow, literally a bell cow, who all of the other cows will follow. It’s not the humans. It’s not the dog. It’s this one cow. And if you don’t have that one cow you’re gonna have a devil of a time, twice a day, getting them out and getting them in. And you want to be that bell cow, the one that is the first to laugh, the first to apologize, the first to inhabit that spirit. We have been given this extraordinary planet, this extraordinary gifts. And we should be laughing with joy all the time. That why me, goofy, selfish, vain Bob Darden, has this beautiful life where people love me and I get to love them back. What’s not to laugh and like?

Crystal: You talk about how important play and dancing is to that. So, where do we find those places? How do we intentionally find these places to play and dance and make that a part of our life? 

Robert Darden: Oh, we have got to play. There’s been numerous books on how children have to play and some of the problems schools are facing as they spend more and more time testing and less and less time playing, the kids come out the worse for it. We’ve got 21, 000 hours in our lifetime during our childhood, up to age 18, they tell us, where they need…how we learn to interact, the in-exchange those with other people. Much of that is accomplished through play. The interactions when sometimes people get their tongues stuck and their noses bloody and friends fight one minute and then love each other a minute later, that has to happen. That has to happen. And if we’ve spending a significant percentage of those 21 thousand hours on our cell phones or our notebooks or our laptops as kids, we don’t get that. We don’t have the skills to interact. A part of what the basics are accomplished is through play. And as for dance… And my wife again on this, she was trained as a dancer and growing up. And dance has been part of her expression, how she, when she’s happiest, she does a little dance. It comes out. Dance is the body’s answer, the body’s representation of the internal joy and laughter. And part of what I love about Black music, African American music is the music that came from Africa, there is no differentiation between sacred and profane. And there is no definition of music in West African music that doesn’t include movement and dance. It’s all part of this outpouring that we should have. Dance is the physical manifestation of it. Why dancing has endured to this day in our cultures is because we derive that pleasure from it, both participating and watching. Dance preceded language, we believe. From the earliest known times people had sacred movements before they were articulated and languages become developed. Why wouldn’t it be part of our expression of joy?

Crystal: Robert, before we go, there is one question that we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. How do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Robert Darden: Well, there are…people in the podcast can’t see it, but I’ve been sitting in front of my drum set that I have had a band with other Baylor professors for 22 years. And I love to play. It gives me great happiness to see other people being happy by the music we make. You can’t see on the other side I have a big elaborate sound system for the Black music that I study and still listen to every day. Most of these artists never made a dime, they were ripped off for the audiences were too small or whatever. And yet they made this media because they were both compelled to by their belief that it was an evangelical gift and because they just loved to sing. So I play the music. I listen to the music. I’m about to turn 68. I’ve only got X number of hours left on this planet. I want to be around the people who make me laugh.

Crystal: Well, having you as a guest today has certainly been a happy time for me. I’ve done a lot of smiling as we’ve had this conversation. So I definitely appreciate that. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on laughter and humor and why it’s just so important to all of us. So, thank you again for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Robert Darden: My pleasure. Delighted to be here.

Epilogue

Crystal: That was Robert Darden, a Baylor University professor and author of "Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor." To learn more about how humor can be a part of your faith journey, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about "Get Your Spirit in Shape." Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of "Get Your Spirit in Shape." I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.