November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
August 27, 2012
I beg for your grace and your permission that our prayers can be
inefficient, incomplete, incoherent.
May we, too, be released from the need to be prolific, profound, or even pragmatic.
Infuse humor into our joints, that we may test the flexibility of your truths with
faith, hope, love, and foolishness.
A Discipline of Flexibility
Prayer is porous. It leaks out in our sweat when we are pulsing on a morning run: help me. It seeps out of our lips when we are pressing our mouth against another’s: thank you. It oozes out of our eyes when we are cursing death and more deaths: why? This is prayer without ceasing: uncontrollable, unpolished, unhinged. It is foolish. A sense of humor is required.
Humor may seem an unlikely ingredient for the earnest discipline of prayer. However, Thomas Merton discovered that a nimble spirit was pivotal for persisting in it. He suggests when we become distracted and fixated by our attempts to pray, “Humor is one of the things that would probably be most helpful.”1
Why is this so? Perhaps it is because humor, like prayer, is an in-breaking into the measured control we earnestly try to wield over the chaos of creation. At its worst, humor breaks us apart in its cynic caricature of life, alienating us from love of God and neighbor. At its best, humor breaks us open to seeing past the way things have always been and toward the way things are becoming, regenerating us to live as the kingdom of Christ on earth that is both already come and not yet fully realized. Humor then, like prayer, invites a fluidity that enables encounter with the living God.
An archaic definition of humor suggests its deep connection with the porosity of prayer. As it derives from the Latin umor, humor connotes moisture, dampness, vapor. Humor is neither solid nor gas but a perspiring middle ground. It’s even connected with the natural and morbid “juices” of an animal or plant,2 suggesting that even the birds and lilies may be capable of laughter or prayer. It is thus with little irony that the Oxford English Dictionary classifies this older definition of humor as obsolete. In our modern industrial complex of weary wars, cunning capitalism, and polarizing politics, humor’s promise of fluidity threatens the hardened resolve required of the times.
A sense of humor in one’s prayer life thus is a practice of flexibility. We must keep our perspective loose and limber while resorting to neither fundamentalism nor relativism. Humor in this sense is a stance, a posture, a perspective, or “a particular slant or leaning in one’s relation to the world.”3 This type of humor is neither oppositional nor reactive but intentional in its preparation for paradox. It leans into the future of God’s inclusive promise with a slant toward reckoning the lived experience of the past. As we swim between salvation and new creation, humor is an epistemology of becoming that is interested less in final answers than prayerful renewal.
The Danger of (Feminine) Fluidity
The idea that humor requires a “damp” spirit, porous in its giving of self and reception of God, is a dangerous one. We see this nowhere more clearly than in the regulation of women’s bodies. Women have long been associated with “the humors” or the bodily fluids that demanded proper regulation in ancient medical models. One’s porosity was of utmost concern to ancient Greco-Romans who thought it played a large role in categories of health and disease where the latter was considered a result of being clogged up. Men, of course, were equipped with good pores that excreted the bad humors while women suffered the consequences of permeability. The Aristotelian view that women were incomplete males hinged on the belief that the womb, that mysterious incubator of life and death, was determinative of one’s gender destiny: “Women are incomplete males: like undercooked bread, female bodies never achieved the heat, dryness, or impermeability that make up healthy bodies.”4 The records of this “scientific” approach were thought to represent the reality, if not the idealization, of bodies as properly ordered and categorized along a continuum of status. By this model, the bodies of women were dangerously “unordered, unbalanced, and uncontrolled,” like the unceasingly flow of prayer itself.
Permeable women, like the hemorrhaging one in Mark 5:25–34, would have been especially dangerous to the stability of the social body.Anthropologist Mary Douglas is well known for articulating the ways that both ancient and modern societies frequently mapped their disgust onto marginalized bodies. She explains that “if the body is synecdoche for the social system per se or a site in which open systems converge, then any kind of unregulated permeability constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment.”5 The disease of perpetual bleeding that plagued the hemorrhaging woman would have thus been a particularly devastating offense. Not only did it mark the body as feminine in its connection to the reproductive cycle, but it also signified the embarrassing permeability of vulnerable bodies. Because the dominant medical model of the time believed women were “Gollum-like creatures”6 whose dampness was regulated only by regular menstrual cycles, it is likely that the early audience of the gospel would have found the hemorrhaging woman’s disease doubly condemning in both its display of feminine irregularity and bodily disability.
We cannot forget that it was the body of the hemorrhaging woman that demonstrated the dangerous permeability of Jesus’s own body. In the history of biblical analyses, the body of Jesus from which power inexplicably leaks out in this account has garnered little commentary. What kind of a man, let alone God, wasn’t in control of his own body? Candida Moss takes up this point by arguing, “Even if, in the rest of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus acts as a divine physician and cathartic scourge, his own body continues to remain porous and uncontrolled, contaminating others with divine power.”7 It is the divinity of Jesus that Moss believes “contaminates” socially inscribed bodily boundaries, confounding his followers and angering his opponents along the way. Jesus is presented as a God who is willing to literally trade places with society’s outcasts, those bodies considered disabled and effeminate by ancient science. Over the course of her healing, the hemorrhaging woman appears to be imbued with more understanding of what has happened to her body while Jesus is seemingly privy to less. For her knowledge, Jesus’s becomes obscured. For her hardening, Jesus becomes porous. For her salvation, Jesus becomes sin. It is Jesus who fulfills the debt of her suffering by literally trading places with her as his body becomes leaky in her place.
With this biblical narrative in mind, we might consider how instead of viewing porosity as only the site of oppression we might also consider it as the very requirement for prayerful encounter. Indeed, according to the theories of the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp, being porous (whether literally or metaphorically) gives one the capacity for experiencing a sort of “corridor of humor”8 that allows movements between pores and creates infinite in-breakings of connection and communication with God.
Prayer then doesn’t only open our own pores. It opens up the very pores of God so that there is a “corridor of humor” between human and divine where “neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39 NRSV).
A Hermeneutics of Rupture
We often resist the notion of a porous God or a “humorous” God. Feminist rhetorician D. Diane Davis admits, “We do not want to crack up. And we don’t want to deal with a world that is cracking up and that cracks us up—often without our consent. Fluidity scares us.”9
It is no surprise then that humor was largely considered an affront to the sacred in the early Christian tradition, a troublesome interruption to the serious business of prayer. A survey of the church fathers’ writings provides little to no evidence of the use of humor, let alone the merits of its resultant laughter. One brief example of humor’s denigration comes from a passage from the Rule of St. Benedict: “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk lending to laughter.” Interestingly, those characteristics of humor considered sinful or devilish were often the very characteristics of feminine discourse and behavior. Frivolity, pleasure, gossip, and laughter were, after all, considered the excesses of women who were trivialized by their association with idle talk, a descriptor attached even to the testimony of the women who first witnessed the empty tomb (Luke 24:11).
If the feminine quality of discourse was so inconsequential, why was it considered dangerous enough to be excluded from church life? One suggestion is that the humorless Christian ideal was largely indebted to Platonic philosophy in which “intemperance, irrationality and immoderate emotional responses” threatened “both rationality and the governance of the state.”10 Humor was and still is considered dangerous to totalitarian regimes, even those who claim to be in favor of God’s reign. With humor comes the threat of fluidity, a danger to the social order made especially potent when on the tongues of those who are already regulated.
In this way, we see how the humor of women and other marginalized groups sustains a “hermeneutics of rupture” to dictatorial dogma.11 In an interview in the Christian Century, pastor and comedian Susan Sparks comments, “Power and humor are not friends. Humor breaks us open, reveals and brings in new perspectives. If we laugh in holy realms, it suggests there may be some wiggle room in the dogma.”12 It is not that dogma becomes demonized altogether by humor, but it should not become solidified as the only authoritative way of speaking theologically. Theological language has a particular way of getting stuck in a pursuit of discursive clarity as we earnestly try to systematize the Christian life; categorical distinctions and dichotomies often follow. In contrast, humor offers a more democratic pathway toward the divine by nature of its extralinguistic characteristic, which is available to all of creation. (Remember the birds and lilies.) By this analogy, we see how prayer, too, can become a powerful reminder that dogma is “nothing more than a stuttering about things too profound to be encapsulated in precise grammatical or theological structures.” It ruptures our stranglehold on truth.
When we look at Christian women’s conception of humor, we find instances in which God, not the devil, is the source of humor in prayer. For example, medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who can’t envision a laughing Christ, nevertheless concedes that “it pleases him that we should laugh to cheer ourselves, and rejoice in God because the Fiend has been conquered.” Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun, uses humor to communicate with God when she gets thrown off her horse. God assures her, “This is how I treat my friends.” In return, she replies, “That is why you have so few of them.” Laywoman Margery Kempe prays to circumvent the sexual advances of her husband by wittily praying aloud for a chaste life. In these accounts God can withstand humor’s ability to crack up and crack open.14
For a biblical example of humor, consider the Christian foremother Sarah who when faced with the absurdity of God’s plan for her to bear children in old age asks herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12). In that moment of revelation, her laughter can be seen as rupturing both the biological reality that she could not bear children and the theological truth that she was only a woman in whom God’s promise was unlikely. In this way, Sarah’s laughter cut open God’s ear to hear her ludicrous laughter. Hers is not a humor apart from God but a humor that invites a response from God to her longstanding suffering and promising hope. When Sarah names her postmenopausal miracle, Isaac, meaning he who laughs, she says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).
Humor is a powerful builder of community that can serve as a regenerative source for Christians in times of confusion and anger and lament for it “constitutes a refusal to accept the present reality as it is.15 Prayer does not always alleviate suffering but rather presses into the contradictions and clings to the hope of transformation.
The Life of Liminality
Humor is never content to be alone in its rupture; indeed, at the bursting of every in-breaking it reminds all who have ears to hear what Parker J. Palmer calls God’s “promise of paradox.” Palmer leans into to the words of Thomas Merton, writing that
I thought I was living in the spirit by railing against life’s inconsistencies when in fact I was becoming more frustrated, more anxious, more withdrawn from those vital places in life where contradiction always lurks. For me, there was light and liberation in Merton’s image of life in the belly of a paradox. Perhaps one need not resolve life’s contradictions single-handedly. Perhaps one could be swallowed up by paradox and still be delivered to the shores of one’s destiny—even as was Jonah from the belly of the whale. Perhaps contradictions are not impediments to the spiritual life but an integral part of it.16
Incongruity, fragmentation, instability: these are neither the hallmarks of the devilish nor the feminine alone. Instead, they identify the liminal place of tension and transformation in which all Christians find themselves this side of heaven. Prayer requires this very recognition of finitude and hope for redemption.
Jesus was the foremost liminal figure in whose body the threshold of both death and resurrection was enacted. Well-worn dichotomies were subsumed in his body as what was considered sacred—keeping the Sabbath, maintaining ritual purity, performing social hierarchies—were fulfilled in his presence. In the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the author describes Jesus’s life as a light to all people, a light that does not blot out the opposing darkness but simply shines in its abundance (John 1:5).
The incarnation provides a model of liminality that we are called to emulate, however improbable it may seem that we can both repent of our own darkness while also heeding what Palmer and other Quakers call our inner light, the divine within. Reflecting on the life and works of Jesus, we see that he is indeed inviting us to live between “form and reform, fragment and figure, being and becoming.”17 Like a baby in the throes of labor, we are reminded that we are living in the birth pangs (Matthew 24:8) between the perspective we’ve always known and the life we’re praying into being.
Humor sustains us in the Christlike paradox of suffering and thriving, dying and finding new life. As Simone Weil wrote, “Contradiction is a lever of transcendence.”18 For those of us who have been excluded from the “serious” business of forming creeds, liturgies, and dogma, humor can transform our cynical anger that breaks us apart from God and neighbor into a righteous anger that breaks us open to prayerful encounter.
As an epistemology, humor gives us the ability to hold truth tenderly, trusting that our God is bigger than any singular comprehension. Humor provides a way out of polarized thinking, reminding the church that “she is a fragment, also reflecting truth fragmentarily.”19 Confronted by our own powerlessness to make the world right side up, we must surrender to our condition of liminality between what has been and what will be.
Humor is always risky. So, too, is flexing the humors of prayer when we pour out our sweat, salvia, and tears in unceasing pleas. But in faith, hope, love, and foolishness, we will not harden.
1. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1972), 223.
2. Amy-Jill Levine, “Women’s Humor and Other Creative Juices,” in Are We Amused? Humour About Women in the Biblical Worlds, ed. Athalya Brenner (London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2003), 120.
3. Sean Zwaggerman, Wit’s End: Women’s Humor as Rhetorical & Performative Strategy (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 4.
4. Candida Moss, “The Man With the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25–34,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010): 513.
5. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge Classics, 2006), 180.
6. Maude W. Gleason, “Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire,” in Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, eds. D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 71.
7. Moss, “The Man With the Flow of Power,” 519.
8. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, NY: North Point Press, 1998), 274.
9. Davis, Breaking Up (At) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 3.
10. Jacqueline Bussie, The Laughter of the Oppressed: Ethical and Theological Resistance in Wiesel, Morrison, and Endo (New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2007), 11.
11. Ibid., 35.
12. Sparks, “Stand Up for Jesus”, Christian Century, November 16, 2010, 10.
13. Charles Campbell and Paul Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).
14. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (London, UK: Penguin, 1998), 13; Teresa of Avila quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1997), 450; and Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. Barry Windeatt (London, UK: Penguin, 2004), 59.
15. Campbell and Cilliers, Preaching Fools.
16. Palmer, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 2.
17. Campbell and Cilliers, Preaching Fools.
18. Quoted in Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, 275.
19. Campbell and Cilliers, Preaching Fools.
Erin Lane is a freelance communication strategist for faith-based authors and organizations. She received her MTS from Duke Divinity School with a focus in gender, ministry, and theology. Confirmed Catholic, raised charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she blogs about the intersection of her faith and feminism at www.holyhellions.com.