Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Joke’s on Sin

My father taught me to love comedy.  An adage in our family said that we could not watch a television program without Dad because he signaled when we were to laugh.  He was our family laugh track.  His laugh was infectious and joyous.  It brought light to the collected family.  He would regale us with snatches of copied quotes from historic humorists.  Lines from Roger Miller, Bill Cosby, or offbeat Motown tunes would trip from his lips to add comic zest to any conversation that happened to be passing.

I have had to become my own laugh track as I have aged.  No longer dependent upon Dad’s cueing, I still like watching comedic television.  Comedy still reminds me that life does not consist in the moments that draw angst, but upon the enjoyment of the blessings of God.  Even in the midst of sorrow, the blessedness of the Christian life shines through.

While enjoying comedy, drama also fascinates me for completely different reasons.  In thinking about comedy, I have noticed a difference in my approach to drama.  I often imagine inserting myself as a character in drama.  In doing so, I imagine a storyline that, to my mind, works better than the program presented.  I could function as a dramatic foil that would add a layer of serious consideration of the frailty of life and severity of truth.  Truth claims work in drama because they drag our minds to the eternal questions dramatic elements beg.

In comedy, whenever I attempt to insert myself as a character, I generally ruin the story.  Comedy normally functions on the foundations of misunderstanding, folly, and pride.  Comedy requires the tension of failures of communication, personality faults, or extreme arrogance.  These elements drive the story to a climax and find resolution as the truth emerges, attitudes change, or pride falls.  If you add a person that ordinarily organizes his life on Christian values, these elements do not readily appear.  While I often find humor in my own life, it generally emerges from my own shortcoming and sins.  I do not consider these faults slightly.  Sin remains an affront against God.  However, it reveals my own folly which opens me up to ridicule.

The connection between humor and sin can be quite disturbing.  How can a Christian laugh at that which leads to death?  Does Scripture provide a basis for laughing at sin?  I remember the story of Elijah.  “And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” (I Kings 18:27)  Elijah, the prophet of God, mocked the human folly of idolatry.  The Psalmist also uses comedy.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.  They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.  They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. (Psalm 115:4-8)
The Psalmist compares the idolater to the idol.  If you want to be deaf, dumb, and impotent, worship an idol.  The Bible mocks that which demonstrates man’s folly.

In the end, the joke’s on sin.  In one sense, sin is nothing to laugh at.  It offends the almighty Creator of the universe.  It constitutes cosmic treason.  Nothing compares to the deadliness of iniquity.

On the other hand, folly and human frailty leads to comedy.  What is Barney Fife without  his rulebook?  What is Ernest T. Bass without his rock-throwing?  What is Andy without his regular penchant for misunderstanding?  What is Colonel Klink without his monocle?  What is Sargent Schultz without “I see nothing”?  These characters endear themselves to us because in them we see the failings we suppress within ourselves.  They remind us of that from which God has freed us.

The danger of such reminders are their propensity to attribute those failings to others we know.  We consider ourselves superior to those who struggle with failings we consider ourselves to have overcome.  Instead, these events ought to remind us of not only how far we have come, but how far we have to go.  As we laugh at the failings we have conquered, we ought to grin as we imagine our future selves laughing at who we are now.

I would not want anyone to conclude from this discussion that God ordained sin for the purpose of humor.  Comedy is a separate category from joy.  The created order provides ample sources of joy apart from the notion of comedy.  As with any production of man, it possesses positive and negative tendencies.  I trust that this essay has given you a framework by which comedy becomes an avenue to joy rather than an outlet for cynicism.  God designed the Christian life to be enjoyed.  He has given us the ability to savor every blessed moment in life.  Not only do we receive His blessings, but we are able appreciate them.  The joke’s on sin.  It will never get the upper hand on God or those who love Him.


  1. Thanks for helping me think through something I have often wondered. What about the tension created when we laugh at sin? How should I feel about that? Should I laugh or not? Truly, in comedy we are treated to the frailty of human nature and our propensity to the blindness to our own faults. Too much laughing at sin can lead to accepting it not only as the norm, but accepting it as acceptable behavior.

    1. I would point you to C.S. Lewis' excellent discussion of laughter in The Screwtape Letters. In Letter 11, he discusses the types or inducements to laughter. The worst of the three (or best from the demonic view) is flippancy. If our laughter at sin comes from flippancy, that is, if we do not take sin seriously, then that laughter leads to destruction. If that laughter comes from the freedom we possess over sin, its power, and its curse, then we laugh aright.

      I think another important reminder is that we laugh at our freedom, not at another's enslavement. We must remember that all comedy is funny because it touches on our own nature. We laugh at ourselves. All true humor is self-depricating. In that sense, we ought not trivialize the real struggles others have with sin. Their struggle with that from which God freed us ought create pity and compassion. This applies doubly for those of the household of faith who struggle with sin.

  2. Is it proper to covertly boast by self-deprecating?


    "It takes a big man to admit his mistake. And I am that big man."

    - Michael Scott

  3. Obviously not, but it makes good comedy. :)