Piety is the enemy of humor, at least whenever something less than piety is masquerading as piety. Here’s an example: I once lived in community with an overly serious man who, after someone would tell a colorful joke, would bring us back to earth with the question, “Would you tell a joke like that in front of the Blessed Sacrament?” That not only deflated the joke and its teller, but it also took the oxygen out of the room.
There’s a response I would have liked to have given to his question, namely, a joke my Oblate Novice Master used to tell, one whose irony exposes false piety. The joke runs this way: A young woman was getting married and her family could not afford a venue for a reception for the wedding. The parish priest generously offered them the foyer at the entrance of the church, telling them they could bring in a cake and have a reception there. The father of the bride asked whether they might also bring in some liquor. “Absolutely not,” the priest replied, “you can’t drink liquor in a church!” “But,” protested the bride’s father, “Jesus drank wine at the wedding feast of Cana.” “But not in front of the Blessed Sacrament!” replied the priest.
Admittedly, humor can be impious, crass, offensive, dirty, but whenever that’s the case the fault normally lies more in the aesthetics than in the content of the joke. A joke isn’t offensive because it is about sex or religion or any other area we surround with sacredness. Humor is offensive when it crosses a line in terms of respect, taste, and aesthetics. Humor is offensive when it is bad art. Bad art crosses a line in terms of respect, either vis-à-vis its audience or its subject matter. What can make a joke offensive or dirty is when it is told, or how it is told, or to whom it is told, or the tone in which it is told, or lack of sensitivity to what is being told, or the color of the language as it is being told. Whether or not it can be told before the blessed sacrament isn’t a criterion. If a joke shouldn’t be told in front of the blessed sacrament it shouldn’t be told in front of anyone. There aren’t two standards of offensiveness.
Still, bad piety is the enemy of humor. It’s also the enemy of robust, earthy living. But that is only the case for bad piety, not genuine piety. Genuine piety is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and is a healthy reverence before all of life. But it’s a reverence that, while healthily respectful, is not offended by humor (even robust, earthy humor) providing the humor isn’t aesthetically offensive – akin to nudity which is healthy in art but offensive in pornography.
False sensitivity that masks itself as piety also strips all spirituality of humor, save for the most pious kind. In doing that, in effect, it makes Jesus, Mary, and the saints humorless, and thus less than fully human and healthy. One of our mentors at our Oblate novitiate told us, young novices, that there is not a single incident reported in scripture of Jesus ever laughing. He told us this to dampen our natural, youthful, rambunctious energy, as if this was somehow a hinderance to being religious.
Humorous energy is not a hindrance to being religious. To the contrary. Jesus is the paragon of all that is healthily human, and he, no doubt, was a fully healthy, robust, delightful human person, and none of those words (healthy, robust, delightful) would apply to him if he hadn’t had a healthy, indeed earthy, sense of humor.
For fifteen years I taught a course entitled The Theology of God to seminarians and others preparing for ministry. I would try to cover all the required basis asked for in the curriculum – biblical revelation, patristic insights, normative church teachings, and speculative views from contemporary theologians. But, inside all of this, like a recurring theme in an opera, I would tell the students this: In all your preaching and teaching and pastoral practices, whatever else, try not to make God look stupid. Try not to make God look unintelligent, tribal, petty, rigid, nationalistic, angry, or fearful. Every homily, every theological teaching, every ecclesial practice, and every pastoral practice ultimately reflects an image of God whether we want it to or not. And if there is something less than healthy in our preaching or pastoral practices, the God who underwrites it will also appear as unhealthy. A healthy God does not undergird an unhealthy theology, ecclesiology, or anthropology.
Hence, if we teach a Jesus who is humorless, who takes offense at the earthiness of life, who is uncomfortable hearing the word sex, who flinches at colorful language, and who is afraid to smile and chuckle at irony, wit, and humor, we make Jesus appear as rigid and uptight, a prude, and not the person you want to be beside at table.