Laughing at the Sacred, Part 1: The Problem of Reverence.

I’m a non-discriminatory laugher. By that I mean that I’ll laugh at anything I think is funny. I don’t have any ideological limitations on my sense of humor. For example, I don’t need to “agree” with the point of a joke to think it’s funny. I mean, I laughed all the way through Fahrenheit 9/11 and I thought it was all a bunch of rubbish. I’ll also laugh at things that offend me and I’ll even laugh at things I think are mean.

For the most part, this doesn’t bother me. I guess I feel kind of bad sometimes when I laugh at stuff that’s mean or offensive, but I get over it. What does bother me a little more is when I laugh at things I think are sacred. Are there things we shouldn’t laugh at for moral reasons ““ and does actually laughing at such things then constitute a sinful state?

A few years ago, in reference to their Halestorm films, it was either Kurt Hale or John Moyer who said something like, “We don’t make jokes about the church. We make jokes about church culture. There’s nothing funny about the church.” I think that most members of the church would agree. And I doubt that Deseret Book will be publishing titles such as The Best of Robert Kirby or Collected Sugar Beet any time soon. Even at their most harmless, many members seem to believe in a separation of church and humor.

My question is why? Why can’t the church be funny? Why must there be a wall between the humorous and the sacred? In an attempt to show that a relationship can indeed exist between humor and the sacred, I’ll do my best to come up with all the arguments against the idea and take them on in turn.

The first, most common claim is that the sacred is being undermined when it is the object of humor ““ that we are failing to give proper respect when we laugh about a subject. Though we usually discuss the concept in terms of treating sacred things with proper reverence, I think the issue at stake is our own attitudes and not the actual subject itself. I don’t believe that there’s any property of sacred things themselves that causes a disturbance is the balance of the universe when they are laughed about. The problem with failing to reverence sacred things is the attitude that it reveals in us.

But does laughing at ““ or even mocking ““ a thing necessarily convey a sense of contempt for it? In most cases, I think the answer is yes. But I don’t think that it must be so. I believe it’s possible to mock a thing that one feels the utmost love and respect for. It’s just that it’s uncommon enough (and nearly impossible to judge in others) that we generally shun the idea of laughing at certain subjects simply because it gives the appearance of a lack of respect.

The other side of the problem of reverence is the pure physicality of laughter. When one is laughing ““ it would seem ““ one is not taking seriously the thing which is being laughed about. I think this is true for adolescents (and adolescent adults) but again, I don’t believe this is necessarily so. The problem is that it very easily becomes true. When we do begin laughing raucously, our mind stays paralyzed on the subject in question ““ and because we enjoy the sensation of laughter, we often dwell in the entertaining thought rather than allow our minds to press forward. In many circumstances, say Sacrament Meeting or a prayer, this failure to move on mentally does constitute a lack of respect for the situation.

Similarly, if we are in a light-hearted attitude wherein we are not taking our surroundings seriously, opportunities for laughter will come easily. I do think that indulging in such opportunities when in such an attitude also constitutes a lack of reverence. Once again though, I believe it’s still possible to find humor even in the midst of the most reverent attitude. The two aren’t mutually exclusive in nature, it just happens that they usually are in practice.

In summary, I think it fairly evident that reverence and respect are attitudes, not actions. And there is a high correlation between an attitude that is lacking in reverence and the action of laughing at sacred things. But correlation is not causation, of course. And thus the latter does not necessarily imply the former. I believe this offers us the possibility, at least, of laughing with a reverent heart.

7 thoughts on “Laughing at the Sacred, Part 1: The Problem of Reverence.”

  1. Eric,
    This is funny you wrote about this because just yesterday I was drafting a post about this exact thing. I’m glad I didn’t finish ’cause this is better thought-out than mine.

    I like your thoughts. I too will laugh at anything funny. I often have wondered if I’m going to hell for the things I’ve laughed at. I also will joke around with people saying such innappropriate things as “Well, if you had the Spirit in your life then maybe you would have gotten here on time” or whatever. I love straight-faced exaggeration humor and there is a lot to exaggerate about in the church.

  2. Eric:
    Nice essay. I agree: we should not maintain a wall of separation between church and humor. The statement There’s nothing funny about the church strikes me as remarkable. I love the church, but among its divine elements mingle humans and their problems. And that is a recipe for humor. (Perhaps the church in that quote was used in an unusual way to mean the divine elements of the church only?)

    You touch on this in a way, but I thought I would add my primary way of thinking of this issue: I have a general sense of what is sacred, and what mockery of sacred things looks like. It is a know-it and feel-it-when-I-see-it kind of test. For example, I can not see much humor coming from a send-up of temple ordinances. Other than that sacred space, I think the church is a rich font of humor (cf. Kirby, Grondahl, Sugarbeet).

    In general, I think if we do not laugh enough—if we have underdeveloped senses of humor—we are missing out on joy and relief from the strain of life that is unequivocally good. And if we do not maintain a sacred place where mockery does not go, we deprive ourselves of reverence and awe and worship that is essential to a full spiritual life.

  3. Nice thoughts here.

    I think laughter is important for not taking ourselves to seriously as individuals, and as a group.

    I have had a couple of recent experiences that have shown this is an issue on the ‘nacle itself. Laugh at the church and you’re ok (maybe). Laugh at the ‘nacle and you could be in for a scolding.

  4. Eric, though I’m generally sympathetic to what you say here, I’m not sure I can go as far as you do. Can you give an example of mocking something that you love dearly that is not also an example of doing something wrong?

  5. Jim, good question. It might seem strange to others, but I and a friend can quite genuinely mock each other and laugh about it without feelings being hurt on either side. The problem with laughing at someone, it seems to me, is the attitude of disrespect. But I can laugh at something that shines negatively on my friend without any degree of thinking less of him, or without any sense of disrespect.

    The issue, I think, is roughly parallel to an anti and an apologist saying something negative about the church. On paper, they might possibly have said the exact same thing, but in the anti’s case, it was insulting, and in the apologists case, it was simply acknowledging a problem. I think the same things works with humor. It depends on our hearts.

    But I’ll admit that, like criticizing the church, laughing at the sacred is a dangerous thing. There are certainly certain times, places, and audiences where it would be inappropriate. And it is probably always best accompanied with a great deal of self-awareness and introspection.

  6. My sister told me a funny joke once, about Jesus on the cross. It was funny, but it crossed the line.

    Maybe it’s all relative. Maybe we all have different “lines” depending on what’s sacred to us.

    For instance, Scott Bronson’s laughter at the experience of grieving parents crossed the line for me. But I have a wicked sense of humor and I probably make fun of things others find objectionable.

    I think it’s better to have less sacred cows than more. But the Savior is immune to that, in my opinion.

    As are the feelings of others. I don’t like mockery, ever–I would prefer gentle humor. I don’t mind the jab, but mocking something that is sacred to another is just bad manners.

    That being said, my sisters and I find that there’s very little that’s not funny, if you look at it right. We’re sort of demented that way.

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