One of the bloggers who has come to my attention this past year is Cindy Brandt. She did an amazing interview with Randy Woodley for my series on the Doctrine of Discovery earlier this year. She is former missionary who writes from Taiwan about faith and culture. I often find her insights about the peculiarities of American religion incisive and funny.
She has written a book entitled, Outside In: 10 Christian Voices We Can’t Ignore, which is about the need for communities of faith to attend to the voices from the margins. It’s a gentle, but important reminder of the work we have to be constantly engaged in to unmask our biases about who belongs and who is excluded. The book is free. You can go and grab a copy right now.
I just want to talk about one of the chapters, which is the most unique one in my opinion. In Chapter 5: Too Funny she proposes that humor is really an outsider perspective for most Christian communities. I think this is self-evidently true. Self-righteousness is notoriously humorless. You’ll find no group of people easier to offend than those who are strongly identified with things they regard as sacred. Christians, like many pious people, are far too serious.
Brandt cites Louis C.K. as an example of a comedian who offers insight worthy of Christian reflection. She couldn’t be more correct about that. Louis C.K. has a number of routines that could double perfectly as sermons. His comedy contains some amazing theology, but most Christians will probably never watch a Louis C.K. clip in worship and the main reason isn’t his theology.
The main reason is profanity.
Comedy works by flirting with what is taboo. That is both what makes it funny and what makes it offensive to some people. Profanity is a tool in comedy which helps to establish the kind of space we’re in, a space beyond the normal boundaries of social propriety, where we can dredge up the shadow side of human experience. It functions to help establish consent to joke about things which might be uncomfortable. It’s like a trigger warning. “If you’re upset about me dropping f-bombs, you probably aren’t going to handle this material about racism well.”
This prurience is not an attractive trait in Christians. Along with “tone policing” and “respectability politics” it belongs to an array of social tactics which exist to control the types of discourse we allow into our lives. It is literally a tactic for marginalizing certain voices.
Christians need profanity more than anyone. We need profanity, because we’re the very people who are called to venture fearlessly into the aspects of life society deems unclean, unsafe, and undesirable. I’m tempted to describe the Christian life as “laughing with the lepers”. And you know, when your members are falling off and you have nary a friend in the world, what you find funny probably won’t get past the censors.