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Kindly Humour

Monday August 7 2017

Life and Work's much-loved columnist, the Very Rev Dr James Simpson, has chosen some of his favourite pieces from over 10 years of meditations.

In his latest selection, from October 2010, Dr Simpson reflects on the importance of a blend of seriousness and humour, in church and in life.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante likened heaven and hell to multi-storey buildings.

To the basement he consigned sullen, deadly serious people, his reason being that they were so doggedly sad in the face of God’s sweet air.

Whereas for Dante, hell was the least comic place, heaven was the most comic. Of heaven’s eighth level he said: “I seemed to see the Universe alight with a single smile.”

When I once commented that if Christian faith does not help make us happy, there is either something wrong with ourselves, or with our interpretation of Christianity, a rather haughty lady said: “It is not the object of the Christian faith to make us happy, but to make us good.”

Though there is an element of truth in that, I have found that people who are truly happy are usually good, for they have less inducement to do wrong.

Indeed the root of a great deal of wrong-doing is the search for happiness in a mistaken way.

People who are more religious than God are often convinced that the less fun and humour in people’s lives, the greater their degree of holiness.

In the 17th century Robert Barclay, in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity insisted that Christians should shun everything that does not suggest the utmost seriousness, sobriety and the fear of God. “Laughing,” he wrote, “Is not harmless mirth.”

A hundred years later Richard Blackmore described humour as the enemy of ‘true religion, stalwart virtue and right reason – a form of insanity and a seducer of young people’.

These two men were not alone in believing that one sign of Jesus’ sinlessness was that he never laughed. I wonder if this misunderstanding arose from the fact that the Gospel records do not tell us whether Jesus had a gleam in his eye, or was laughing, as he spoke. Smiles or winks do not make their way on to the printed page.

I am sure Jesus’ contemporaries must have laughed heartily at his picture of a man with a log in his eye trying to take a speck of dust out of his brother’s eye, or a woman lighting a candle and then putting it under a bushel. Describing the hypocrisies of the Pharisees, Jesus used many overtly humorous images – the blind leading the blind, straining out a gnat, then swallowing a camel, humps, feet and all; meticulously cleaning the outside of a cup while leaving the inside filthy.

Kindly humour is part of the sparkle of life, a kind of social salt adding joy, gentleness and lightness to many occasions.

It takes the edge off exasperation.

It helps liberate us from the straitjacket of ultra-seriousness.

It protects us from having too inflated a view of ourselves.

As an old preacher with a lively sense of humour, put it: “If we could just sit on the wall and see ourselves pass by, we would die laughing at the sight.”

Though I believe humour has a very real place in the life and worship of the church, it does sadden me however, when occasionally Andrew, the stand-up comic, occupies the pulpit instead of Andrew the disciple, when the preacher seems more intent on providing a laugh a minute than shedding light on the mystery of life and where power can be found for its mastery.

I find it a real trial, both in and out of church, being with people who are always trying to be funny, who are reluctant to engage in serious conversation of any kind.

A blend of seriousness and humour is important in most spheres of life. Believing that the best humour has an underlying seriousness, the humorous books I have penned were written not just to exercise people’s chuckle muscles , but in the hope that through the mirthquake, the still small voice of truth might be heard.

My own favourite kind of humour is that which makes me laugh for five seconds and think for ten minutes.

Previous: Amazing Grace

James A Simpson's books, written to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research, are published by Steve Savage and available in shops and online.