The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 2, "Kidding on the Square: Humor as Prophecy"

Thank you for the comments to the last post. I'm excited to see others as interested in the subject of humor as I am. Again, thanks for the feedback and observations.

Last post I talked about "downward humor." Today I'd like to talk about a term I'm inventing today: "Upward humor."

Clearly, we can use humor to demean people. That is, humor that flows from High to Low. But what about humor that flows from Low to High?

Last week I was talking to Dr. Larry Norsworthy in my department at ACU about his experience this summer when he visited the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Larry told me that within the Crow nation different clans have different purposes. Apparently, one clan has the job to ridicule or satirize the other clans, particularly the decision makers (I don't know a lot about this, so if anyone knows the details of this dynamic within the Crow nation please post some educational comments). I really liked this idea. It illustrates the role of humor in keeping those in power humble, self-aware, fallible, and accountable. The court fool could be an object of derision (downward humor). But the fool could also, via his lowly status, get away with commentaries about the king that no one else could make (upward humor).

All this makes me think that humor can be used as a form of prophecy. Last week I said this about prophecy:

[Christians} speak out in the name of God on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Following the lead of Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic imagination, a key role in prophecy is to declare the "freedom of God." That is, God is routinely co-opted by the powers that be, using God to support the current power structures. Further, religious institutions tacitly support the prevailing hierarchies, keeping some people on top and others on the bottom. Prophets, as we see in Amos, follow the lead of Moses who declared that God was not aligned with Power (for Moses it was the pharaohs, for Amos the Davidic monarchy) but with the oppressed. As Brueggemann suggests, before the people can be freed God must be freed from the chains of established power structures. And it is the role of the prophet to declare that God has, indeed, effected this escape. Once free, God is now flexible enough (in the imaginations of the people) to realign himself. And, as he does repeatedly throughout Scripture, God aligns his interests with "the least of these."

So, Christians practice prophecy. They continually try to extricate God from prevailing power structures. Pointing out that God is not "here," but "there." Creating the imaginative possibility that God might not be supporting or endorsing the current hierarchy but, gasp!, actually against it! That God might, in the words of Amos, "hate our church assemblies." Is that even conceivable? It is the role of the prophet to make it so.

In short, a part of prophecy is about "speaking truth to power." And humor is often a great mechanism for this. By ridiculing or joking about those in power, we "bring them down a notch." And many times this is very important to do. Apparently, the Crow nation thinks this is so important they have embedded a mechanism for "upward humor" into the very fabric of their society. Other cultures do a similar thing only more informally. The late night talk shows come to mind.

This "speaking truly via humor," the humorist and pundit Al Franken calls "kidding on the square." I like that locution. Often what is said in jest is intended to be serious. In relationships, the dual nature of "kidding on the square" can be misused. You can say something harsh to someone who takes it badly but claim you were "only joking." That is true, but you also meant it. You were "kidding on the square."

But interpersonal misuse aside, I think kidding on the square has an important role in society as a form of prophecy.

In sum, this post supports the contentions made in my last post: Humor is intricately linked with power. That is not all there is to humor, but the association with power means that Christians should be discerning about humor. Sometimes humor can hurt the powerless ("downward humor") but sometimes it can have holy uses as well ("upward humor").

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply