by Andrew Unger
In this most famous passage of Ecclesiastes, Solomon (or was it The Byrds?) tells us “there is a time for everything.” There is a time, he says, to weep, to search, to scatter stones, to dance even (although not in our churches, apparently), and even a time to laugh.
Sometimes I wonder, though, if we have abandoned the laughter as eagerly as we seem to have left out the dancing.
Given a certain lens, this passage in Ecclesiastes could be read as if Solomon is presenting dichotomies—situations that never cross paths—as if the time to weep and the time to laugh cannot ever coincide, as if times of speaking and staying silent are fixed rather 21than fluid.
I think this reading of the passage is unfortunate, but common, especially when it comes to humour. We tend to think of the time to weep and the time to laugh as very far apart. We often put humour in its own tightly constricted box in terms of context and content. People will say things like “now is not the time” or “that isn’t funny” or “too soon.”
And in these dark times we’re living in? Now, certainly, isn’t the time to laugh, some might say. Others argue that it is precisely in dark times that we need humour the most. These are arguments everyone has, but I think that we have too often placed humour in a particularly restrictive box.
In fact, those growing up in conservative homes might wonder when exactly the “time to laugh” would ever come. If the Scriptures acknowledge that laughter has its place, why were our ancestors (or mine, anyway) so strict on this matter?
In her 1989 article on humour in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia, Mennonite Brethren writer Katie Funk Wiebe paints a pretty bleak picture of Mennonite humour. “Unseemly light-hearted behavior,” she says, “was often summed up in the word ‘levity.’ In addition, the Mennonites were concerned that houses of prayer and worship not be turned into houses of entertainment and mirth through humorous allusions and stories” (Wiebe, “Humor”, GAMEO, 1989). The restrictions were so severe, Wiebe says, that true stories were preferred to fiction.
And, of course, satire fares no better, according to Wiebe. “Satire as a comment on the human condition has not been used successfully in Mennonite periodicals,” she notes, “even if clearly labeled satire, indicating that the point of view expressed is likely to be the opposite of what is expressed.”
This restriction on humour has not been confined to our churches, but has reached into our homes. In one of my own family history books, I read about a great-aunt who believed laughter to be, quite literally, a temptation of the devil. In her home, laughter and light-heartedness were considered frivolous, and my great-aunt was confused to see, one evening, her father and brothers laughing together. It makes me sad to think of my great-aunt, who wanted so much to be able to relax and laugh, thinking of these desires as sinful.
No doubt things have changed since Wiebe wrote her article or since my great-aunt viewed laughter as a temptation of Satan. However, whether in church or at home, we are, at times, rather skittish when it comes to humour. I wonder about the origin of this uneasiness. I think our history of living through dark times has shaped our view of humour. We tend to be very careful in delineating the line between the sacred and profane. But then I also wonder (and this is pure speculation) whether my ancestors may have thought of humour as a weapon. I doubt this was ever articulated in these words, but I do wonder whether comedy was abandoned along with the sword. Perhaps there was an unconscious understanding that a commitment to humourlessness went hand-in-hand with a commitment to non-violence.
It certainly is true that humour can be used as a weapon. In his critique of American satire website Babylon Bee, Jonathan Hollingsworth notes that “Christian satire continues to miss the mark because it fails to do the work of good satire, which at its heart, fittingly enough, is a prophetic art. The Biblical prophets found their witness not in mocking the vulnerable, but in challenging the powerful” (Hollingsworth, Medium.com, 2016).
Here I think not only of the Biblical prophets, but also the way in which Jesus Christ used allegory, if not satire, in his critique of the powerful. I am also reminded of the great Jonathan Swift, an Anglican clergyman who used satire to point out flaws in the 18th-century Irish upper class. (He even has a brilliantly biting satirical sermon about falling asleep during sermons, which is worth a read). “Satire that punches down, rather than up,” Hollingsworth says, “is not only ignorant—it’s oppressive.”
This analogy, that of punching, is a helpful one. When humour is used to attack the vulnerable it certainly can be considered a form of violence; this is the weaponization of humour. If this is how humour was being used, perhaps my predecessors were correct to find it problematic. On the other hand, this view of humour seems to ignore its other roles, because humour can also be there when we need a time to embrace or to heal or to speak. In fact, humour that “punches up,” like that of Jonathan Swift, often speaks more powerfully than any literal commentary.
There is also a third direction the punches can be thrown. I call it “punching sideways.” Self-deprecating humour. I think a lot of the humour on The Daily Bonnet would fall into that category. I’m writing about my own cultural and religious background and, in some cases, I’m quite literally writing about myself. Just recently someone on Twitter commented: “I’m beginning to think The Daily Bonnet is just like your journal.” I suppose that’s true—at least some of the time.
We need to be reminded that there is a “time to laugh” and that this time need not come so infrequently. Let’s also remember, though, that humour is about a lot more than just laughter. If we are using humour to punch up (or sideways)—if we’re using humour to embrace and heal and speak—maybe the box that we place it in need not be quite so constrictive.
Andrew Unger (BA, BEd, University of Manitoba) is the author of the satire website The Daily Bonnet and the novel Once Removed (2020, Turnstone Press). He is a writer and educator who lives in Steinbach, Man., with his wife Erin. They attend Grace Mennonite Church. This article was originally published in Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 21.1 (Fall 2020).