I’m a fan of Professor Peter Kreeft’s, put this book on my Christmas list, and (thanks, kids!) received it. I read it right away, and it’s short (93 pages) and sweet. And I’m happy to begin a Happy New Year for readers with a work that focuses on a happy topic.
The first part of the book is divided into nine chapters, each of course brief, and each titled, “Humor and …” something, the nine somethings being health, happiness, holiness, truth, goodness, beauty, suffering, time, and Jesus. The last half of the book is just a compilation of Professor Kreeft’s favorite jokes, arranged by categories. Professor Kreeft says (58) that readers will probably enjoy and remember this latter part of the book the most. Perhaps it’s because I’m a lawyer, but I found that category of jokes the best (see especially 83-84). I also liked that he takes a swipe at transgender political correctness at the end of this part of the book (91).
I’m not sure all the attempts by Professor Kreeft to find deep connections between humor and Christian faith really work, but one big one does: Humor often involves a reversal, a surprising turnabout — and that does indeed teach something about humility and keeping things in perspective. Professor Kreeft is Catholic, but I will say that generally (but cf. page 60) the book will work for any Christian, and maybe for many non-Christians as well.
I’ll note two passages that I found especially provocative.
First, Professor Kreeft has a list that he introduces by saying it is “seven of the greatest and most mysterious things in life” that are “also seven of the things that make us happiest” (9):
- mystical experience
- romantic love
- sanctity (i.e.. “genuinely self-forgetful altruistic love”)
- wonder and worship in adoration of God
These are seven essential and not accidental properties of human beings that distinguish us from all the other animals. As Chesterton said, “alone among the animals, man is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter.” Many philosophers and scientists have written about all five [sic] of these properties, but no philosopher has given us an adequate explanation of any one of them. They are all mysterious, and express themselves paradoxically, by tears that weep and laugh at the same time ….
I like that list, and thought immediately how much it overlapped with my own list of things that we adore about God (see my post here), namely nature’s beauty, human love, music, laughter, and complexity, including especially the complexity of Scripture.
Second, I also was intrigued by the book’s comparison of jokes and parables (59). Both, it says, are “short stories”:
Jokes are tiny stories that tell larger stories, parts of life that concretize and exemplify and symbolize something about life as a whole. So are parables. What’s the difference between parables and jokes, then? The point of a parable is usually moral or practical. Parables tell us what ought to be, in contrast to what is. That is why we need morality: because of that contrast. The point of jokes is more theoretical, that is, contemplative. Jokes show us what is, often in contrast to what ought to be. And that is why we need humor, too, because of that same contrast.
There are so many kinds of jokes that one hesitates to generalize too broadly about them, but certainly a lot of jokes can be as pointed as any parable. And, I would add, while parables may or may not be actually funny, there is something about their structure that is inherently playful.
The book finishes strong (92-93), quoting the final paragraph from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was some one thing that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
After many years, a castaway on a deserted island is rescued. When the landing party from the passing ship arrives, the captain notices that there are three huts on the island. He asks the castaway how many other survivors there are, and is told that it’s just the one man. Why the three huts then?, the captain asks. “You see,” the castaway explains, “I am man of faith. So after I built a hut for me to live in, I thought I should build a separate hut for me to use for worship.” “That’s very commendable,” says the captain, “But why the third hut?” “Bah!” the castaway says, dismissively waving the back of his hand at that hut, “That’s the church I used to go to.”