How do we know Jesus was a woman?

Answer: because, even after he was dead he had to get up and serve people.

Some context may be helpful. I was the only man in a graduate seminar on feminist rhetoric.  Along with six other Ph.D. students we were part of a list serve and often sent silly off-handed comments resulting in the above joke being sent. A few minutes later, I received a personal email from the sender apologizing. “Tim, I sent out the joke and didn’t consider how offensive it may have been to you! I didn’t mean to demean your religion. Hope you’re not mad.” I shot back an email telling her my wife and I were still laughing.

Her response to sending the joke was telling. How easily do those outside the Christian community think we are offended? Are we seen as people devoid of the ability to laugh at ourselves? Or, laugh at all? I’ve been greatly encouraged how many contributors to the Christ Animated Blog have tackled the issue of incivility and polarization that seems to have gripped our nation, communities, and higher education (Steven McMullen, Polarization and the Academy; Perry Glanzer, The Demise of Gentleness; Crystal Downing, Aiming for Abnormality).  As the co-director of Biola University’s newly launched, Winsome Conviction Project, I am trying to think of new and unexpected ways for Christian communicators to engage an increasingly hostile communication climate.

In this essay, I’d like to address the oft-neglected aspect of rhetorical humor and how G.K. Chesterton might serve as a much-needed guide in today’s argument culture. I fully realize that I will be raising more questions than providing answers, but hope to use this blog as a sounding board to spark conversations.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a prolific writer, philosopher, lay theologian, literary critic, and fierce debater. During his lifetime he squared off against some the sharpest humanist intellects of his day such as George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. While the debates were often loud and spirited, Chesterton seemed to be able to maintain a spirit of goodwill toward his adversaries. “He is something of a pagan,” stated Chesterton referring to Shaw, “and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.”1 Despite disagreeing with Shaw’s socialist and anti-religious views, his fondness for him is apparent in a section of Chesterton’s autobiography completed just before his death. “I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world . . . It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”2 Through many debates—private and public—Chesterton and Shaw cultivated a 35-year friendship.  Many others were the beneficiaries of his warmth and humor

Though H. G. Wells and his humanistic worldview often felt the heat of Chesterton’s logic and oratory skills, he also experienced his humor and goodwill. Far more than merely a debate opponent, Wells knew he was the object of Chesterton’s unwavering concern. He once commented that if he made it into God’s good graces “it would be by the intervention of Gilbert Chesterton.”3

Can you imagine these types of relationships existing today where opponents debate each other on CNN or an online forum and then meet up afterwards to smoke a cigar and good naturedly kid each other? How did Chesterton pull it off? Let me suggest it had to do with both place and attitude.

Place   

In his seminal work, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life sociologist Irving Goffman argued that all communication happens either on a front or back stage. The front stage is where speakers adopt a persona knowing their communication is public, while the backstage is where you can relax and even behave in a way that undermines the public persona. For Chesterton and his debate partners the front stage was where you made carefully scripted arguments supporting your position—they all had reputations that needed to be upheld. When the debate was over, they often recused themselves to a local pub or private smoking room. There, Chesterton and Shaw would drink a pint, smoke cigars, and laugh. Photographic evidence is plenty where we see Chesterton with an ever-present cigar fondly looking at Shaw who is equally smiling. It was the pub that allowed them to laugh, rib each other, and most importantly, not to take each other so seriously.  Where are the neutral places that can serve as a back stage where Christians and non-Christians can laugh and admit our faults? No matter how seeker friendly we make our churches or Christian campuses they will always be seen as our turf where we are merely inviting people. Where is a communal place that is identified as ours?

Attitude

“A man can be entirely great while he is entirely foolish,” noted Chesterton. Being foolish not only communicates that we are human, but also may be useful in building character. Philosopher Stephen Okey notes that humor can be an asset in developing a lost virtue in today’s vitriolic climate—humility.

With a sense of humor, I can laugh at myself. I can remember that I am not actually the center of the cosmos.  Whenever I become puffed up with pride and consider myself to be greater than I really am, gentle teasing might knock me down an appropriate number of pegs.  It might help me to remain grounded in reality, not floating in my delusions of grandeur.4

That being said, there are two important qualifiers to the use of humor.  First, there is a significant difference, notes Okey, between self-deprecating and self-deriding humor. Self-deprecating humor pokes at one’s pride, while self-deriding humor undermines one’s dignity. In poking fun at ourselves, we need to be careful not to demean ourselves, or our reputations.  Chesterton, was a large man—tipping the scales at 300 pounds—who easily could alienate others with both his physical appearance and towering intellect. To offset other’s impression of him and show that he could laugh at himself, he often good-naturedly joked about his weight and hosted theatre parties where he dressed up in elaborate costumes and performed for dinner guests. Instead of hiding his flaws he joked about them. Christian author, Philip Yancey, notes that his lightheartedness disarmed enemies and won many friends. “I think Chesterton’s approach, making himself the main butt of his jokes, is a good model for all of us.”5

Second, your humor must be directed at you, not your opponent. Obese or egotistical were labels Chesterton reserved for himself, not others. He was often the target of his own quick wit and critique. Hiding our attacks of others in a shroud of humor or sarcasm is to be avoided. Many of us have felt the sting of a barb coated with, “Just kidding!”

Test Case

Imagine someone doing a less than flattering imitation of you on national television. The imitation is so spot-on everyone is talking about it with the comic even winning an award. If you’re Sarah Palin you don’t have to imagine. Tina Fey’s impersonation of the former governor and vice-presidential candidate on a Saturday Night Live skit on Oct. 18, 2008 garnered rave reviews with Fey receiving a primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. Make no mistake, Fey’s impersonation had some bite to it—“I can see Russia from here!”—targeting Palin’s beauty pageant looks and suspect intellect. How would Palin respond to being the focus of Fey’s jokes? Would she wage rhetorical war against SNL, or roll with it? Taking a page out of Chesterton, she joined a primetime audience in laughing at herself. In subsequent interviews when Palin would flub a quote, or make a mistake she quipped she was merely providing job security to SNL sketch writers. She also made the bold decision to join Fey and stand side-by-side while being impersonated during the show’s opening sketch. The audience applauded wildly and Palin won grudging respect from her critics—including Fey. Her humility and ability to laugh at herself was noted by SNL’s creator, Lorne Michaels, and she was invited back to do a surprise guest appearance during the 40th anniversary show. If a conservative Christian leader or educator were the target of SNL how would we react? Would we call for a boycott, or take an unexpected bow?

As I’ve shared these thoughts with an adult fellowship group at church I’ve found that people take humor very seriously. Not all are keen about using Chesterton as a modern guide and offer these insightful objections. (1) Doesn’t the Scriptures warn us that bad company corrupts good morals (1 Cor. 15:33)? By advocating hanging out in pubs are we only inviting trouble? (2) Laughing at ourselves may have worked during Chesterton’s day, but today’s argument culture is ripe with jokes meant to hurt, demean and tear down. Are we to laugh at humor steeped in vitriol? (3) What Chesterton advocates can easily morph into course jesting with is unequivocally condemned by Scripture (Eph. 5:4).

What theses concerns seem to have in common is what rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke labels as identification (cultivating solidarity with those you are seeking to persuade). For Burke, persuasion is improbable if people didn’t first see the rhetor as one of them. Surely, this is a delicate balance for Christian communicators—how far do we go in identifying with those we are called to influence? And, if we want to identify, how do we do it? To this point I close with an insight from Chesterton: “Laughter has been from the beginning the one indestructible brotherhood.”6

Footnotes

  1. Zachry O. Kincaid, “Misguided Superman Fan: George Bernard Shaw” in G. K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy on the Loose, Christian History, Issue 75, (vol. XXI, No. 3), 41.
  2. Kincaid, “Misguided Superman Fan,” 41.
  3. Zachry O. Kincaid, “Aimless Progressive: H. G. Wells” in in G. K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy on the Loose, Christian History, Issue 75, (vol. XXI, No. 3), 43.
  4. http://icjs.org/articles/2014/virtues-humor-and-humility.
  5. Philip Yancey, “Exactly the Opposite: Chesterton is Seldom what We Expect but Often what We Need.”  Christian History, Issue 75 (Vol. XXI, No. 3).
  6. The Quotable Chesterton: A Topical Compilation of the Wit, Wisdom and Satire of G.K. Chesterton.  George Marlin, Richard Rabatin & John Swan, eds. (New York: Image Books, 1987), 154.

Tim Muehlhoff

Biola University
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements.  This post is adapted from his book, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (IVP Academic).