Wendell Berry concludes his poem, Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front, with the exhortation to “practice resurrection.” In this same poem, he says, “Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” This is near what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that “A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity.”
Laughter is an expression of merriment. Some laugh with a sound and others without. Some chuckle and others crow. Some blow out air and others suck it in. Some giggle and some howl. There is the scream laugh and the snicker, the chortle and the guffaw. Some women snort when they laugh and some men double over. Laughter is a form of social emotion that brings people together. Friends exaggerate laughter, which flows more freely in company than in isolation.
Why do we do it? Why do we laugh? People laugh in response to something—in response to some thought, some action, or some amusement. Not a response like a reflex, but a responsive state of mind that embraces the spontaneous mirth of incongruity, surprise, and absurdity.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis distinguishes between four causes of human laughter. The first is Joy. This is found “among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.” It is when “the smallest witticisms produce laughter.” When laughter produces Joy it is an “acceleration … of celestial experience.” The second is Fun, which is closely related to Joy. It is “a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct … it promotes charity, courage, contentment.” The third is The Joke Proper, “which turns on sudden perception of incongruity.” When used improperly it destroys godly sorrow, passing off sins as funny. The fourth is flippancy. This is when jokes make it “as if virtue were funny … Every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies … a ridiculous side to it.”
There is a distinction between righteous laughter and the laughter of fools. God takes no pleasure in the latter. Ecclesiastes 7:4-7 says, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.” Righteous laughter is not based on the profane, crude, obscene, or curst. It’s based on the fact that we’ve drawn water out of the wells of salvation (Is. 12:2-3) and it produces a “joy unspeakable” (1 Peter 1:8-9). The one who has been forgiven much laughs much. They laugh at fear (Job 39:22) and the adversity that may come (Proverbs 31:25). They even laugh at the flapdoodle of the wicked (Psalm 52:6).
The French novelist Marcel Pagnol said, “Laughter is a human thing, a virtue belonging only to humanity and God, that perhaps God gave to humans as consolation for having made them intelligent.” God gave humans the gift of laughter for at least two sanctifying benefits. The first regards how man relates to God. Giving thanks in all circumstances is a virtue (1 Thess. 5:18). There is a certain way of seeing the world that preserves God’s good purpose in all things (Rom. 8:28). Just after his death penalty was repealed, Dostoyevsky said that the task of life was to “be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart.” God gave his image-bearers the ability to laugh as a reminder that the end is better than the beginning and that Joy has the final say. At its best, laughter produces a letabund diagnosis of the world that knows God’s people don’t end up dead. It not only stiff-arms despondency, but it causes the faithful to rise above the onerous situation, testifying to the better world.
The second reason God gave humans laughter has to do with how man relates to himself. George Orwell said, “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.” Most jokes are about the foolish things people do and the degraded sense of human nature. Chesterton warned about the danger of pride dragging people into the “easy solemnity” of “selfish seriousness.” Yet even the tallest pride bends under the assault of laughter. The right joke, unpolluted by sin, humiliates sinful pride. When a buddy issues bon mots at your expense and everyone in the circle chuckles, that helps you see through the façade of impregnable idealism, disclosing the realities lurking behind the priggishness common to man. In this way, jokes are mementos reminding people that they need grace all along the journey.
This is always a religious experience, when man takes himself lightly. When the jokes are about him, Satan never laughs. Pride is fundamentally the sin of false cosmology, for when a man thinks about himself a great deal, he is trying to be the center of the universe. Or maybe it’s easier to say, simply, that humorlessness is Satanic. Egos need to be pricked. Know-it-alls need to be humiliated.
French philosopher Henri Bergson said laughter is distinctively human. It is, as Pagnol said, “A human thing.” It’s the mark of the imago Deo in man. Indeed, the word humor comes from the Latin humus, which means soil, earth, or ground. Adam, remember, was formed out of the ground. He is human. He is of the ground. And when the jokes on you, laughing along is a confession that mysteriously turns the ego from stone to flesh. Laughter is an ever-renewable resource for perseverance not available to other creatures. To laugh is to be human, in that way God intended.
Peter Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimensions of Human Experience (Bostin: De Gruyter, 1997).
Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (orig. 1911).
G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville, TN: Sam Torode, orig. 1905), 54f.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 1996, orig. 1942), 53-56.
Roger Scruton, How to be a Conservative (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 154f
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.