Briefly Noted: The Redemptive Nature of Laughter (Or, Why an Atheist Can and Can’t Get Jokes)

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Now this one caught my attention. In a recent edition of Times Literary Supplement Tim Lewens reviews Daniel C. Dennett’s recent book on the nature of humor, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.[1] It caught my attention because Dennett is an atheist, which I think uniquely handicaps him in trying to understand humanity in general, and the comic dimension of humanity in particular.

Lewens notes three main theories of humor. Superiority theories “say that humor illustrates the inferiority in some respect of the joke’s butt” so that one laughs when one feels (at least a bit) superior about someone or something else. Release theories claim that humor provides “a sort of relief from build-up of nervous tension.” Incongruity-resolution theories “assert that humorous situations involve the presentation of an incongruity that is subsequently involved.” Dennett and company offer a version of this theory, arguing that humor is that “we find things funny when our expectations are overturned.”

The “expectations overturned” theory offered in Inside Jokes builds upon three principles. First, humor “requires committed expectations that are subsequently overturned.” Something is funny when it does not fit with the normal rhyme and rhythm of one’s day, and the expectations that come with it. Second, the overturning of expectations must ‘not be accompanied by any (strong) negative emotional violence.’ That is, there is a point at which funny crosses the line into “not funny.” Third, humor “requires that our expectations are swiftly overwhelmed.” Those with a quick wit tend to get more laughs than those who describe a humorous experience with long-winded, plodding, and pedantic prose (get it).

Lewens reflects upon Inside Jokes and offers several strengths and weaknesses this theory. He argues that its strengths are the importance placed on comic timing and shared-knowledge–something isn’t funny if no one knows what the person trying to be funny is talking about. Its weaknesses, though, are in the button-downed approach to humor: it may be too cognitive-based. Is there room in this cognitive theory for slap-stick or even the juvenile side of humor?  Some things are funny because they fit within a conversation, book, show, or film that intends to be funny. That is, Inside Jokes may ignore the genre of humor itself for the sake of a theory of how it works.

In response, I’ll agree with Dennett & Co. that the comic dimension of human existence is captured best by an incongruity-resolution theory of some sort. However, I’ll depart from Dennett & Co. by offering an additional theological insight: laughter is redemptive. Laughter is best understood within a Christian theological framework because it is one of God’s gifts to a fallen world.

In his book Redeeming Laughter, sociologist Peter Berger laughter is universal, that it is a signal of transcendence, and that it is redemptive because it makes life in a fallen world easier to bear.[2] He further argues that humor is best understood in terms of incongruity and resolution.

Where does the incongruence lie? Berger notes that most or all humor revolves around anthropological or ontological incongruence. In an instance of anthropological incongruence, we recognize that we are incongruent with ourselves. We are the only animals capable of standing outside of ourselves, and we live in the tension of being able to do so. In an instance of ontological incongruence, we laugh when we notice our location in the universe. The comic provides us laughter and, in so doing, presents briefly a world without pain.

Our recognition that we are incongruent with ourselves and our longing for another world (one without pain) can be made sense of most fully by a Christian theological framework, one in which God’s redemption extends to God’s (incongruent) imagers but also to his (fallen) cosmos. When we laugh at ourselves and at our location in this painful world, we have a brief respite from the painful realities of life in after the Fall. Our humor is proleptic, anticipating the new heavens and earth to come. As Helmut Thielicke once observed, if humor was given a place in theology, it would be under eschatology.

[1] Tim Lewins, “Around the Fire” in Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 7, 2012): p. 24; Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams, Jr., Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (MIT, 2011).


[2] Ibid., 205ff.

Just for Fun: The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

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Just for Fun: The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, having been amused by the inanity of some theology dissertation or religion blog, the Ig Nobel Foundation comes along and raises the bar on inanity. The Ig Nobel prizes are given by Annals of Improbable Research which honors “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Don Troop writes an article on this year’s Ig Nobel prize winners in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 7, 2011).

Troop headlines the article with an exploration of John R. Perry’s Ig Nobel prize for his article on “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done,” in which he argues that “the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.” Dr. Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University. Troop reports that “Perry advises procrastinators to make a list of the many things they hope to accomplish, and then place a goal like ‘Learn Chinese’ at the very top. ‘You have to have good self-deceptive skills,’ he said. ‘That’s key.’”

Other Ig Nobel prize winners include:

Anna Wilkinson (University of Lincoln) and co-authors, for their paper, “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise,” Current Zoology (2011)

Arturas Zuokas (Mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania) “for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.”

Makoto Imai (Shiga University of Medical Science) and co-authors for their research demonstrating “the ideal density of airborne wasabi (a pungent horseradishlike condiment) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm”

Luk Warlop (Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium) and other researchers for their multiple papers “demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things, when they have a strong urge to urinate.” Papers published in Psychological Science (May 2011) and Neurology and Urodynamics (Jan 2011). Seriously.

Daryll T. Gwynne (University of Toronto-Mississauga) for his discovery “that certain kinds of beetles mate with certain kinds of Australian beer bottles.” Australian Journal of Entomology (1983).

Karl Halvor Teigen (University of Oslo), for his article “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task,” in Scandanavian Journal of Psychology (2008).

This is not, I repeat not, a parody. I’m hoping that this research is helpful in some way for somebody, but until that can be proven, I don’t see the need for it any more than I do for wrapping my head in asbestos or wearing a tutu.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Faculty Fashion & Apparel

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Only a person with a petrified diaphragm could fail to laugh out loud at Kerry Soper’s “RateMyProfessor’” in the September 17 (2010) issue of The Chronicle Review. In the brief little satire, Soper refers to one of the “rate your professor” websites which allows students to rate their professor’s class performance as well as their appearance. The student is allowed to place an icon of a chili pepper beside a professor who is particularly good looking. Soper bemoans the fact that “it is unfair that only the few youthful, freakishly good-looking faculty members among us get all of those chili-pepper accolades” and proposes that the students also be allowed to reward their professors with any of twelve “consolation icons.”

Soper’s real game is to poke a little fun at university culture and the eccentricities it produces. So, just for fun, I thought I’d mention a few of Soper’s icons and their descriptions (several of which would not find an analog on an SBC seminary campus, you’ll notice) for those who would like to take a stroll down (college) memory lane.

One of Soper’s icons is The Pocket Protector, representing a professorial style that I suspect is represented on every college and seminary campus. In clicking on this metaphorical icon, a student is “congratulating a professor on being unabashedly (or unconsciously) nerdy in his or her appearance: ‘It’s clear that you just don’t care, and that’s awesome. We get a kick out of your functional polyester slacks; limp, faded shirts; and grimy, heavy-framed glasses. Don’t change! We feel comforted knowing that none of your valuable research and class-prep time is eaten up with frivolous concerns over wearing same-colored socks, changing your pants every day, or taking any extra time to match up the buttons with the proper buttonholes in that threadbare shirt.”

Another icon is The Bow Tie: “This is for professors determined to maintain an ivory-tower dress code established in a previous century. The student is saying, ‘Yes, that stuffy little bow tie looks ridiculous on your portly frame; your frumpy oxford shirts are stained and frayed; and I have never seen a jacket that is so depressingly brown and textured. Nevertheless, your stereotypically fussy sense of style does help me feel like I’m getting my money’s worth as a college student.’”

A third icon may not find a referent on an evangelical seminary campus, but packs a wicked punch on most university campuses. By giving the professor The Espresso Cup, the student is saying, “I can see that you have a coherent style going on there: an array of black and gray clothing that has a vague, critical-theory hipness to it. And good job on finding the right kind of severe glasses and retro haircut to fit the look. Personally, I find the aesthetic dull and pretentious, but it is fun to see you strike self-conscious poses at the whiteboard, like some kind of morose poet in a Sears catalog for existentialists.”

A fourth professorial style is represented by The Half-Eaten Protein Bar: This is a student’s way of saying: “You may not be an especially attractive human being, but it does appear that you spend a lot of time at the gym attempting to get into shape. God job, in other words, for trying. Yes, you may have weird hair, lame clothes and dorky glasses, but I’m sure that somewhere under the extra 15 pounds you’ve accumulated over the years, there must be some nicely sculpted delts and pecs.”

A fifth style is what Soper calls The Pressed Flower: by choosing this icon, the student is saying that “it looks as if you may have been hip and attractive at one point in your life. And guessing from your big hair, lavender pantsuit with the puffy should pads, and bright pumps, that year was probably 1986. Thank you for preserving this historical look for future generations.” (Soper should be careful on this one, as he might find himself ducking to avoid an incoming pair of 1986 pumps aimed at his melon.)

A sixth icon is The Harmonica: This is for the securely upper-middle-class prof who enjoys wearing faux working-class garb: scuffed leather boots, aged denim, faded T-shirts, and Teamster-style plaid button-ups. Students can say: “We don’t get your fetish for all things Springsteen, and your folksy, left-leaning political references are about 40 to 50 years out of date, but we appreciate the laid-back, democratic ambiance you bring to the class. Indeed, it makes it difficult for you to say no to our requests for grade adjustments when you find out that we, too, are from humble, working-class roots.”

A final icon is The Power Tie: “This is for the prof who seems to belong (or perhaps has once belonged) in corporate America rather than academe. The student is saying, ‘You must be a misguided Republican adjunct-a refugee from the downsized business world-or some kind of weird, moonlighting administrator. How else to explain the worn-out black dress shoes, Brooks Brothers shirts with the frayed collars, silk ties that were fashionable maybe 10 years ago, and that heavily gelled hair? Nice job on keeping me distracted from your dry lectures with this fashion conundrum.’”

Well, I hope Soper’s icons provided a little bit of levity to your day. I left out five of his icons (The Pizza Slice, The Lump of Tofu, The Cassava Root, The Pina Colada with a Little Umbrella, and The Crystal) and I cannot imagine how many extra icons our readership could provide based on their college careers. However, I am confident that the seven icons bring all of us some retrospective clarity to our former lives as college students and bring some of us present-day clarity about ourselves and our colleagues.