Your Coffee May Be Heretical

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When my Theology 2 students take midterms in a couple of weeks they will struggle with remembering and describing the various Christological heresies that plagued the early Church. They would do well to check out Andrew Stephen Damick’s post, “Coffeedoxy and Heterodoxy” at his website. He warns that “your local coffeehouse may be a hotbed of heresy.” Damick has posted a syllabus of coffee errors designed to protect the unwary from aberrant brews. With tongue planted firmly in cheek he declares:

  • Decaf is Docetic because it only appears to be coffee.
  • Instant is Apollinarian because it’s had its soul removed and replaced.
  • Frappuccinos are essentially a form of Monophysitism, having their coffee nature swallowed up in milkshake.
  • Chicory is Arian, not truly coffee at all but a separate creation.
  • Irish coffee is Nestorian, being two natures conjoined solely by good will.

The list goes on. I always suspected that Fair Trade Coffee was Donatist, but who knew that the overuse of sugar was Pelagian? I don’t know if Damick intended for his blog to operate as a teaching tool, but I think it serves as a great (and funny) way to help remember the different early heresies. Even if you’re not studying for an exam you’ll enjoy his post, which can be found here.

This blog is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

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.