Gerald A. ARBUCKLE, Laughing With God: Humor, Culture, and Transformation. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008. pp. 187. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-8146-5225-1 (pbk.).
Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, CTSA/John Carroll University, University Heights, OH 44118

Works on scripture customarily tease out serious exegetical meaning or particular value-laden themes such as justice or love. Works on history and culture generally take on a no nonsense tone. It is infrequent that serious authors lift up the humor that can be found in the bible and even in everyday life. This is exactly the intention of Arbuckle’s new book. The image of a giggling God or a joking Jesus is not the image of the divine that first comes to mind. Nevertheless, Arbuckle sees the humor of God as essential in the divine-human relationship. Is it not silly that God turns up in a hick town stable, in a manger no less? When God becomes human it is not in a proper dignified manner. The author’s take on imago dei is that human beings embody the funny face of God. We are the image of God’s humor to the world. It is that image of God that ultimately transforms the world.

Arbuckle takes the reader through what he sees as the humorous elements in both the Hebrew and Christian scripture. He explores various patterns of comedy as they are made concrete in various periods of history up to the modern era. Nevertheless what he names humor is perhaps better described as the incongruity of life patterns than it is the provocation of teary-eyed belly laughs. What he wishes to say is that God’s approach to humanity ultimately references the unexpected, the incongruous, the indecorous. He finds a sort of anomalous humor even in the terrible scene of crucifixion: Jesus will cheat death, a thief will steal a place in heaven, resurrection with love will overcome the vindictive wrath of human beings. Isn’t this the funniest thing ever?

Humor can be negative or positive, audible in laughter or deep within the person. What the author calls “laughter of the heart,” an interior peace and joy, is fundamental to the divine-human interface. This encounter can be expressed in a three phase movement, what the author calls “the ritual of humor.” The pattern is similar to the paradigm one finds in rites of initiation. First, one experiences a separation from the old, the expected, the template to which one has become accustomed. Second, there is a period of liminality, which can be characterized by confusion or alienation. The sense of off balance must be resolved. It is a time to move to new models of thought. Third, there is a reaggregation. Things are right again but in a new venue and a new narrative. The author illustrates this movement in scripture and within the trends of history.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Arbuckle’s work is Chapter 6, in which he explores humor across the ages in various cultural contexts. Every model of history, from premodern cultures to the present has its own dominant form of humor. From the strong group identity and stability that characterized ancient civilizations to the anti-authority and individualism that seems to mark a postmodern context, each instance of history has its own way of expressing humor.

Happily a new model, paramodernity, is emerging within the post-modern context. A hunger for spirituality outside traditional religious expressions, an urge for dialogue and interdependency, and a passion to achieve human rights particularly within minority cultures characterize this model. Its humor is subversive, moving humanity in the direction of prophetic change. For Christians it means a metanoic movement toward Christ. The author does an interesting analysis of contemporary fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Simpsons as representative of the optimistic turn of the times.

The book offers a generous supply of introductory material (“This chapter explains”), diagrams, and summary points. For the reader who wishes to go further, there is both an extensive bibliography and index as well as a list of pertinent scripture passages. The style of the work, while genuinely scholarly, is accessible and personal. All in all, one comes away from this work with a light heart.

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