Humor can evangelize. Why don’t priests use it well?

Faith and ministry don’t need to be solemn affairs.
In the Pews

When Jesuit Father James Martin speaks to groups of college students, he often imitates a presider at Mass droning the Alleluia in a dull monotone, as if he were about to announce a tragedy instead of the good news. The routine elicits knowing laughter. We’ve all been at Masses where the gospel is proclaimed and the prayers recited with the enthusiasm of someone who just chewed a mouthful of dried beans.

There’s a long-standing attitude that religious services need to be “deadly serious,” says Martin, author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne). That mindset translates into worship services that Martin says can feel “seriously dead.”

Increasingly, however, scripture scholars and seminary professors who teach the art of preaching—as well as many clergy members themselves—are recognizing the proper use of humor in religious settings. Humor is not only a way to enliven liturgies, they say. It can communicate a spiritual message in refreshing and insightful ways as well.

To borrow the language of social media, humor across religious denominations is trending.

Over the past few years, there’s been intensified “study and treatment of humor by scripture scholars and an acceptance that Jesus was quite a wit,” says Alyce McKenzie, who directs the Perkins School of Theology’s Center for Preaching Excellence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and is the author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit (forthcoming, Westminster John Knox Press) on the effective use of humor in preaching.

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Humor as an aspect of God’s character is reflected in the many scriptural references to God’s delight in creation and in humankind, McKenzie says. “If we are made in God’s image, then humor is also an integral part of our human nature,” she adds.

It is also a method to reach what she calls “today’s easily distractable audiences,” who are accustomed to snappy dialogue, swift information searches, and short messaging.

“I have long maintained that serial solemnity and spiritual awareness have nothing in common,” says William B. Miller, an Episcopal priest and author of The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God (Howard Books) and The Gospel According to Sam: Animal Stories for the Soul (Seabury Books), in which he chronicles the spiritual insights he gained from his dog.

Yet, for much of salvation history, humor might as well have constituted a venial sin. Miller says he once set out to stock his home library with books on religious humor. “Those volumes occupy a tiny fraction of my library, and most of them are out of print. What does that tell us?” he asks.

For centuries, religious people have treated tragedy and theology as the flip sides of the same coin, Miller says. “While there is a tragic dimension to life and faith, there has always been a deep element of joy, happiness, surprise, and spontaneity,” he notes. “It’s just that you’d never know that by visiting your local church or religious institution.”

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That sense of solemnity is deeply ingrained in Christian culture. St. Benedict, in his sixth-century Rule for monastic life, says pointedly, “We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter.” A monk, St. Benedict says, “is not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only a fool raises his voice in laughter’ (Sirach 21:23).” It is now commonly accepted that St. Benedict wasn’t forbidding all laughter, but he was forbidding the kind stemming from biting, sarcastic, and hurtful joking directed at others.

A “syndrome of reverence” has also shadowed religious services, McKenzie says: “The assumption that there is no humor in God or the Bible and that we’re at our holiest when we are most serious.” Add to that a strong strain in Christianity that holds that the current life is but a “vale of tears” compared to the joy that awaits in eternity. McKenzie calls this a “most unbiblical view.” Jesus, she points out, repeatedly says “the kingdom of God is at hand.”

If humor is mentioned at all in seminaries, it is usually a reflection of the interests of the instructor, says Father Edward Foley, a Capuchin priest who teaches seminarians at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Still, using humor can be a tricky proposition in a worship setting.

“One function of liturgy is to delight. That is different than just being humorous. There is a difference between trying to delight and being a jokester, trying to be an entertainer,” Foley says.

“Any humor in homilies should be at the service of proclaiming the good news,” says Jesuit Father Thomas Scirghi, associate professor of theology at Fordham University and author of Longing to See Your Face: Preaching in a Secular Age (Liturgical Press). “Just telling a joke to get a laugh serves to entertain and not proclaim. It puts the focus on the preacher. People might remember me, but will they remember the message of God?”

One function of liturgy is to delight. That is different than just being humorous. There is a difference between trying to delight and being a jokester, trying to be an entertainer.

Father Edward Foley

Still, Scirghi and others insist that there is plenty of comic material within scripture and that a sharp-eyed homilist will look for the humor and make good use of it. Scirghi says Genesis 18, the story of Abraham bargaining with God to spare the righteous people of Sodom, is one example.

“Abraham says to God, ‘What if there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you really sweep it away?’ And the Lord agrees to spare the city. And then a few minutes later, Abraham says, ‘Ah, excuse me, Lord, what if the number of righteous is five less than 50?’ And he keeps coming back like this, like Peter Falk in Columbo, returning with just one more question, wearing the person down,” Scirghi says.

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A favorite of Martin’s is the story of Nathanael in the Gospel of John. Nathanael cracks a joke about Jesus’ hometown, saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46).

“And what is Jesus’ response?” Martin asks. “Does he condemn Nathanael, castigate him, lecture him about not making light of small towns? No, he says, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ (1:47). In other words, here’s a guy I can trust. It’s a sign of Jesus’ appreciation of humor.”

McKenzie says the story of Jonah, possibly the Bible’s most reluctant prophet, prompts more than one belly laugh. Disobeying God’s directive to warn the people of Nineveh to repent, Jonah tries to escape by a ship, gets thrown overboard, and is swallowed by a large fish that spits him out on the beach of the very town he is trying to avoid. Once within Nineveh, “He gives one sermon—the worst sermon ever—and what happens? They all repent!” McKenzie says, laughing.

Jesus’ own sayings can be both pithy and witty. At one point, he chides the Pharisees, saying, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:24). Martin says the line is even funnier in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic, because he is making a pun. The word for gnat in Aramaic is galma while the word for camel is gamla. “So it’s doubly funny. It always amazes people that Jesus is being playful in his language,” Martin says.

He gives one sermon—the worst sermon ever—and what happens? They all repent!

Alyce McKenzie

Miller tells of a 4-year-old who laughed hysterically when his father told him Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew about the person who tries to remove a speck from his neighbor’s eye while a log is sticking out of his own.

Often making good use of humor in liturgies is a function of natural comedic talent. When I interview Jesuit Father Michael Sparough over Zoom, he initially appears on the screen not as himself but as “Mother Edie,” a wise-cracking puppet in a black and white nun’s habit that is his alter ego and frequent companion at children’s liturgies.

Sparough often rewrites gospel parables to give them a contemporary twist. He dons a black Blues Brothers–style derby and sunglasses and snaps his fingers as he launches into a rap version of Luke’s gospel story of the Publican and the Pharisee. To liven up parish missions, he sometimes portrays Msgr. Mon Père Jean Pierre L’Amour, whom he introduces as the cousin of Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci. One of “Monsignor’s” duties is to lead parishioners in a liturgical dance version of the hymn “We Are One in the Spirit.”

Sparough says his inspiration was the late Jesuit Father Ken Feit, who wrote his master’s thesis on the historic role of the “holy fool.” In the middle of a heated debate on whether to close a preparatory school, Feit—then a Jesuit scholastic—climbed up on a table and began enacting what Sparough describes as a “nonsensical, dramatic reinterpretation” of what had been transpiring at the meeting, comparing the priests gathered to a group huddled in a boat running out of gas. Feit’s antics sparked a 15-minute recess. When his fellow priests returned, “Tempers had calmed down, and they were able to have a civil and centered debate,” Sparough says.

“I knew then that this path of the ‘holy fool’ was calling out to me,” Sparough says. He abandoned his plans to study medicine as a Jesuit and began taking courses in mime, dance, poetry, and writing. “I found the joy of the gospel through the arts,” he says.
Following ordination, Sparough studied drama at Yale School of Drama alongside such classmates as Frances McDormand, Kate Burton, Jane Kaczmarek, John Turturro, and Angie Bassett. He went on to found his own troupe, The Fountain Square Fools, which described itself as “portable theater proclaiming the good news.” He says the troupe’s motto was taken from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1:25, NIV).

Sparough later formed The Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus, which billed itself as the “world’s smallest circus from the world’s smallest country performed by the world’s smallest minds.” The circus performed at schools, on street corners, in shopping malls, and at city fairs across the country.

It was as if laughter allowed them to breathe in the Spirit.

Father Michael Sparough, S.J.

“When I do this work, I feel the presence of God and know I am connecting with the holy,” Sparough says of his performance ministry. His Jesuit superiors support his ministry because “part of our spirituality is finding God in all things, and all of our talents are meant to glorify God,” he says. People in the pews also appreciate what he does as “humor in service of the gospel.” Miller says he’s experienced the same reaction. “I discovered that people opened up and paid attention when I could get them to laugh. It was as if laughter allowed them to breathe in the Spirit.”

If humor is such an effective evangelization tool, then why don’t more clergy members take advantage of it?

“I differentiate between spiritual settings and religious settings. Religious settings have certain rules and cultures, and so you have to be sensitive,” says Debra Joy Hart, a joyologist and spiritual administrator of the Unity Church and Spiritual Center in Urbana, Illinois. Hart is also the founder of the “1,000 Red Noses” ministry in which she hands out rubber clown noses as a way of spreading laughter in hospitals, nursing homes, and other places where she ministers.

Hart says burnout among clergy is one reason why humor might take a back seat. “Priests, rabbis, and ministers have spiritually demanding jobs. They can experience burnout like anyone else. Maybe that’s why their talks and rituals can seem at times rote and joyless,” she says.

Foley, Scirghi, and others who teach in seminaries say the Mass, unlike a retreat or parish mission, has prescribed prayers and rituals that don’t leave much room for improvisation. Still, Scirghi says the Mass should feel like a celebration, and presiders shouldn’t appear to merely be going through the motions. “When you say, ‘The Lord be with you!’ say it as a true greeting with arms extended. Appreciate the meaning of the words,” he says.

Advocates of humor in the pulpit point out that the word humor shares the same Latin root, humus, with the words humility and human. McKenzie believes it’s time for seminaries to establish a new branch of hermeneutics—the study of biblical interpretation—called humorneutics that unpacks legitimate signs of humor in scripture.

Until then, Miller offers this advice as a start for clergy members who want to loosen up: “Pay attention to dogs and children. Read more poetry. Take yourself less seriously. Remember [as Oscar Wilde said] life is too important to be taken seriously.” 


This article also appears in the May 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 5, pages 28-31). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Regan Dunnick

About the author

Judith Valente

Judith Valente is the author of several spirituality titles including most recently How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living & Dying, Purpose & Prayer, Forgiveness & Friendship (Hampton Roads) written with Brother Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., as well as the poetry collection Discovering Moons (Virtual Artists Collective). She is a former correspondent for PBS-TV and guides frequent retreats on living a more contemplative life.

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