Paul Prather

Paul Prather: You might be an evangelical if you don't find this funny

True wit is something usually missing from the Christianity practiced in my evangelical subculture.

On one extreme, we have the folks who think jocularity, like any other form of fun, is a sin. To them, if you're enjoying yourself, by definition you must be doing something ungodly.

These are the proverbial faithful who sit in pews or stand in pulpits, looking as if they were nursed on persimmons and weaned on dill pickles. They're the frozen chosen.

On the other extreme, we have well-intentioned people who have decided it's a poor "witness" to the "lost" if we appear relentlessly stern.

So their tactic is to declare, very loudly, "Gee whiz, church, we need to show the world that we can be Christians and still laugh! See me? I'm having a great time! I'm gonna tell ya a knock-knock joke! I'm chuckling! No, really, I am!"

These are the spiritual descendents of the Hee-Haw cast. Their idea of humor is broad skits and plastic grins, and strained, hackneyed, hundred-year-old gags. They're about as unfunny as the frozen chosen, really.

Don't get me wrong. A lot of hilarious things happen in worship services, Bible studies and prayer groups. It's just that most of them are unintentional. Mostly they fall into the "you had to be there" category.

The son of a minister, I came up in Baptist and Pentecostal traditions that put a lot of emphasis on music. Our congregations played host to countless gospel quartets and other itinerant groups.

My dad could never quite remember their names.

Once we had in a slew of singing sisters who called themselves the Joy Bells.

My father inadvertently introduced them as the Dingalings.

I almost lost control of my bladder.

Another time he introduced a group called the Living Waters as the Singing Rivers.

Then there was the time my dad was teaching an in-depth Bible study. He ended a solemn lesson by asking the parishioners, "Does anyone have a question?"

An elderly church member shot up his hand.

"Yes, Nelson?" Dad said.

"Whatever happened to that big old fat boy who used to lead the music here?"

But, as I said, these incidents were unintentional. And you had to be there. They're probably not as hysterical to you as they were to me.

What's really missing from our religion, though, is genuine wit.

There are exceptions.

While browsing in a bookstore, I happened across Stuff Christians Like, a book that my fiancée, Liz, later bought me for Christmas. It's a spinoff of a Web site, StuffChristiansLike.net.

The creator of the book and the site is a guy in Atlanta, Jonathan Acuff. I've never met him, but he gets my vote for wittiest evangelical of the decade. His stuff is dead-on in its portrayal of the spiritual milieu we share.

He has written hundreds of little riffs about the quirky, contradictory things we evangelicals do. It's hard to give him justice in this limited space, but here's an excerpt from a piece on why evangelicals are fine with watching some R-rated movies but not others:

"For Christians, it's comparatively OK to watch R-rated movies, but only if they got that rating because of violence. If they're rated R because someone is getting their head cut off or there's a battle scene that's so gory blood splashes at the camera lens, don't worry. God's cool with that. However, if the movie is rated R because of sexuality ... well, I hope you enjoy your fold-out couch in hell. It's gonna be a hot one, my friend. A hot one, indeed."

Acuff helpfully explains why Christians sometimes use profanity — "swears are 19 times more powerful coming out of the mouth of a Christian" than from a heathen — and tells us why evangelicals send more hate mail than Satanists send.

One essay, "Being Slightly Offended That the Pastor Has a Nicer Car Than You Do," has this opening line: "Christians like their pastors humble, and by humble I mean driving a domestically made mid-sized sedan with high mileage."

It's interesting that some faiths produce an endless supply of wit. Jewish humor, for instance, is practically an industry unto itself. Roman Catholics can be pretty funny, too.

But can you name a single evangelical (other than Acuff) who doubles you over in laughter? A Muslim? A Buddhist?

I have a theory on this, although it's only half-formed and might be wholly wrong.

I've heard secular comics say the key to effective humor is that it must be truthful. I think they mean that to be truly funny, you have to be able to look at yourself and those around you clearly, without fear, without rationalization. You have to be willing to recognize when your emperor is less than fully clad — and summon the courage to say so.

Maybe some faith traditions are better equipped than others to question their own assumptions, to confront their own inconsistencies, and thus are better able to acknowledge the human comedy of their own feeble, broken search for transcendence.

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