What's the Sense of Humor: The Power of Irreverent Reverence

October 5, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


I just bought this button. It says, "I considered atheism but there weren't enough holidays."

What's the sense of humor? That's what we're asking today. Aside from the fun, the release, the joy of humor – all life-giving and sometimes life-saving things - is there particular value in irreverent humor; the kind of humor that makes sacred cows into hamburgers?

People have asked me if I plan to see comedian Bill Maher's new movie, "Religulous," a documentary where Maher travels around the world interviewing (and skewering!) people of different religious traditions.  Like me, Bill Maher is the child of a mixed marriage.  He was "raised in a mixed Jewish-Catholic family in suburban New Jersey and has long used religion as a comic target. He used to riff on his family background, joking that the Jewish side compelled him to bring a lawyer into the confession box. "Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I believe you know Mr. Cohen." (Andrew O'Hehir, "Maher Vs the Talking Snake" on Salon.com, October 2, 2008)

Heck yea, I'm going to see the movie! Even though Maher is shooting fish in a barrel and intentionally avoiding the history of intellectualism and scholasticism in the traditions he's mocking, that's okay. If my faith can't hold up under a good poke with the sharp stick of Bill Maher's humor, how can I expect it to sustain me through life's most tragic and existentially shattering moments?

That's why I treasure irreverent humor, which I consider a fine art. Mean humor is just ugly. Disrespectful humor is also just ugly, and often ignorant. Irreverence is, for me, delicious because it originates from love, from genuine appreciation for the absurdity of human attempts to tolerate and even make meaning of our mortal condition.  Irreverence isn't a "nyah nah nah nah nah nah," it's a deep gut laugh because you just can't help it. We are ridiculous creatures.

And glorious. 

But also ridiculous.

Before I met you, I led a worship service for a pretty nearby UU congregation that your Search Committee attended so they could essentially spy on me and see if I was a good match to be this church's minister. That was Sue Robinson, Mary Eliot, Len Cole, Carol Neely, Marcia Babcock, Virginia Bartlett, and Bob Detwiler. I led the service and it went well and the congregation smiled kindly at me during some moments I thought were pretty funny.  The weekend interview went really well and the Search Committee invited me to be the candidate for the pulpit here, and I led the same service here, and during those same moments when the other congregation had cracked these nice, controlled New England smiles, this congregation let loose these huge roars of laughter.  I thought, "Oh, thank God. I have found my people."

Humor is a huge part of what makes a people a people.  When we think about the elements of cultural diversity, we often fail to include humor, and we shouldn't.   

I loved George Carlin, the great comic who died this past summer.  Let's be honest: he was crude, he was crass, he was incredibly offensive, he took no prisoners. His humor was infused with total contempt for stupidity, and… he considered religion one of the most stupid things human being could concern themselves with.   He insulted my beliefs and my life's work and many of the things I hold most dear and I fell off the couch onto the floor laughing when he did it.  How does that work? I don't really understand it.  But George Carlin made me laugh so hard that I actually thought one of my eyeballs would pop out.

"The only good thing to come out of religion was the music," is one of my favorite lines of his. "I finally accepted Jesus," he also said. "Not as my personal savior, but as a man I intend to borrow money from." He mocked celebrities who explain their charity work by saying they feel they have to "give something back."  "I don't feel that way," he wrote. "I didn't take nothin'. You can search my house; I didn't take a thing. Everything I got, I worked for, and I also paid taxes on it." But if we did choose to support charities, Carlin had a few he said he "worked with, quietly in the background."

The Home for the Visually Unpleasant

The State Hospital for Those Who Felt All Right About a Year Ago

The Nook for Needy Nuns

Children of Parents With Bad Teeth

and Hors D'Oeuvres for Bangladesh

Church work can get so deadly earnest.   George Carlin let the air out of that earnestness and the release could bring me to hysterics. 

Week after week we meet in religious community to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to promote universal brother and sisterhood, to lift up the possibility of a peaceful world, and George Carlin poked fun at all of that.  "Imagine meeting your maker and finding out it's Frito-Lay," he once said.  And on human nature, "This species is a dear, hateful, sweet, barbaric, tender, vile, intelligent, confused, virtuous, evil, thoughtful, perverted, generous, greedy species. In short, great entertainment."

He often said that war, in fact, was great entertainment, the Greatest Show on Earth.  "We're a violent species, people," he said, "get over it!" But Carlin realized that some people "really worry about this kind of thing," and so as a good citizen, he offered two ideas for peace.  The first was world-wide, year-round, nonstop folk dancing.  This would leave very little time for fighting, he wrote, and what combat did occur would be inefficient because the combatants are constantly in motion.  For people who thought that was an unrealistic idea, he suggested that half the people on the planet dance at a time.  The only problem with that, though, was that while one half was dancing, the other half would likely be robbing their homes.

Carlin's second idea for world peace was World Peace Through Formal Introductions. The idea is that everyone in the world would be required to meet everyone else in the world, formally, at least once. His theory was, if you knew everyone in the world personally, you'd be less inclined to fight them in a war.  "Who? The Malaysians? Are you kidding? I know those people!"  (from pp 183-184 Brain-Droppings)

Of course his latter theory was sadly naive, as we know from conflicts like those in Rwanda and Sudan and Bosnia when neighbors massacred neighbors, which makes the humor of Carlin's bit very bittersweet.  I don't laugh so hard at that second idea for world peace; it gets a sad smile out of me.  If only.  If only.

 Irreverent humor gives us a light-hearted way to test the integrity of supposedly sacred institutions or doctrines without tearing them down altogether. Because we're laughing as we do it, we can point out inherent flaws in false idols without needing to violently demolish them. Taking on one of the most cherished religious constructs of all history, for instance, George Carlin wrote that Ten Commandments was too much.  He said it was a "padded list."

"About five thousand years ago," he said, "a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to figure out how they could control people and keep them in line. They knew people were stupid and would basically believe anything they were told, so these guys announced that God – God personally – had given one of them a list of ten commandments that he wanted everyone to follow.  They claimed the whole thing took place on a mountaintop, when no one else was around."  (When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?, 14)

After a lengthy and trenchant analysis of all ten commandments, Carlin narrows it down to two.  Because when you're practicing the art of irreverence, you get to do that. I can't quote his first commandment because of his choice of language – which as you may know, is mostly extremely unfit for church -- but here's his second: "Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless of course, they pray to a different invisible avenger than the one you pray to."   And Carlin personally wanted to add one additional commandment: "Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself!"

I will miss George Carlin.  I don't know how his vicious, filthy-mouthed insults manage to cheer me when I am down and sound to my ears like affectionate cheerleading to keep on keeping on, but that was his gift.  Maybe you felt that way about him, too. 

Another comic we lost this summer whose humor was angry, irreverent but seemed to come from somewhere deep down affectionate was Bernie Mac.  Bernie Mac's special talent was making the extremely uncomfortable issue of racism and African-American anger funny (if you saw his performance in "Ocean's Eleven," you'll know what I mean), and in treating with incredible irreverence the sacred cow of the traditional family.  He didn't romanticize parenting – one of his favorite lines was to threaten to bust his kid's heads open until "the white meat shows." Kids are "nasty, dirty, disease-carrying midgets" who are "too sassy, too grown and talk back too much," he declared in his role as the put-upon dad in his 2001-06 comedy series, "The Bernie Mac Show."  And to people who claimed to be offended, he said, "Bernie Mac just say what you want to say, but can't." 

And that is the secret to irreverence; it is grounded in a truth that we barely dare acknowledge, but should. Humor gives us a safe way around some verboten topics.

The first line in our congregational covenant says that we unite to cultivate reverence. While we do so, we should also remember to cultivate a healthy irreverence, too – to laugh at ourselves when we get overly earnest, when we become pettier or more trivial than we should, and when we, god forbid, see any aspect of our lives together as being so holy that it can't stand a good-natured wink.  We're dealing with life and death here, folks.  We suffer together, worry together, face crises together, and every day walk closer to the grave together.  This is all too serious to be endured without the healing balm of humor.

So let me close with a joke, because what else would do?

Pastor Lundquist was taking a walk in the woods. "What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!", he said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look and saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the bear was closing in. He ran even faster, so scared that tears were coming to his eyes.

He looked over his shoulder again, and the bear was even closer. His

heart was pumping frantically and he tried to run even faster. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw the bear; right on top of him reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike him.

At that instant Pastor Lindquist cried out "Dear God, I know I'm a sinner and have failed in many ways, but please . . . . please, hear my prayer and make this bear a Christian!"

And then a miracle happened. The bear dropped his right paw ....brought both paws together...bowed his head and spoke:

"Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful."