Shirley Mullen is president of Houghton College. Mullen spent the first 23 years of her academic career teaching European history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, during which time she received the college’s “Teacher of the Year” award three times. She is a board member of several organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals. She holds an M.A. from the University of Toronto, a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and a second Ph.D. from the University of Wales.
I first encountered the idea that God might have a sense of humor in the spring of 1976. It was in a class at Houghton College called “The Oxford Christians.” Dr. James Barcus invited us to read extensively (14 books seemed a lot for one semester!) from the writings of G.K Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. While my professional interests have remained in history, that one literature class changed the way I view the world.
The last paragraph of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy goes like this: “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian…The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears…Yet he concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. …Yet he restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth” (Image Books, p.170).
Like much of what G.K. Chesterton writes, this notion of God’s joy invites us to look at the Scripture and at our world with new eyes. One cannot point to a biblical text to prove his point. In fact, some might feel Chesterton irreverent to assert such a thought. Our fallen world is just too serious a place to speak of God’s “mirth.” But then, on second thought, we live in a world with zebras, giraffes, birds-of-paradise, toucans, penguins, elephants, and a thousand other evidences of a Creator who wanted to make us laugh as we went about our daily business. (This is even without mentioning the sense of humor that is responsible for the strange and wondrous mix of human beings among whom we live and work!)
Because the Scripture does not teach explicitly on what a “Christian sense of humor” should look like, we have probably been guilty of devoting far too little attention to thinking productively about a “redeemed” sense of humor. When humor appears in Christian circles, it is usually either fairly unsophisticated (the pie in face at a church picnic) or draws its punch from putting other Christians in a questionable light. We live in a world — even in Christian circles — where all is excused once we say, “Oh, I was just kidding.”
As someone involved in educating the next generation of Christian young men and women, I believe it is high time that we took seriously what it means to have a deeply Christian sense of humor. This is one of God’s gifts to us. Let us covenant to use this gift — as we seek to use other gifts like knowledge, wealth, authority — constructively and creatively for kingdom purposes.
This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.