Sometimes, a joke book is the best sacred scripture.
Carmel Wrothl | August 2009 issue
Mullah Nasrudin is a medieval folk hero claimed by many countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. He’s part court jester, part Socratic philosopher, and the many tales of his sayings and adventures are popular throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia. (Nasrudin is one of the early sources of the classic joke about the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamppost. “Where did you lose them?” his friend asks. “At home,” the drunk says. “Then why are you looking here?” “The light is better.”) Nasrudin was a Sufi, and the Sufis often use his exploits much as Zen Buddhists use koans. Nasrudin’s shenanigans can help break down conventional thinking, spurring a breakthrough into wisdom. Here’s one of the Mullah’s merriest anecdotes: Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips in his boat. One day a fussy pedagogue hired the Mullah to ferry him across a river. As soon as they were afloat, the scholar asked whether it was going to be rough. “Don’t ask me nothing about it,” said Nasrudin. The scholar was taken aback. “Have you never studied grammar?” he asked. “No,” answered the Mullah. Came the response, “In that case, half your life has been wasted.” The Mullah said nothing. Soon a terrible storm blew up. The Mullah’s boat was filling with water. He leaned toward his companion. “Have you ever learnt to swim?” he asked. “No,” said the pedant. Replied his companion, “In that case, all your life has been wasted, for we are sinking.”—James Geary
For Jewish people, wit is a way of life, and Jewish wisdom literature is filled with stories that make you laugh as well as think. The first laugh in the Torah occurs when God tells Abraham he’s going to be a father. Abraham’s 90-year-old wife, Sarah, thinks this is hysterically funny. But sure enough, she gives birth to a son, Isaac, whose name means “he will laugh.” “When you laugh, aside from the endorphin rush, there’s also a spiritual opening,” says Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. “You’re not so tight inside yourself. That opening I’ve found to be a real gift, in people being able to absorb spirituality.” Mintz knows whereof she speaks. A former stand-up comic, her humorous ways at the pulpit increased youth membership at the temple from 25 to more than 1,000. “We’re created in the image of God,” Mintz says. “If we love to laugh, why do we love to laugh? Because I think God laughs.”—Carmel Wroth
There’s not much humor in the Bible. But some Christian churches make up for that by posting witticisms on their outdoor signboards, such as “Does life stink? We have a pew for you,” “Google cannot satisfy every search” and “Read the Bible. It will scare the Hell out of you.” (Create your own virtual church sign at the Church Sign Generator: says-it.com/churchsigns). Laura Gentry, pastor of Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lansing, Iowa, brings the humor indoors. Gentry’s been known to give sermons in a pink feather boa and lead her congregation in gales of laughter. She’s also among a small number of Protestant pastors to adopt a medieval tradition known as risus paschalis, or “Easter laughter,” in which priests tell humorous stories around Easter. Contemporary pastors call it Holy Hilarity Sunday. “The resurrection is God’s joke, the banana peel of the Christian faith,” Gentry says. “When Christ rose from the dead, that was the great joke on death.” On Holy Hilarity Sunday, Gentry’s congregation dresses up in silly costumes, and even does the bunny hop to the hymn Lord of the Dance. The point is to experience laughter in church, in pastoral counseling, even at funerals. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t fear death,’” Gentry says, “but to laugh out loud somehow drives the idea home. It embodies our theology.”—Carmel Wroth