Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Human to Human

"Laughing Christ" by Fred Berger
My kids like to watch the online talk show, "Good Mythical Morning."  This morning my older son came downstairs and said that he'd just watched an episode that mentioned a man named Alex Mitchell.  Mitchell had some fame in his native England back in 1975.  While watching an episode of The Goodies, a British comedy troupe, he suddenly died ... apparently from laughing.  (Okay, from a rare heart condition, but it was his laughing that triggered the heart attack.)  It turns out that he wasn't the first.  There's even a Wikipedia entry -- "Death from Laughter" -- that chronicles reports of these deaths (reports of which go back as far as the 5th century BCE!).

On the other hand, it's long been said that "laughter is the best medicine," and in his famous 1985 book, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins claimed to have "laughed himself to health," setting the stage for the modern "laughter therapy" movement.  The poet (and Unitarian!) E. E. Cummings once wrote, "the most wasted of all days is one without laughter."  As a juggler/magician/clown myself (in a previous life) I would have to concur.  It is good to laugh.  In fact, on an episode of the PBS program Nova titled, "What Makes Us Human?," one of the things lifted up was laughter.

So why does the picture above surprise so many people?  It's a picture of Jesus ... laughing.  That's not the way he is generally depicted, nor is it the way most people think of him.  Serious.  Otherworldly.  Detached yet intense.  Sorrowful.  Judgemental.  Spiritual (whatever that's supposed to look like).  These are all ways we've been taught to imagine Jesus.  But laughing?

Whatever else this Jesus was, he was a man.  Even those who affirm that he was God and man together have to agree that he was a man.  Yeshua ben Miriam.  Jesus, son of Mary.  He ate.  He slept.  (Those are both in the Bible!)  He also went to the bathroom, and bathed, and stubbed his toe, and burped, and got angry, and wept (those last two are in the Bible, too).  And if he was human, he laughed.

That might be part of the problem with thinking about Jesus laughing, that whole thinking-of-him-as-human thing.  The Jesus I was taught about in Sunday School was somehow above all of that mere-human stuff.  His hair was always neatly quaffed, his robe a brilliant white; his teeth sparkled, and despite wearing sandals in the desert his toenails were always clean.  (Maybe that's because he didn't so much walk as glide along the ground.)

Here's the thing, though -- what would such a being have to teach me?  Any lessons he could impart wouldn't be relevant to me because I live fully in this world -- the dust and dirt, blood and sweat of it.  I falter.  I fall.  I fail.  And even with the miracle of modern washing machine technology my clothes get dingy after a time.  So maybe this is one of the reasons so many people have felt the need to leave the Christian traditions -- because they intuit that this all-too-perfect God/man really has nothing to say to them ... nothing that could really apply to their own lived experiences.

And maybe that's one of the reasons he's been depicted like this.  It is likely that in the begining this gandiosity was intended to make him more relevant, more important, more trustworth.  Just as one might believe a king because he is, well, a King, so too this King of Kings should be listened to.  Yet over time this elevated status made it harder and harder to take Jesus seriously and, so, gave Christians an "out."  Perhaps if only unconsciously we were able to say, "these are good teachings, yes, profound, but not really anything I have to pay attention to because they can't be meant for me.  I'm a mere man, and he's a God-man."

Marcus Borg, Stephen Peterson, and so many others have made their careers on trying to re-introduce and reclaim the human Jesus.  (This was the intent of my first book, too -- Teacher, Guide, Companion:  Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World.)  Because if this Jesus was a human being like me, who understood the kinds of trials I know ... then maybe his message could have meaning in my life.  Should have meaning in my life.

So it's important to me to know that Jesus laughed.  He asked his disciples to let children come to him -- and who can have a bunch of children hanging off them without laughing?  His first miracle was recorded as the turning of water into wine at a wedding.  You think he could do that without a smile on his face?  And if he could laugh, and he could cry, then maybe he could get scared, and feel alone, and worry about what to do next.  Maybe he could understand what it is to be human because he was really human too.  And when a wise human has something to say to me, something drawn directly from his own human experiences, then I don't really  have an "out."  Then it's harder for me not to listen.

One last thing -- if you are still having trouble imagining Jesus with a smile on his face, check out this collection on Pinterest.

Pax tecum,


PS -- that bricklayer in England who died while laughing at an episode of The Goodies?  His wife wrote the group a "thank you" card, thanking them for making his last moments so enjoyable.

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Anonymous said...

Fred Berger deserves a credit for "Laughing Christ," no?

RevWik said...

Absolutely. Yes. Thank you. Somehow I hadn't been able to find the artist.

Mark said...

As far as I know, it was commissioned for a Harvey Cox opinion piece in Playboy back in the '60s. That's where I first saw it, anyway. I've not been able to find the full text, but I suspect Cox's theme was not unlike your post here.