This month Ellen’s friend Max Carter, who was director of Friends Center at Guilford College for more than 20 years until his retirement, is sitting in as guest reviewer. Friends who have little acquaintance with the Bible will find this book funny, Max writes. Those who have a deeper acquaintance will find the humor to be profound. “The former may find that reading the book encourages a deeper acquaintance,” he adds. “The latter may find it leads to a more liberal understanding of the literal text.”
Reviewed by Max Carter
When I taught a course at Guilford College on the spiritual roots of the Quaker testimonies, I handed out Bibles on the first day of class. Inevitably, some "liberal" Quaker students would physically recoil at the prospect of touching "that thing." And "evangelical" Quaker students would pass on receiving yet another Bible—they already had several! It was indicative of the gulf that has grown in the Religious Society of Friends around understandings of the Bible.
Early Friends knew the Bible well. It was even said of Quaker leader George Fox that if all the copies were somehow lost, it could be re-created from his memory. Scripture was at the core of their interpretation of their times and was a source for evidence of the validity of their own religious experience. Yet those same Friends did not ascribe to the Bible ultimate authority. That belonged to the Author, the Source from which the words of scripture came.
But as evangelical Christian movements ran into the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, that belief became a dilemma for later Quakers. In the battle over what constituted ultimate authority, some Quakers chose the horn of biblical authority while others chose the horn of the Bible's secondary place. Over the succeeding centuries, the one elevated the Bible to nearly inerrant status, while the other tended to disregard it altogether.
People in either camp—or camped out elsewhere as regards the Bible—will find in Howard Macy's Discovering Humor in the Bible: An Explorer's Guide an enjoyable and challenging read. Those in the "nigh onto inerrant" column will be challenged by a biblical scholar's evidence that the writers of the Bible never intended some things to be taken literally, but they will enjoy the various forms of humor in and about the Bible. Those with scant experience with the Bible will have their eyes opened to welcoming ways to gain access to a previously "closed" text. All will enjoy the humor both of the author of this book and the authors of The Book.
Howard Macy, a product both of an evangelical Quaker upbringing and a Ph.D. in Bible from Harvard, draws on his deep love of the Bible, his long teaching experience at Friends University and George Fox University, and his scholarship to expose the humor inherent in various scriptural texts. Macy is also a big fan of humor in his own spiritual life, as evidenced by his earlier books Laughing Pilgrims (2006) and Red Nose Training Manual (2006). In this volume, he focuses on what he calls "found" humor, the humorous as intended by the biblical writers themselves. But he doesn't avoid the "created humor" that comes from folks who enjoy playing with scripture.
Two of my favorite pieces of "created" humor, while not included in Macy's book, do come from other Quakers who could get a laugh out of Holy Writ. Tom Mullen taught "Baby Bible" at Earlham College for many years and always sent his students away from their last class of the week with a "sustaining thought for the weekend." One I remember was "If you ever feel depressed, just remember Jonah. He was down in the mouth for three days, and he came out all right!" Another Bible scholar who clearly shared Mullen and Macy’s sense of humor was Ken Carroll, a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University who told the story of three rabbis arguing about the meaning of the text "David danced before the ark." (II Samuel 6:14) One rabbi said, "It simply means that David was in front of the ark dancing." "No," said the second rabbi. "It clearly means that David danced before there ever was an ark." "You're both wrong," replied the third rabbi, "David danced...and then the ark danced."
Such examples of "created" humor, and Macy's own love of puns ("Shofar, so good."), are sprinkled throughout the book, but the core is a serious examination of the "found" funnies. Here, Macy categorizes humor found in cultural preferences, gender insights, exaggeration, surprise, 'funny fits,' the abnormal, banter, satire, and dark humor. Each of the illustrations given is described entertainingly. They might even send non-readers of the Bible scampering to the nearest hotel to find a copy of Gideon's Bible, given that Macy mostly alludes to the texts rather than giving the full story.
Among these categories of humor are talking donkeys (with the requisite 'ass' jokes); enemies slain with the jawbone of an ass (You can make up THAT joke!); women playing starring roles in a patriarchal society; Philistines' being 'outfoxed' by flaming foxes; prophets' outlandish street theater; and especially Jesus's Seinfeld-like "stand-up" act (which Macy describes as giving new meaning to the old hymn "Stand up, Stand up for Jesus"). "Hey, did I tell you the one about the guy who got beat up on his way to Jericho?"
Of course, the humor in the Bible is there to underscore points—and sometimes to score points, as in Jesus's ongoing banter with the Sadducees and Pharisees. Macy comments on that, too, often drawing on his own knowledge of Hebrew to show how wordplay was used in ways that the ancient audience would get—and we miss. I had never recognized, for example, the clever pun in the story of Ehud, son of Benjamin. Ehud in Hebrew means "left-handed." Benjamin in Hebrew means "son of the right-handed."
One concern some readers may have with the book is that there are some "texts of terror" that are cited as examples of dark humor, yet there is little to no critique or scholarly analysis of those texts in Macy's approach. He does admit to the obvious gore, misogyny, and other issues that concern the modern reader, but this is not a book whose purpose is to take a critical look at such subjects. It is a challenge in some cases to continue to focus on humor in scenes of violence and dehumanization.
In a survey course on the New Testament I once taught at a Quaker secondary school, I ended the semester with a showing of Monty Python's 1979 film Life of Brian. Students invariably told me that when they saw the film before taking my class, they laughed all the way through at the slapstick humor and other classic Python troupe hi-jinx. But after taking the class, they found the film to be funny at a far deeper level, as they then had a more profound understanding of the cultural setting of the satirical film.
Similarly, people in the camp of folks with little introduction to the Bible will find Howard Macy's book to be enjoyable and funny on the surface. Those who have a deeper acquaintance with the Bible, though, will find the humor to be more profound. The former may find that reading the book encourages a deeper acquaintance; the latter may find it leads to a more liberal understanding of the literal text.
Discovering Humor in the Bible: An Explorer's Guide (Cascade Books, 2016) by Howard R. Macy. $19