Absurdist Contextualization: A Serious Business

Few things are as boring, generally, as reading a work on sound theology. Yet if you go into a bookstore (Christian or otherwise) there are shelves of Christian Books. You can find books on:

  • How to be rich (and telling that there is something wrong with you if you are not rich)
  • How to be happy (apparently having a rich spectrum of emotions is not godly)
  • How to eat and exercise (God’s way to buns and acquire abs of steel)
  • How to know future events (God’s hidden secret messages regarding future events that we can’t find without paying someone)
  • Pleasant Christian thoughts recycled by authors of books they wrote before (or had written for them before).

These books attract interest (and buyers) by talking about things that either aren’t that important or aren’t that true… or both.

Jesus managed to contextualize theology to the hearers of 1st century Judea. One way is in stories (usually here called parables). But stories can be boring and unmemorable as well. One method to attract attention used was (and is) humor/shock.

We often don’t see Jesus as being humorous. We have (at least) four challenges to finding humor in the stories of Jesus.

  1. The stories are too well known for us to feel the shock in them. While, I disagree with the reductionist view that humor is simply a form of shock, shock (or the “twist” in the tale) is often where humor is found in stories. No one gets surprised to learn that firemen keep their pants up using suspenders because the twist in the joke is too well-known… it lacks shock..
  2. We lack the cultural reference points. So much of humor is culturally laden. Some humor has a universal quality to it, but much is tied to current events and local culture. I listen to old-time radio. I tend to like listening to “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Jack Benny Show” rather than “The Bob Hope Show.” Although Bob Hope was a comic genius, much of his humor was “current” humor. That is, it was tied to what was going on with local events and contemporary personalities. Since the show was done in the 1940s and 1950s, much of those references are unknown to us now. Even if they are still known, it is hard to see the humor in many of them. With Fibber McGee and Jack Benny there is a greater focus on human foibles and the universal human condition. Therefore, there is more of a universal quality to the humor, and is more accessible today, although created in the same time as Bob Hope. But in nearly all cases, humor breaks down with greater time and culture gaps.
  3. We often identify humor through voice inflection and visual cues. Much of the art of the great storyteller is lost in written text. To make the humor obvious, one needs to find cues of the humor in the text and reconvert it into live storytelling. When Jesus talks about religious leaders carefully removing dirt from the outside of a cup and then swallowing a camel by mistake, this hyperbolic situation clearly demands exaggerated vocal inflection and gestures to pull out the true absurdity of the scenario.
  4. We like to “theologize” or “spiritualize” what Jesus says. We read of the Kingdom of Heaven being as a tiny mustard seed that, when planted, grows into a tree that the birds perch on. We then like to argue about what the birds “mean.” If the seed is the kingdom of God, what are the birds? Yet, most likely, Jesus added birds to emphasize contrast and reversal. A seed that a bird would barely waste its time to eat because it was so small becomes something so big that the same bird could now sit on, along with its friends. This absurd (and yet mundane) event is like God’s Kingdom which starts so insignificantly, and yet will expand and grow until it cannot be ignored.

Consider the story of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). It has elements of the absurd that humorously contrasts with the culturally mundane aspects of the story.

A. The size of the debt. 10,000 talents is a HUGE amount. Some theologize this to try to make the point as to how much we are in debt to God. While there may be elements of truth in this (we are saved by God’s forgiving our sin debt since we lack any other resource for “paying it off”) the size of the debt is probably meant to catch the attention of the listener due to the ridiculous size of it. It is as if a story today talked of a man who owed someone 3 billion US dollars. The listener pulls back in shock. “How could someone owe THAT MUCH MONEY??” “This king, was he an IDIOT to lend so much money to one person?” “What sort of person would even TRY to build up such a debt?”

B. The request for patience. The debtor promises to pay it back if given more time. “How ridiculous!” thinks the hearer. “The man must know he could never ever ever pay back such a debt.” “Does this man really think the king is such a fool as to believe such an obvious lie?”

C. Total forgiveness of debt. There is no pay back schedule. No reduction of debt. No deal. Rather, complete eradication of a monstrous debt by decree. “Who could be so rich and/or so merciful to simply cancel a debt as if it did not happen?” “Is the king so kind, or the man so deserving, or what?”

D. The tiny debt and the ridiculous response. The man who was the first debtor sees another who owes him a hundred denarii… a pretty small amount… hardly worth stressing about. This new debtor promises to pay. Unlike that of the first debtor, the payment of this second debt should be easily within the ability of this second debtor… given a little time. Yet the first debtor has this second debtor thrown in debtor’s prison. “What a repugnant, ungrateful man!” “What man could receive so much grace, and yet be so harsh and selfish?”

E. The twist. The first debtor’s actions have not gone unnoticed. The king is notified and brings in the first debtor, giving him the punishment he so richly deserves. The irony is complete. Because the first debtor could not give a small bit of grace, he lost the enormous amount of grace he was given.

F. The reversal of affection. Most of the hearers, then and now, can relate to being in debt to a king, or rich person, or powerful bank or corporation. Few can relate to the king (or powerful equivalent). Because of this, people are more likely to feel sympathy for the first debtor. Few feel happy for such a person being punished, and few would feel a positive connection with a despotic ruler. Yet the story develops an ironic twist in our attachments. We feel sorry for the king for being duped by such a selfish unmerciful man, and feel a rush of (righteous?) joy when that same man gets his comeuppance. One of the most effective stories to use reversal of affection to make a point is the book of Jonah.

The humor in the parable (in the forms of shock, hyperbole, and irony) help make the story memorable. Then Jesus added the final twist that ties it to the story. If God is the king, and we have been granted mercy by God, then we are the first debtor. We have no choice regarding that role, but we have choice in how we play out that role. We can act like the man in the story, or we can make a new story.

Effective contextualization, translation, and transmission of God’s message should not be afraid of utilizing story and humor. However, it really does take an insider to master the art of story and humor.

Maybe that is the real challenge. Maybe theologians do not understand the culture that they seek to minister to to the extent that they can adapt God’s message in a culturally interesting and humorous way.