In his collection of delightfully reflective and paradoxical mini-stories, Espejos (Mirrors), Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano includes a sequence on jokes and laughter in various ancient cultures. In one of these reflections he refers to Jesus, “of whom the evangelists record not a single laugh.” Then soon Galeano takes the entire Bible to task, as “a book in which no one ever laughs at all.”
This isn’t quite true. Sarah laughed when the angel told Abraham that in her old age Sarah would bear a son (Gen. 18:12). But this laugh of Sarah’s doesn’t express joy; rather, it’s a laugh of almost scornful disbelief. Sarah’s second laugh a year later is joyful though. Having indeed borne a son, she says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).
There’s other laughter in the Bible, too. Jesus isn’t explicitly shown to laugh, but he enjoys many communal meals at which there must have been good fellowship. The explicit laughs in the rest of the Bible are a mixed bag. In many, the laughter is looked down upon.
Ecclesiastes 2:2 is typical—“I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘what use is it?’” Most disturbing to me is God’s vindictive laughter in Psalm 37:12-13: “The wicked plot against the righteous, / and gnash their teeth at them; / but the Lord laughs at the wicked, / for he sees that their day is coming.”
On the positive side, the Bible does offer a few instances of laughter as a good.
I’ve always loved the images of Psalm 126:2—“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream, / Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
Then there’s Proverbs 17:22, which praises something that’s not quite laughter, but close: “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.”
The famous seesaw in Ecclesiastes (3:4) allows laughter its “time”—“a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”—but without suggesting that it might be better to laugh than to weep.
It took Jesus, in his beatitudes, to confer a greater value on laughter: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).
This is the closest that Jesus comes to positing laughter as a good. I wish that Jesus had said what G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy: “Satan fell by the force of gravity.” This has long been one of my favorite Chesterton quotes. His pun on “gravity” itself makes me laugh. Here’s the whole passage:
“It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
But why am I even searching Scripture for a good laugh? Because I happened to read the Galeano passage the same evening that I’d seen Preston Sturgis’s brilliant 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. It’s about a fictional movie director (John Sullivan) famous for his comedies, who—moved by the immense suffering of the Depression years—determines to make a serious film depicting social distress.
Sullivan’s adventures toward this end conclude with his learning from hard experience that what downtrodden people really need is a good, hearty, belly-shaking laugh. So he changes his mind about making comedies; he sees that they can truly do people good.
I too know this from experience. My husband has a gift for laughter. I remember when we first got together, decades ago, I said to him, “You’re the first person ever who makes me laugh.” It was true. And he makes others laugh. He has delightful creative teases for everyone he knows. In fact, I can tell he likes someone when he starts teasing them.
His favorite hobby? Cartooning, of course.
One of our household routines is a movie at home every Saturday evening. I’m at a stage in my life where medical concerns dominate. So I don’t want my Saturday night movie to be dominated by darkness; I crave a couple hours of total escape from life’s troubles.
When I check a title on Wikipedia before getting the DVD from my library or searching it on Amazon or Netflix, the film has to be classified as a comedy. I’m even more drawn to it if Wikipedia characterizes it as a “screwball comedy.” Then George guffaws and I giggle, while for the two hours of the movie our medical worries recede and we laugh ourselves not sick but better.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.