Humour In Dialogue image

Humour In Dialogue

My atheist friends and acquaintances often employ humour in their dialogue with other worldviews. But I have noticed that this is often not the case for Christians engaging with non-Christians. I’ve been asking myself about this as I read though a thread on an atheist-Christian dialogue site. A well-meaning atheist posed an interesting question. He asked how he could be ‘real’ with his theist friends when he feels a smouldering hatred for their religion, and often finds this manifesting itself in witty gibes and sarcastic comments that pop into his head. He knew no other atheists at all, and all his friends were Christian; he lives in the Bible-belt of America. He had held back his comments because he thought that they would upset his friends. However, his question on this site was, ‘will I ever be able to tell them what I really think?’ Later in the thread it became apparent that he did talk to his Christian friends about his beliefs, but he hadn’t shown them the strength of his feelings; the sarcasm and hatred that often filled his head with clever taunts and comical remarks.

It also became apparent that this guy had had a hard time. He said that one of his Christian friends had told him that ‘I don’t have to like you, I have to respect you’, which I too would find difficult coming from a friend. And I believe that the culture around him is very much ‘Christianised’ to the point that being an atheist is a little like being a born again Christian in the UK in terms of minorities: we, like him, are often misunderstood and sidelined. Or at least it can feel that way.
It was the responses to his question that really interested me. I would have thought that the obvious response would be to say that discussing your beliefs is not only acceptable but also preferable, but that humour that belittles the beliefs of others cannot be tolerated because at that point you stop respecting the other person. There is a difference between general humour used in dialogue for the benefit of all recipients, and a humour that is designed to make one side of the room laugh, and the other side feel humiliated, which is really a dirty debating trick. Surely we should advocate the former, and strongly discourage the latter? 

Bill Hicks was the forerunner of a throng of comedians who used Christians as the butt of his jokes. At university, some of my friends, on different occasions, sat me down in front of YouTube to listen to his ‘arguments’ in the hope that I might see the deficiency of my belief system. Perhaps Bill knew that his remarks on dinosaurs and creationists were shallow, one-sided and not at all representative of the Christian community at large, but my friends didn’t seem to be aware of this! Still today, I receive many posts on Facebook mocking Christian belief, and I wonder three things: first, do they realise that most current Christian-teasers misunderstand what they are mocking, Bill Hicks being a good example? Secondly, do they think mockery will persuade us? Thirdly, do they expect, even desire, that we employ sarcasm in our responses?

So do we fight fire with fire and employ humour in our responses, without disrespect? Isaiah seemed comfortable with satire in some contexts:

‘The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”’ (Isaiah 44:13-17 ESV)

This is particularly remarkable, because I would never advocate speaking in this way to any individual, and so the question in my mind is: ‘Does God allow something that I would condemn?’ This puts me in an awkward position! Can we ‘rip into’ atheists, Muslims and Jews, for example, and truly express our feelings?

I don’t believe so, and here is why. Considering context, Isaiah was speaking to the nation of Israel; the prophecy is directed at no one individual, but a whole nation. Also consider the fact that the Bible is littered with verses like the following: 

[Remind the people to] speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2 ESV)

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil (2 Timothy 2:24 ESV)

But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

All these verses are given to us in the context of one-to-one dialogue, which would relate directly to the atheist questioner, mentioned earlier, asking if he can ever be real with his friends. It seems to me that the answer should have been ‘yes, be real, express how strongly you feel, and using humour from time to time, but always with respect’. Isaiah shows we don’t always have to be academic and monotone in our feelings, but rather we are allowed to think that some beliefs are unreasonable and mindboggling; we can even express this. But we should never try to belittle the other person. It’s helpful to always remember that although we do not find non-Christians’ beliefs believable, what we do agree with is the individuals’ intrinsic worth; they are made in the image of God, and their feelings and self-identity are important to us, and are worth protecting.
If the atheist guy on the website had had Christian friends that displayed these values, perhaps he would have felt more able to openly discuss his feelings, without the desire to resort to sarcasm.

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