By Jep Hostetler
Recently I heard of a speaker who presented a lecture to a
Mennonite congregation. No one seemed to laugh out loud, or
even giggle at some of the numerous humor stories. Following
the presentation a gentleman came up to the speaker and commented,
"that was a really good speech. It was so funny I almost
laughed out loud!" Apparently his upbringing had limited
his range of humor expression, and laughing out loud was not
on the list of acceptable behaviors.
Humor is an intriguing subject. If one were to surmise the
"humor index" of Mennonites in general, what would
one find? Are we people who are given to laughter, celebration,
playfulness or festivity? Do we express a sense of exuberance
and joy? Or are we the people of solemnity and seriousness?
Have the duties of upholding justice, promoting peacemaking and
teaching discipleship, with the intrinsic weightiness of each
activity, robbed us of the ability to lighten up?
We come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, in terms of how
much permission each one of us had, to participate in humor events
during our formative years. The ingredients that go into making
one a person of humor are quite complex and varied. However,
there are three things that contribute to individual "sense
of humor" or light-heartedness.
First, the setting in which one was raised has a lot to do
with his/her ability to participate in humor events. On an imaginary
continuum, one may have come from a home where strict rules and
even abusive parenting may have stymied any attempts to laugh
or to be lighthearted. This person will have little sense that
childhood was fun. On the other end of the continuum we have
families in which humor, playfulness, and joy were woven into
the very fabric of the children, and they develop a strong sense
of humor. People from this kind of family remember childhood
with a great deal of fondness.
Genetic makeup may be considered the second element that
contributes to one's sense of humor. Recent research suggests
that as much as 50% of our make-up is genetically predisposed
when it comes to lightheartedness or dourness. As an example,
one could give lighthearted people a great deal of grief or sorrow,
and within about six months they will be back to there usual
self. They are buoyant and flexible. On the other hand, give
a sour or dour person a great deal of fun, pleasure and adventure
and within about six months he/she will be sour once again.
This person tends to be less buoyant and less flexible than the
person with a stronger sense of humor.
Third, it is clear that one's religious or moral teaching
has something to do with how well one can participate in mirthful
events. In our own history, in the early part of this century,
there were Mennonite writings that clearly directed one to be
solemn. As just one example, John M. Brenneman, in the book
Plain Teachings, has a short chapter on "Christians ought
not laugh aloud." Brenneman asserts that there are abundant
Biblical edicts against laughter, including the lack of any evidence
that Jesus laughed. The chapter heading has a subtitle, "I
said of laughter it is mad." Ecclesiastes.2:2. Ecclesiastes.
7 is used to suggest that we must squelch laughter. Verse 3
states that "For as the crackling of thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of the fool". Verse 6 asserts that "A
fool lifts up his voice with laughter, but a wise man doth scarce
smile a little". Luke 6:25 says, "Woe unto you that
laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep." This is just one
example of some of the writings against levity.
In future columns I will be looking specifically at our own
Mennonite heritage in an attempt to discover factors that contribute
to "Mennonite humor." 1) I will be developing a bibliography
of material that has been written by Mennonite or Mennonite-related
writers regarding humor, festivity and laughter. 2) I will have
an on-going segment of the column that will accept, promote,
screen and print examples of Mennonite humor. This material can
include jokes by and about Mennonite-type folks. If time and
space permits, I may develop 3) a section related to several
current or historical individuals to see what shape their sense
of humor takes. (A good example here would be J.C. Wenger and
his many humorous stories).
In addition, I intend to develop material that relates to humor
work, and how this mode of ministry can be used by all types
of individuals, regardless of ones background, genetic make-up
The bibliographical material will be helpful in pointing us
toward all types of media, from the now defunct Mennonite
Distorter, and writers like Ivan Emke, to internet sites
like Mennonot as well as material in the Mennonite
Weekly Review, Gospel Herald, The Mennonite and related publications.
The joke or humor section will help us to look at ourselves
in a more light-hearted manner.
I look forward to developing this column over the next period
of time. Please feel free to offer material and to send your
ideas for consideration in developing this humor theme.
In the mean time, you probably did not know that Noah's wife
was Joan of Arc, or that the epistles were the wives of the apostles,
or that Solomon had over 700 porcupines. I didn't think so.
Jep Hostetler, Ph.D., Columbus, Ohio, is a humor consultant.
He has taught in the Ohio State University Medical School, and
is currently Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Medical Association.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 1998