7. Using humour when we teach

This is perhaps one of the most oft missed aspects of Jesus’ teaching. This may be because of the removal of Jesus’ teachings within the Gospel out of its immediate context. The first people who heard Jesus’ teachings, and those who first heard it from the Gospels will most likely have been familiar with the way that humour worked, and also the examples that the Saviour used. I think it may try some people to think of the Saviour as humorous, I don’t really know what the issue is but there are elements that are found in the scripture that might suggest humour should be limited,. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches:

And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance— (D&C 59:15 emphasis added)

Therefore, cease from all your light speechesfrom all laughter, from all your lustful desires, from all your pride and light-mindedness, and from all your wicked doings (D&C 88:121 emphasis added)

Brigham Young has suggested that humour is possible “I like to be filled with joy, but if I cannot be filled with joy and gladness that is full of meat and marrow, or, in other words, full of meaning and sense, I would rather retain my gravity” (JD 9:290). There obviously seems to be some limit to humour and laughter, but I don’t think that it necessarily suggests that all humous and all laughter are problematic. One of my favourite stories from the Prophet Joseph Smith is about finding balance in our lives; William Allred, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, remembered the Prophet’s explanation for his games and sports:

I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time (William M. Allred, in “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 1, 1892, 472).

This description of the ‘pious folks’ reminds me of a couple of conversations that I had early on in my time as a Bishop. I remember a joke being made during the conducting of a meeting, I think it was a self-deprecating joke to cover a mistake, both the joke and the mistake caused laughter. I remember a member of the congregation of the ward taking me to one side to suggest that my youthful naivete had led me to allow, and even approve of something that should not have been allowed. I was rather gratified the week afterwards to watch General Conference and see President Gordon B. Hinckley do something similar.  The second incident was around the film Shrek, I had taken my four year old daughter to see it, it may even have been her first visit to the cinema. In discussing it with a couple of people at Church, one expressed disappointment that I had watched such a thing. His complaint? When Shrek bathes in the swamp, bubbles appear because of his flatulence. Knowing this man as I did as scripture from the Saviour came to mind:

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel (Matthew 23:24).

This scripture suggests that people are so concerned about the small things that they miss the larger things. That, in some ways, this pedantic legalistic approach to the commandments sometimes disguises other things in a person’s life. It is an act of misdirection. I use this scripture purposefully because I think it is an example of the Saviour using a humorous and ‘ridiculous’ analogy, that his first audience would have laughed at, to teach an important approach to living the Gospel. His use of the ‘ridiculous’ analogies and humour to teach important principles will be explored later in this chapter.

As suggested in the story about Joseph Smith playing sports I think there is a balance to be had in the use and enjoyment of humour. I have known in my life a couple of people who never seem to take anything seriously, or others who always have a witty response to everything that is said and done. These are lovely people to be around, but sometimes it wears a little bit thin (probably for them too), but if nothing is ever taken seriously then I worry about whether I can ever be taken seriously. However, on the other hand people who are always solemn and grave can also wear a little thin. The analogy of the bow is key to all of this. Laughter, joviality and humour are an integral part of our lives, but not at the expense at others and certainly not at the expense of a relationship with God.

Irony

The problem with identifying humour in the Saviour’s teachings is that we don’t live in first century Palestine. The humour doesn’t hit us as well as it would have done and in exploring some of the examples that I see, it is possible that you may disagree. Exploring Nathanael’s first encounter with the Saviour shows, at least, Jesus’ appreciation of humour or even what could be called witty repartee:

The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!(John 1:43-47).

Nathanael’s response to hearing of Jesus of Nazareth, is the ironic and funny question: ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ It could have been mean spirited in intent, but I like to read it more as a witty response with some element of truth in the question. If Nazareth is some kind of backwater, about which there is no prophecy then his comment makes sense. The Saviour’s response ‘Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!’ suggests one of two things. Firstly, that he may have heard the response of Nathanael and was letting him know that he appreciated his honesty and bluntness. The second possibility is that the Saviour was responding in kind with a witty response, suggesting that Nathanael is breaking the stereotype of an Israelite, and the Saviour is juxtaposing the two guile and Israelite. It’s interesting that Israelite depends on descendancy from Jacob- the meaning of Jacob in Hebrew is usurper, suggesting that guile could be associated with him. Neither of the comments are mean spirited but funny! There are some people who would be offended at the idea of the Saviour engaging in what might be seen as sarcasm. If that’s you, then it’s just an observation and no humour is suggested, but I quite like the image of this kind of interaction between the Saviour and his disciples. There are other examples that might suggest such a relationship where irony and banter is used. In talking of James and John the Saviour said

And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder (Mark 3:17).

The applicability of such a nickname is seen in some examples where the brothers could be seen to be fervent or impetuous:

And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of (Luke 9:54-55).

It is interesting to note that while this is what the brothers were like at the beginning of their discipleship, when one reads the Letters of John it is possible to see the transformation that has occurred as John has become a new creature, and an Apostle focussed on love. There was certainly a lesson to learn in the appellation that the Saviour gave them, but I can imagine the disciples laughing along with James and John as this name was announced.

A further example is in the naming of Simon Peter. On his call, the Saviour said to him:

And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone (John 1:42).

This image of a rock or a stone is crucial for the Saviour’s later identification of Peter and of revelation as central in the kingdom:

That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

However the use of rock or stone as the name of Simon Peter was both aspirational and ironic. We have explored before how the Gospel was meant to change and transform a person. The naming of the sons of thunder identified a feature of their personality that motivated them to change. The use of rock, in light of certain future events in the life of Peter might be seen to be ironic, but it would have motivated him to change. Consider the walking on the water where his faith wavered, and was unrock like; or the denial of the Christ where his faith wavered again. What is certain though is that in many situations he was rock like, but this was something he needed to develop, and was assured following the resurrection. It would appear that the Saviour used humour to help people change.

Maybe I see this because it links with my humour- like anything it can be used to excess but dependent on relationship or reading the room, witty repartee can be engaging and serve to develop relationships. But we have to be sure of its use and ensure that everyone understands the humour and that it is not hurtful. Linked with the examples from the Saviour’s ministry above are examples from The Book of Mormon. Lehi uses the same approach:

And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!  And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord! (1 Nephi 2:9-10).

This could be an exceptional and important teaching technique. McConkie and Millet speak very highly of Lehi’s actions: ‘Like all sensitive teachers, Lehi sought to capitalise upon the elements of his surroundings to teach and exhort those under his care.’ Further, they suggest that he did this ‘to show his love and to solicit the support of his two strong-willed eldest sons’ (pp 31-32). Having looked at the positive side of the teaching of Lehi in the discussion of the previous verse, it is important to note that when something is said, the hearer can find something unintended in the message. I discussed these passages once with my teenage son- we explored whether it is possible that Lehi was being slightly passive aggressive in these verses. Rather than facing the problems head on, he spoke in generalities and almost point Laman and Lemuel towards the  message he is giving. Actually, read in one way that is just the way that Lehi is being. He will not have intended such but this is undoubtedly the way it is taken- especially as Nephi notes that he spoke like this ‘because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel and also their murmurings’. To children (though they were adults) who ‘know not the dealings of that God who created them’- the responses to Lehi of murmuring are perhaps understandable. What can we learn from this? Undoubtedly Lehi acted out of love, but in phrasing things in such a way he seemed to make things worse. When we teach or talk we must be clear, and also evidence the love that we have, even when we have to reprove (see D&C 121).

Building on this, in my academic role I have a new group of postgraduate students every year- it takes a couple of months before I am comfortable to make jokes- I usually test the water with jokes about Manchester United fans, but it is obvious I am joking. This is based on the response I received in my first year of teaching in a university, I received a visit from a student who didn’t appreciate one of my ‘humorous’ comments. The relationship was not there and she hadn’t understood my intention. This has led me on occasion, and maybe this is the message that I should take, to consider that this type of humour is laden with danger and should be avoided. So after that discussion maybe I am wrong about the Saviour and his use of humour.

Exaggeration

The use of humour that isn’t in doubt is the Saviour’s use of exaggeration or hyperbole. The Gospels are littered with such examples:

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel (Matthew 23:24).

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3-4).

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you (Matthew 7:6).

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God(Mark 10:25).

In these examples the Saviour uses ‘ridiculous’ examples to teach important truths. Each of the sayings are exaggerated to enable his listeners to laugh and to visualise the analogy he is using. The one I have heard most is about the mote and the beam- usually this needs some level of explanation about the comparative sizes of a mote and a beam. Having to explain the imagery sometimes means that the humour is lost, just as in the way the joy is taken out of telling a joke if you have to explain its meaning. The immediate audience would have known what motes and beams are, and as such would have conjured up the humorous image in their mind. The exaggeration and humour means that the image will be remembered, and as the image is recalled so will the message that it teaches. 

When we remember that someone is choking on a gnat, but is happy to swallow a camel it becomes easier to remember the Saviour’s warning that there are people who get so caught up in the minutiae of the commandments and the Gospel, while being happy to commit or allow great sin. 

The use of a camel and the eye of a needle is so ridiculous that it had led people to try and construct meanings that make it less ridiculous- there never has been a gate into Jerusalem that is called ‘the eye of the needle’, it’s just we want to make the imagery less difficult. The Saviour never meant to suggest that the image was accurate, but his use of exaggeration drove home the lesson that riches make it difficult to enter the kingdom of God.

No person in their right mind would ever think about casting their pearls before swine, but the use of the exaggerated and humorous image helps us consider each time that we teach the Gospel and its important truths, whether we are trying to teach beautiful truths to people who treat lightly our most sacred beliefs. I remember being invited onto a podcast for a pleasant chat about the Church. It quickly became evident that the other person on the podcast disliked the Church intensely and didn’t want to listen to what I had to say, rather he wanted to interrupt and challenge even the most benign of expressions of belief. I recognised that he was only interested in what I had to say so that he could ridicule or try and tear down. Using the Saviour’s teaching I realised that I needed to stop the conversation.

How do we use this in our teaching today? We certainly use it in our everyday conversation:

            I have told you a hundred times.

            I’ve walked a million miles today.

Both of these statements are not true, but the use of exaggeration and hyperbole help us deliver the message that this conversation shouldn’t have to be taking place again, or I’ve walked a long distance today. But what are the examples we use in our teaching? We often talk about the faith to move mountains:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you (Matthew 17:20).

Recognising that the Brother of Jared was able to move the mount Zerin (Ether 12:30), there is a saying that I often think about when I read this:

If you ask the Lord to move a mountain, don’t be surprised if he hands you a spade.

Again, this is not to be taken literally, nor are we expected to move a mountain a spade at a time, rather that the important truth that we should: “Pray as though everything depended on God; work as though everything depended on you” (attributed to St. Augustine).

Important in the use of this type of humour is the understanding that our audience will understand that it is exaggeration and that it is not meant to be taken literally. We have to be conscious of our audience- this links with what was explored earlier in the encouragement to use everyday objects and things that are in people’s own experiences. We may have different experiences, touchpoints and references that we use as teachers. We must ensure that the metaphorical is not understood to be literal. 

Absurdity

Linked with the Saviour’s use of exaggeration is the use of potentially possible but nevertheless nonsensical examples. These are different to the exaggeration because they are in the realms of possibility but no one would ever do them. They have the same impact as those examples just used; they teach important truths but are humorous. For example:

Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch(Matthew 15:14).

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27)

And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick? (Mark 4:21)

I should say that the first two examples while they are humorous images, if they really did happen wouldn’t be funny. In all of the examples the Saviour is using absurdity to highlight the truths he wishes to teach. The first example of the ‘blind leading the blind’ conjures up images for me relative to Doctrine and Covenants 11:

Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men. But now hold your peace; study my word which hath gone forth among the children of men, and also study my word which shall come forth among the children of men, or that which is now translating, yea, until you have obtained all which I shall grant unto the children of men in this generation, and then shall all things be added thereto (D&C 11:21-22).

As explored in the first chapter, it is impossible to teach someone if we do not have the knowledge and the authority to do so. The image of building a house on sand similarly retains a lasting image in our minds and helps us understand the necessity of building our lives on the foundation of the Saviour:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall (Helaman 5:12).

The truths that are absurdities teach are solidified into a person’s mind and can have a lasting effect both in terms of remembrance, but also hopefully on behaviour.

Final thoughts

As mentioned earlier I am aware that humour isn’t something that we associate with the Saviour, or the way that the Saviour taught. Unfortunately we only have the words on the page rather than the meaning and intent behind it. What we have in the scriptures is only a snapshot of the wider personality of the Saviour, and I would suggest that these passages and experiences suggest that he had a sense of humour, and enjoyed the opportunity to laugh with (not at) others. In reading the biography of Dallin H. Oaks I was reminded of something similar; in his public talks he can come across as very dour and serious. The author, Richard Turley, was at pains to counter this narrative and highlight the ‘fun’ side of President Oaks. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught, 

Jesus found special joy and happiness in children and said all of us should be more like them—guileless and pure, quick to laugh (1995, “This Do in Remembrance of Me”).

We can all take the opportunity to have more laughter and less gravity in our lives. Indeed, humour can be used to counter feelings of gloom and bad experiences:

A wholesome sense of humour will be a safety valve that will enable you to apply the lighter touch to heavy problems and to learn some lessons in problem solving that ‘sweat and tears’ often fail to dissolve (Hugh B. Brown,  in Conference Report, April 1968)..

It always needs to be used sensitively and judiciously; and we need to recognise when and if humour is appropriate but it can have salutary effects on situations and on our lives.

The Book of Proverbs suggests that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Prov. 17:22.). There are many positives that come from a use of humour; as we think about the teaching we participate in one of the fundamental characteristics of it is our relationships with other people. Humour can make other people at ease, and as has been shown in this chapter, can help teach important lessons. The important thing when we use humour is that it is used to enhance learning rather than detract from it. If the main purpose of our teaching is entertainment and frivolity then it misses the mark, and goes too far into light-mindedness; it becomes the equivalent of a Twinkie- essentially it seems to satisfy for a moment but has no lasting effects. If we overly use humour in any of our teaching or in our interactions we can be perceived as fairly superficial in our approach.

The best example of a leader that I can think of who exemplified this humour is President Gordon B. Hinckley. He taught:

We’ve got to have a little humor in our lives. You had better take seriously that which should be taken seriously but, at the same time, we can bring in a touch of humor now and again. If the time ever comes when we can’t smile at ourselves, it will be a sad time (1995, I’m so optimistic about this work, available at https://www.deseret.com/1995/9/9/20769019/i-m-so-optimistic-about-this-work).

I think of his great examples in his sermons and in his attitude. One event that stands out is his reading of a newspaper article that he struggled to get through for laughing:

It appears that an English company owned a property in the West Indies. A violent storm damaged one of the buildings, and a man was sent to make repairs. Of his experience, he wrote the manager as follows:

“Respected Sir,

When I got to the building, I found that the hurricane had knocked some bricks off the top. So I rigged up a beam with a pulley at the top of the building and hoisted up a couple of barrels full of bricks. When I had fixed the building, there was a lot of bricks left over. I hoisted the barrel back up again and secured the line at the bottom, and then went up and filled the barrel with extra bricks. Then I went to the bottom and cast off the line. Unfortunately, the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was, and before I knew what was happening the barrel started down, jerking me off the ground. I decided to hang on, and halfway up I met the barrel coming down and received a severe blow on the shoulder. I then continued to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my finger jammed in the pulley. When the barrel hit the ground, it bursted its bottom, allowing all the bricks to spill out. I was now heavier than the barrel and so started down again at high speed. Halfway down, I met the barrel coming up and received severe injuries to my shins. When I hit the ground, I landed on the bricks, getting several painful cuts from the sharp edges. At this point I must have lost my presence of mind, because I let go of the line. The barrel then came down, giving me another heavy blow on the head and putting me in the hospital. I respectfully request sick leave.”

He used this story in a way that was reminiscent of the Saviour’s use of humour as he continued:

After hearing that, you may wonder how anyone could be so thoughtless and shortsighted. And yet every day we see people whose lives become entangled and who are bumped and bruised because they fail to plan, to think, to consult with others, to follow the teachings of the gospel. I appreciate what has been said tonight to the boys of the Aaronic Priesthood. And since they constitute a very substantial part of this vast congregation, boys whose lives are largely ahead of them, I should like to speak to them, to help save them from some of the bumps and bruises of life (Four B’s for Boys, 1981).

There is a dark side to humour; it can be used to tear people down or to disguise deep seated feelings, but if we recognise that when we use humour we do it to build people up and to teach eternal truths we can find greater joy in our relationships and our experiences of life. This is especially true in our teaching moments; we should not use humour all of the time, but appropriate humour has the power to teach truths and change people.