Writings by Cole Huffman

Shades of Blue: When Is It Crude Joking?

Ephesians 5:4 is a killjoy: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place….” Most guys I know, including me, are “out of place” on this point. We flout the stricture on crude joking all the time. It’s like we believe the verse just above Ephesians 5:4 is what really matters. But if Anchorman makes me laugh then I’ll watch it and you and I can share our favorite quotes from it with one another at church.

Why do we do this? Multiple reasons: Near the top would be the unexamined assumption that laughter can’t be bad for us. It’s simply good to laugh, and so the source of humor is irrelevant if it satisfies our sense of humor. It’s not that we believe humor is neutral. Dirty jokes and jokesters objectively exist. It’s that we believe our sense of humor is subjectively sacred. If I find something funny then it is, simple as that. Who are you to tell me I’m out of place?

I have sympathy for strugglers—for the one who, for instance, contends with his own besetting dowdiness, his inner Eeyore that prompts him frequently to want to “grumble and complain” (Phil. 2:14). Only if he decides to no longer struggle, but grumble and complain whenever he feels like it, do I classify him as out of place.

Or take the guy liberated from a fundamentalist background. Let’s call him Ren. Ren’s story often follows a familiar arc. Life for him growing up was fenced in by refusals to smoke, drink, chew, or run around with girls who do. He was a good boy but a legalist, judging as inferior those “C-minus Christians,” as Johnny Cash called himself, who went to movies and dances and missed Sunday night church meetings. But then Ren had a grace awakening, came to see himself as every bit the sinner Cash was though he never dealt with vice addictions or went to prison.

Nevertheless, Ren comes to see his self-justifying heart for what it is. He gets “freed up,” no longer bound by the plastic Jell-O molds of his past. Ren’s newfound earthiness can be refreshing. It makes him real, as we say. But the more pronounced his earthiness—should Ren appear to be proving his liberty at the bar, the theater, the casino, his Bible study at Hooters—the more he becomes a caricature of himself. The joke is on Ren, but we’re not laughing. It’s not funny to watch a man confuse his testimony with his testicles. Ren has morphed into Ron, as in Ron Burgundy—Ron Burgundy who loves the Bible.

How am I to classify the Christian who celebrates blue comedy? He’s not struggling with it but ressentimenting it. Meaning, to him it’s not crude joking; it’s just that he has a “different” sense of humor. Or he considers his conscience freer than other Christians in self-tribute to his own maturity. After all, didn’t some Christians in their day find Shakespeare or Chaucer ribald? There’s no pleasing everyone!

True. But the fact remains that Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:4 do not constitute a conscience clause. It’s a moral absolute, a binding tenet for every generation of Christians to learn to practice. Evangelical Christians have largely lost a moral consensus among ourselves. Which means if I call a comic or movie you like “blue,” you can take me to a paint store of justifications for blue hues. That we all do this with each other is not the point. The point is whether we can state some objective criteria for what makes joking crude and then abide by it.

I’d like to try, briefly, for this is a blog post. I’ll offer two criteria. First, it is crude joking if the image of God in a person is degraded. Made in God’s image and likeness is what gives human beings special dignity. It’s worth noting that Paul places his words in Ephesians 5:4 as a follow-through on his words in 5:3, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”

Sexual immorality degrades human dignity in manifold ways. And most of what qualifies as crude joking is known by its sexual punch lines—hetero, homo, bestial, pedophilic, incestuous, or necrophilic punch lines.

Seated in a secular college classroom (and I was the student who led a Bible study in his fraternity) my professor made reference to the comedy movie Weekend at Bernie’s. I’d just seen it with some brothers, and since we were in a radio-television-film class the professor was often invoking films. She stayed current and had seen Weekend at Bernie’s too.

To mention the movie brought smiles of recognition and a little chatter between seatmates in the class. This professor was cool. We liked her because she saw movies made for us, like Weekend at Bernie’s. But no one saw coming what happened next. She referenced a scene in the movie where Bernie, a just deceased corpse, was left in a darkened room during a party. His bimbo found him and, in the dark, had sex with him, not realizing he was dead. The “stiff” angle was all played for laughs, as if everyone finds necrophilia funny.

But our professor was calling us out. She said, quietly, that she couldn’t believe how much laughter met that scene in the theater. The class froze in silence. “Think about what was being presented to us for laughs,” she said, adding, “Some things simply are not funny.”

That was an awakening for me. Some things really are wretched—like things that degrade people, even if they do it to themselves. It’s not being humorlessly holier than thou to say so. What we laugh at reveals us as much as what we weep over or get steamed up about. I think of Lewis’ insight in The Screwtape Letters:

“In modern Christian writings…I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’—and may I remark in passing the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.”

The second thing that makes for crude joking is if the reputation of Jesus is defamed. Jesus is presented as some kind of yokel or rube—a partying Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt perhaps—or worse. So was I offended by Ricky Bobby praying to “dear, sweet, baby Jesus” in Talladega Nights? Not really. I found it more stupid than profane. (I watched the movie out of desperation for distraction on an eighteen-hour flight to India.)

For some comics’ God-jokes I invoke a forgive-him-for-he-knows-not-what-he-does disposition. But other comics are ever ready to mock and scorn the name and character of God, and I have to tune them out when they do. It’s a shame, really, because some of those comics could still be funny without degrading the image of God in people or defaming the reputation of Jesus.

I have lumped myself in with the offenders. In my previous post, “A Few Kind Words for Laughs,” I indicated that my laughter still needs sanctification as much as any other part of me—perhaps more so. Let no one misconstrue what I’ve written for self-righteousness. Let God be true and every man, even funny ones, a liar. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:27 AM
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