The Practical Side: Humor

Disguised in a conversation between devils, apropos to the season at hand, is Lewis’s advice on humor. If we take Screwtape’s advice as the antithesis of what we ought to do, which is certainly Lewis’s point, we’ll discover several truths about a light-footed way to approach (and not approach) the sometimes heavy step of life. The opening of the letter from chapter 11 divides human laughter into four categories: joy, fun, telling jokes and flippancy. Screwtape is in no way comprehensive as he dots around these categories to provide advice to his apprentice demon Wormwood, but let’s ask ourselves a few questions. 

Do we look at life as fun?
“Fun is closely related to Joy,” says Screwtape. There needs to be an element of fun, of joy, of hilarity in the malaise of all the pressures we feel every day. The devil calls it “emotional froth”! He explains that he doesn’t know the indwelling cause of such joy and that it produces nothing good for Hell’s agenda. It should always be discouraged.

Do we use laughter to carry an agenda?
It’s likely not difficult for us to imagine the person who always tells a joke. The process might be to wait for a pregnant pause during a conference meeting or social gathering, interjecting some comment of snide remark that lightens the mood. It’s not always in bad form, and, though it’s often attention-seeking, it doesn’t have to be self-aggrandizing. It could simply be a way to help others laugh and take life a little less seriously. However, Screwtape tells Wormwood that the telling of jokes is a much more “promising field.” We can imagine why. So often our jokes are colored with some punch of us and them, something “indecent or bawdy,” as Screwtape says, dividing the one delivering the joke into two categories: 1) the person who is already in the through of indecent behavior so the joke gives little to tempt; and 2) the person who is more inclined to use the joke as a “pretext for talking about sex”, for example. As Christians, we should always guard what we say, how we say it, and certainly, our intentions that are deep within, which leads us to another question.

Is our humor irreverent and flippant?
Today’s humor is based in irreverence it seems. That’s one reason why I feel the world is far more rotten today. When irreverence is combined with flippancy, we end up with shadows of emotion and no real substance for the care of people. It’s all a big joke. That’s at it’s most demonic. “Every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it,” says Screwtape. “If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [which to Screwtape is God Almighty] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.” We can all dip in and out of this very cynical place. If we’re not careful, we’ll begin to view most every situation, including church, as a place where jokes are developed for the telling at supper. Even more, we’ll begin to lose the sincerity and love we are called to have for others.  

In the chapter on Hell in “The Problem of Pain,” Lewis tells us of a man who rises to great esteem but is unrepentive. He laughs at those he wrongs to get to the top. He laughs at their simplicity, thinking himself the greater person, the more privileged, and the deserving. He is without remorse and is, “confident to the very end that he alone has found the answer to the riddle of life, that God and man are fools whom he has gotten the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable.” This is the extreme that our egoistic humor can achieve, a humor that puts people down as we stand on their heads in triumph. We will think, with the man Lewis describes, that, “the laugh is on [our] side.”

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