I love getting letters in "The Comic Lens" mailbag!
Recently, a friend wrote wondering about the humor of the Apostle Paul; namely, did he have any? This is a terrific question and a significant one. Paul was probably the greatest force in the establishment of Christianity (perhaps even greater than Jesus). If he is indeed humorless it blasts my argument that everyone - even and especially the ancients - was/is aware that learning best happens when laughter and play are a part and that's why there's bound to be - and is - humor throughout the Bible.
Granted, Paul's humor can be hard to imagine. He seems to have been an almost overly passionate man, consumed both with the proliferation of Christian faith and a proliferation that was proper, i.e. his way of understanding of who Christ is and what it means to follow him. Paul seems like the kind of guy you hope doesn't corner you at a party, because not only will he not let up on justifying his ideas as well trashing the ideas of those who are W-R-O-N-G, but you may not get a word in edgewise. You might not even have the chance to escape by saying you need to go to the snack table for seconds on the cheese ball.
But that doesn't mean Paul isn't funny. Isn't sometimes VERY funny. So funny it regularly lands him in jail….
In a lot of ways (and I know this may sound crazy, and but then again maybe not), Paul reminds me of Lenny Bruce, arguably one of the most controversial, brilliant, earnest, razor-witted comedians ever. Bruce was obsessed with issues such as racism, hypocrisy, and the First Amendment. His jokes sought to shock, offend and transform society into something freer and more just; his material is filled with a fiery anger and relentless urgency that comes deep from the gut. And it landed him in jail on several occasions.
Maybe the comic lens isn't needed for Paul so much as the comic headphone. If you listen to Bruce perform and then read one of Paul's letters, letting it be Lenny's voice that says Paul's words, you might be surprised at how things things really pop! You might not wish to escape for that second helping of cheese ball after all….
Here's a little bit of Lenny. Short, funny, true, not too obscene....
You can hear a sharp comic edge to Bruce's righteous indignation, and I think you'll hear it in Paul, too, especially where he makes statements that end in exclamation points. Imagine Bruce's voice saying the following to the completely lowly, misguided Corinthians who think their fashionable speaking-in-tongues makes them super-spiritual and superior to those around them who speak only intelligibly:
Paul goes on to mock those in error by sarcastically comparing himself to a fool (an ass), to garbage and to scum. You can imagine Lenny getting a big laugh on a line like that; Paul probably did, too!
A few more good examples and great overall discussion of Paul's humor can be found in the following podcast by NT scholar and Duke professor Mark Goodacre. (You get extra credit if you can hear Lenny Bruce speaking the Paul lines Mark quotes with his most mellifluous British accent…)
There's probably a great routine waiting to be created where someone comes out doing Paul's material on, say, circumcision, as if they were Lenny Bruce. I can hear it now, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the most daring Christian comic on the circuit today….Lenny Paul! " Hmmm, my creative wheels are now definitely turning, turning….
In any case, It's time to enjoy more cheese ball. I'll have more on the comedy of Paul later. And please feel free to send "The Comic Lens" more questions!!