May 2022 News Perspective Online

Taking Humor Seriously

It’s almost a cliché: the preacher starts with a corny joke or two and then moves on to the rest of the sermon. But SMU faculty members Alyce McKenzie and Owen Lynch want preachers to take humor more seriously.

McKenzie and Lynch led “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit: Preaching and Humor,” a daylong workshop that took place at Perkins on April 25. Some 35 pastors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as a number of Perkins students were on hand for the event.  This workshop was sponsored by the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence.

The conference is part of an ongoing collaboration between the two professors: Lynch, an expert in humor, and McKenzie, an expert in preaching. Both have been honored by SMU as Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professors.

“Wherever two or three people are gathered, there is also humor,” said Lynch, who is Associate Professor of Corporate Communication at Meadows School of the Arts and an expert in humor studies at SMU.  “Humor has always been with us – it’s part of what it is to be human.”

“This conference is not designed to make you funnier, but it will help you appreciate humor more, why it works and how it works,” said McKenzie, who is Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins and Director of the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at SMU.

Recent research in the field of positive psychology highlights the benefits of humor. Humor can promote empathy, reduce stress and help people deal with the challenges of everyday life. Yet humor has been trivialized, even demonized, at times in the Christian tradition.

“In my research, I’ve been really surprised at how ruthlessly humor has been suppressed through the centuries,” McKenzie said. She thinks that’s changing; at the same time humor studies began gaining respect in the last quarter of the 20th century, preaching turned more participatory. Just as a joke requires an audience to land, participatory preaching requires more active involvement of the listeners in the pew.

Lynch, who studies the use of humor in organizations, added that humor is an important tool for human connection.

“When someone makes a joke and someone else laughs, it shows they are sharing the same meaning,” he said. “Humor gives us a way to look at other people’s lives.”

The pair’s work exploring the use of humor in sermons aims to do more than helping preachers be funny and entertaining, McKenzie noted.  Instead, she hopes the power of humor can be harnessed to “offer our congregations deeper, more challenging, and more delightful engagement of God’s good news with their lives and the wider world.”

In establishing a definition of humor, McKenzie paraphrased E.B. White: “Defining humor is like dissecting a frog.  You may understand it better, but the frog is dead.”

“Like any gift from God,” she said, “humor is a double-edged sword. It can heal as well as hurt.” Sessions during the conference focused on topics such as Humor as a Gift from God, Humor as Part of our Humanity, The Three Uses of Humor (Superiority, Relief and Incongruity) and What Humor Can Do For Your Sermons. Participants broke into several groups and did an exercise that involved finding humor in Scripture.

One of the attendees, the Rev. Paul Bussert (M.Div. ’21), associate pastor of First UMC of Bixby in Oklahoma, said the workshop will help him navigate potentially treacherous territory more confidently when he preaches.

“There is a time and place for humor, and you’ve got to be careful what kind of humor you use,” he said. “Humor can effectively convey the message or your sermon if used well, or tear it down and destroy your credibility.”

He found the presentation on the comic and tragic frameworks for storytelling especially helpful.

“I have never thought about biblical texts through the comic and tragic lenses,” he said. “This gives me another way to look at the forms of scripture and enables me to pull another layer of meaning from the text.”

The conference had a secondary purpose: a chance for Lynch and McKenzie to try out their material. Ultimately, they will co-author a book on the subject, the second in the “Preaching and …” book series, the result of a partnership between the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence and Westminster John Knox Press. Each book in the series pairs a homiletics expert with an expert in a non-theological discipline. The first book in the series, by the Rev. O. Wesley Allen Jr. of Perkins and Carrie La Ferle, an SMU advertising professor, was the recently published Preaching and the Thirty-Second Commercial: Lessons from Advertising for the Pulpit.