Sometimes the funniest thing to say is mean…. It’s a tough position to be in. So I say a lot of mean things. But you guys gotta remember, I’m not saying it to be mean, I’m saying it because it’s funny. And everything is funny until it happens to you.
Before watching Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up comedy, Equanimity & The Bird Revelation, I had a general idea of what I was going to hear: crass jokes enveloped with vulgar imagery littered with cursing, sarcasm, and purposeful discomfort. But I also knew I was going to hear uncomfortable truths about myself and the world around me processed through laughter.
Comedians like Chappelle are few and far between. His ability to take the tragedy of our current events and turn them into laughter is a talent and, dare I claim, a gift. We’re weighted by new headlines every hour and rarely have time to process everything—good and bad—so Chappelle’s talent to help us filter news through comedy is a relief. He has a unique ability to present perspectives that we were once incapable of seeing.Chappelle’s talent to help us filter news through comedy is a relief.
But because this gift is often showered with crudeness, it garners further consideration if Christians should laugh at any of his jokes. Can we be faithful to Christ and laugh with Dave Chappelle? And though his theological convictions may not check all our boxes of orthodoxy, should we ignore his comedic perspectives about the complexities of life?
Like any complexity of life, Christians are compelled to find wisdom in the fear of the Lord, the Bible, and a reliance on the discernment of the Holy Spirit. What everyone laughs at matters to God. And the complexities of laughter are scattered throughout the Bible.
- Sarah laughed at the promise that God would provide her a child. God was not amused. Yet he turned her unbelief into laughter when she finally conceived. Not only did she laugh, but so did everyone else around her (Genesis 18:12–15; 21:6).
- God is depicted as laughing at nations who attempt to directly oppose him, because opposing him is so obviously foolish it is laughable (Psalm 2:4; 59:8).
- The mouths of the people of God were filled with laughter when the Lord restored their fortunes (Psalm 126:1–2).
- Jesus promises that God will turn weeping into laughter. But he also warns that all who laugh and are consumed with having all happiness now will mourn and weep later (Luke 6:21, 25).
- We are commanded to change our laughter to mourning and are warned that heartache crushes the spirit (Proverbs 15:13; James 4:9).
- We are instructed that there is a time for laughter (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
Considering all the Bible says about laughter, we can assess laughter to be both good and bad. Context matters. The Word of God and our understanding of varying cultures will inform what we laugh at and how hard we laugh at it. But we must take a step back and consider the whole of what we find humorous.
Richard Niebuhr said, “Both humor and faith are expressions of the freedom of the human spirit, of its capacity to stand outside of life, and itself, and view the whole scene.” This is what God does perfectly, and what we—his creation—do imperfectly. He sees and understands all; we see and understand only in part. So it may be prudent to place comedy and laughter on a spectrum rather than in exclusive categories.
With this imperfect formula, there are many things that can be laughed at and should be taken serious in Equanimity & The Bird Revelation. The range of topics Chappelle uniquely explains and assesses through comedy is helpful—especially for Christians who find it difficult to engage with people who aren’t like them.
In both of his Netflix specials, Chappelle addresses women’s rights, the #MeToo movement, the transgender community, Black/White relations, the NFL and Colin Kaepernick, interracial marriage, parenting, and other uncomfortable topics.
Many Christians might be quick to denigrate Chappelle’s humor and all who laugh at it, but we’d do well to question what offends us and why. There is a possibility we may have what Dave refers to as a “brittle spirit.” He even admits wrestling with whether or not he should continue in comedy because it’s hard to entertain crowds now due to too many brittle ears.
But before I throw my full weight behind Dave on this matter, I agree—to an extent—with the dissenters. Dave’s reference to “brittle ears” and “brittle spirits” is too simplistic a generalization. He assumes that if people do not laugh at his jokes then they are too sensitive. This disregards the complexities and ranges found in the human sense of humor. Beyond that, Christians hesitating and processing a Chappelle joke before laughing is not brittle at all. It’s quite the opposite. Christians laughing on impulse at all of his jokes requires no restraint and no self-control.
The brittle man has no problem being blown about every which way by shifting winds of human philosophy, or jokes. The stronger man has enough power and control over his thoughts to properly process and humbly walk in the way of Christ to seek the wisdom of God before laughing. It is more brittle to laugh at any joke uncontrollably because it takes less willpower. Considering how contagious laughter is, it requires a God-given formulation of conviction, strength, self-control, and wisdom to withhold laughter in a room filled with guffawing.Some jokes aren’t worthy of laughter because they wreak of hopelessness about reality.
But considering cultural contexts—and much to Chappelle’s point—the discomfort (and subsequent dismissal) many may have with his jokes are likely rooted in cultural ignorance. Sadly, such differences found in another culture is usually—and wrongly—associated with sin. While every culture has sin to be called out, we mustn’t be quick to categorize and polarize differences because the curiosity of our xenophobia isn’t satiated.
So before we write off our differences in comedy because it is “too sinful” in our initial view, we should first consider if it’s repulsive because it doesn’t reflect our culture. After further consideration, we might learn something new about another culture; conversely, we might find it difficult to laugh because the purpose of the jokes don’t justify their vulgar delivery.
Chappelle tells jokes that I cannot laugh at because they offended me. They contradict what I believe about the imago dei and the ultimate problems of our world. After considering my offenses, however, I wondered why I felt this way. Niebuhr helped me understand my emotions:
If we persist in laughter when dealing with the final problem of human existence, when we turn life into a comedy we also reduce it to meaninglessness. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy. To laugh at life in the ultimate sense means to scorn it. There is a note of derision in that laughter and an element of despair in that derision.
Some jokes aren’t worthy of laughter because they reek of hopelessness about reality. But those jokes can help us understand the people who laugh at them, as well as the bigger world around us. They help us to identify what most are searching for in their laughter: hope.
Some might go on believing that they don’t need to listen to Chappelle’s jokes to understand the world. They’ve been informed enough of how the world thinks, because they were saved from that dark domain. Yes, listening to jokes is not the only medium of understanding a hopeless generation. But a presumptuous attitude assumes a position of authority and judgment, rather than compassion and understanding.
When we make real attempts to bridge the gap between cultures and attitudes, we discover more about people. When we do, we may laugh at certain dilemmas we once wouldn’t because we’re better able to empathize, now hearing the message from a better perspective. Empathy allows us to exchange hope one to another, with laughter as an adequate vehicle. Chappelle gives his best effort at providing hope through laughter, but his hope is unsure.
Christians can laugh at Chappelle’s jokes with varying levels of intensity because we have a sure hope to share with the world. No matter how grim and vulgar our future looks on earth, we know there is an eternal and pure celebratory banquet that awaits us where we will be filled with laughter and smiling at the consummation of all things.