The Holy and the Mundane

The Christian life is full of humorous and profound paradoxes.

Excerpted From
What’s So Funny About God?
By Steve Wilkens

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Likewise, with the extraordinary superpowers God has bestowed on us and has redeemed, we can observe hints of the divine in the ordinary if we live with watchful expectation.

People keep telling me that I should live each day as if it is my last. So I hopped into a hospital bed, since chances are good that this is where I’ll spend my last day. I started an IV drip with a heavy dose of morphine-based painkillers, went into a coma, and listened to what everyone in my room said about me when they thought I couldn’t hear anything. All in all, not a bad day, but I’m not convinced that is how I should live every day of my life.

Linguists tell us that “the process of reacting to and appreciating humor begins with the activation of a script in the brain’s temporal lobes.” A script consists of our brain’s expectations for the future based on past experiences. So when we think about what we want the last day of our life to be like, we construct a script from delightful and meaningful experiences of the past, such as spending time with family and beloved friends, surveying a spectacular vista, and eating our favorite meal. Humor happens when reality goes off-script and disrupts expectations with a quite different last-day-of-life scenario. This parallels what happens when we find fragments of heaven sprinkled throughout the everyday. We expect to find the ordinary events of everyday life, but occasionally God peeks out through an interaction with a co-worker or a brief choking event in which we recognize the blessing of breath. The tension between the holy and the mundane maintains both, so if we have eyes to see, we keep discerning things that seem to be out of place.

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Humor catches our attention because it anticipates a surprise. If my prior joke begins with a cue that the goal is comedic, you won’t expect that thoughtful meditation on my final day on earth will follow, even if the joke-teller’s tone seems to fit such a contemplation. You don’t know where it’s leading you, but you’re sure there will be a twist. You just don’t know what it is yet. And it is during the time between the setup and the punch line that wonder and imagination kick into gear, trying to anticipate where the “script” will be disrupted by the unexpected.

The sense of anticipation that makes humor pleasurable parallels the mechanics of everyday spirituality. Faith expects that God will do surprising things and pop up in unexpected places. Cooking dinner, washing the car, or tying shoes are not the sorts of activities that seem to lend themselves to spiritual insight. But we know that God goes off script and surprises us in unlikely ways. If we view God as a playful jokester, we don’t know for sure where or how it will happen. We just know that we will be pleasantly surprised by the punch line.

TWO CALENDARS

Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its students. The believer lives according to two calendars. As I write this, the calendar on my refrigerator, organized around the predictable movement of heavenly bodies in time and space, tells me it is July. The calendar of God’s people tells me that God himself enters our ordinary time and space to redeem it. Each day I mark off on one calendar is a reminder that time is one day closer to killing off one of its students—me. The other calendar lets me know that each day brings me closer to the fullness of eternal life. So there it is again: humor’s incongruity.

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We worship with God’s people Sunday morning and watch football that afternoon. We pass out candy to masked extortionists on Halloween and acknowledge our kinship with believers who have passed into eternal life on All Saints’ Day. We mark our calendars for both Good Friday and Black Friday, Holy Week and Shark Week. The church calendar does not negate the calendar that separates time into the revolving cycle of months and days. Instead, it stands as a reminder that something extraordinary occurs in the midst of what seems merely ordinary. The two calendars seem to say conflicting things, but both tell us the truth about ourselves and God’s world. If we have God-eyes, we also see that both calendars are also good and beautiful because God is present in and through creation.

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Excerpted from What’s So Funny About God? by Steve Wilkens. Copyright (c) 2019 by Steve Wilkens. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com