Originally published in the National Review.
. . . and I am thy Little Buddy.
I attended today one of the strangest — and most strangely rewarding — church services I’ve ever encountered. The pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church here in New York City, the Rev. Susan Sparks, used to be a stand-up comedian, and she decided that it would be a good idea to devote a whole Sunday service to the concept of worshipping the Lord through humor. Today happened to be that Sunday, and I happened to be there; and I can report that, on the whole, the concept worked. The small choir did a great job, of which a highlight was the singing of “Amazing Grace” . . . to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme. (“A-MAZ-ing-grace-how-SWEET-the-SOUND-that-SAVED-a-WRETCH-like-ME . . .” )
How marvelous, I thought, just like Martin Luther’s use of the tunes from drinking songs for his early Reformation hymns — until a couple of minutes’ worth of Googling taught me that the Luther story, which I had been hearing for years, was a myth. No matter: It’s a good idea even if Luther didn’t have it first, and sanctifying the secular is a central Christian task. There are, of course, risks, of the “don’t try this at home” variety — this woman was literally a comedian before she became a pastor, and even she doesn’t try the humor-service approach every week. In the hands of an unskilled minister, the result can, I’m sure, be a real disaster. (For example, I’ve read horror stories from conservative Catholics about post-Vatican-II “clown Masses” — though I suspect the ratio of the number of articles condemning clown Masses to the number of actual clown Masses approaches infinity.)
My favorite insight about humor and the divine comes from the poet Galway Kinnell, who wrote that “laughter is our stuttering in a language we can’t speak yet.” What he’s talking about is the language of transcendence, of what C. S. Lewis called the state of being “surprised by joy.”