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The Inside Joke

Posted on: December 10, 2017

Category: Theology

Quest Thoughts: The Inside Joke

I did not get the joke. Musicians laughed at a cartoon about how composers modulate, change from an old to a new key. The joke involved Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert. Bach, for example, used a "circle of fifths." The punchline involved Schubert crossing out the word "old" and writing in the word "new." I'm sure that's funny or could be funny to musicians, depending on how successfully I have explained the joke. The point is that I did not get it. And not getting it made me think.

Every subject in the world involves certain specializations and certain forms of inside knowledge. When we know the language and the concepts well and work with them daily, the knowledge-base becomes automatic. After a while, we even start to assume the knowledge that has become second-nature to us and marvel at how others cannot understand. At some point, we learn that it takes patience and care to explain to the uninitiated something that we simply assume. The consequence is a gap between insiders and outsiders and the enduring challenge is to bridge that gap. Fortunately, the musicians I refer to are friendly and the joke was explained to me. But sometimes, in the course of assuming things, explanations are lacking.

Religion is one subject that quickly develops into groups of insiders and outsiders, whether by way of denominational divisions or individual comfort levels. Those who work in religion or who study it academically develop a certain relationship to religion that is sometimes hard to explain. Several times in my life, when I was younger and a minister in a congregation, I was asked how I could joke about religion or Jesus or certain Christian ideas. I had to learn that I could joke about these things with my colleagues who, like me, worked with these themes daily, but not joke publicly around people who might not understand or feel the same level of comfort.

The trouble for many Christians today is that the writers of the gospels also joke around here and there but, as outsiders to their world and to their comfort levels, we tend to take them seriously. We make their jokes the serious point and lose sight of their actual point.

Matthew has a great joke about an angel telling Joseph that the Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary's pregnancy. As Brandon Scott asks, how will that go over in the neighbourhood among local gossips? As Robert Miller has successfully pointed out, the joke is ironic, for clearly Jesus has an unknown father and Joseph is asked to be righteous in relation to the child (to name the child as his own) despite the ridicule and gossip he and Mary will receive. However, we tend to focus on the line about the Holy Spirit and fail to let Matthew make his point. We fail to hear the inside knowledge, which is that righteousness is at times painful and that this story demonstrates that pain with two individuals, Mary and Joseph, soon to be refugees.

Luke also makes a good, comical gesture when angels announce to shepherds in a barren field that a new king (Messiah/Anointed) is born. The whole scene is ridiculous, as many scholars, including Dominic Crossan, have pointed out. How can you make such a grand announcement to the lowest class of people (the shepherds) in the middle of nowhere? Such important public announcements are supposed to be made in the Senate and displayed on reliefs in public squares. Such an announcement given to a bunch of nobodies located nowhere in particular is amazingly humorous but also poignant. Luke is the gospel writer who tells the parable of the great banquet, which is the banquet where the invited never attend but only the nobodies off the street. The point for Luke, which is his inside point, is that the gospel is not about success or power. It is about the nobodies who the world overlooks and who, among us, are the lost, the isolated, and the suffering.

It would make a big difference in the world today if at Christmas time we actually heard what the gospel writers had to say. Imagine if in place of the creche the scene was that of refugees or the homeless. Imagine if we understood that our sense of righteousness is tested in attitudes toward refugees like Matthew understood. Imagine if we regarded homelessness and isolation as the central issue like Luke did. Imagine if we could laugh with the gospel writers and take our own beliefs and sense of piety with a grain of salt. Imagine if on a grand scale Christians around the world became insiders of their own tradition and understood the jokes and the ironies without needing explanations, debates, and divisions.







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