Archive for March, 2012

Humor And Religion- April Fools!

March 26, 2012 - 8:30 pm 12 Comments

April Fools Day: In Praise of Holy Fools

The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

 

Good Morning! And if you have not already gotten the subtle message, it is April Fool’s Day! So I could not think about giving any sermon that did not include some humor, and to focus on how the Fool has an important role in religion and life.

As I quickly have discovered and long suspected, there is an important link between religion and humor, and that it is an ancient and a universal one.  While being almost ubiquitous, few, if any, religions have allowed humor to gain wide acceptance, with the least amount of acceptability in American Protestantism, which is probably the reason why there are so many religious jokes in our culture. There is no topic more receptive to humor, it seems, more enticing to laughter than piety, Puritanism, and an outlook that is joyless, strict, and self righteous.

Most clergy it appears, believe that religion is no laughing matter- that ultimate truths can only be known seriously or scientifically. They seem to disregard the fact that humor is a wonderful teaching tool, and that truth can be both funny and inspiring.

So today, of all days, we can ask: What’s so funny about religion? What are the elements in humor that teach us how to face life courageously? Why is it good to laugh, and what in our laughter, reveals reverently the mysteries and blessings of life and how we can care for enjoy one another?

Lets begin our look into “the whys and wherefore” of humor as it relates to religion, by first looking at how humor affects us as human beings.

Physiologically, the ability to laugh involves responses of 15 separate pairs of facial muscles that create a visible chance in complexion, posture, expression, and breathing.

 

 

2

Next,  Anthropologists confirm that humor and laughter are found universally- and like music, it functions best as a bridge of connection and empathy from one human to another, overcoming differences in language, time, distance, or behavioral customs, religious beliefs.

A third consideration comes from research in holistic medicine. Physicians now conclude what the ancients have always known: “Laughter is good medicine; and that a merry heart does a soul much good.]”

Studies have shown laughter as being able to act as a curative agent- lowering cholesterol, increasing both red and white blood cell levels, strengthening immunity, producing pain killing endorphins, and last but not least, humor retards aging! You see, it reduces the creation of facial wrinkles, and who knows, maybe laughter makes a person more sexy and attractive, as having a good sense of humor always appears at the top of most desirable qualities one looks for in a potential mate.

Now what about the connection between humor and faith, or humor and spirituality? And what are some examples of how humor is used religiously to make a point? One hint: It isn’t the kind of humor that starts out: there once was a Nun from Nantucket, or Once a priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a bar… Instead, my focus will be on how various forms of humor such as satire, wit, and hyperbole are used to teach self knowledge, self acceptance, humility, compassion and truth. Humor is best used religiously to point out the ironies of life; to address human foibles, and to teach us how to accept our human inconsistencies. Most often, with an attitude of love behind the remarks, laughter can be used to confound the ego, and to open a person to new insights about themselves. It results in moving the hearer from despair to hope, and can help to replace our tears of frustration with tears of joy.

3

Humor can be found in almost every circumstance of life: Dr. Viktor Frankel, Holocaust survivor taught that “Humor is one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self preservation. It helps us to rise above our feelings of helplessness and deprivation. We laugh religiously, to preserve our dignity, we laugh to stay sane and to remain humane.”] In his lectures, he would echo the author of Proverbs when he said, “a merry heat is like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth up the bones.” Proverbs, by the way, is worth reading- a very funny book!

As a quick summary, religious humor can be defined as the form of humor that is a benevolent, empathetic response to life’s inconsistencies, incongruities, mishaps and reversals. Humor that lets us laugh at ourselves and that gives us the gift of laughing with others is a gracious, healing, and redeeming gift.

Next, when looking at the various characters in Western literature and mythology that teach us about the value of humor we encounter three important figures: The Clown, The Jester, and the Fool … Each has an important place in the world’s mythological stories, and in teaching us how best to understand ourselves with humility. They teach us, through their stories, about life’s paradoxes and how to keep a healthy perspective about what our egos want, desire, or need. Their universal presence in Western literature, Scripture, and folk stories, attest that a person cannot possibly arrive at being a balanced and healthy adult without being able to laugh at yourself- and that you can be assured that life will always give us ample opportunities for appearing to be foolish, and for pointing where and how we need to become more aware, more wise!

These characters in literature, these psychological archetypes of the human condition, teach us that if we take our faith too seriously as to drain the joy and laughter from it, it becomes a perversion and you risk missing the full and complete message any spiritual path or any ethical teacher has for you.

4

While similar in their message to humanity and society, we have been given three characters, and each one in this comic trio has their own distinct characteristics. The most familiar to us all is the Clown. Maybe earliest in our cultural development, the clown creates chaos and nonsense, and is seen as a figure who has descend from the ribald revels of earlier centuries into the slapstick and ridiculous antics of today. The next time you see a circus clown, remember that he or she is a vestige of ancient shamans, and medicine workers who, would juggle their way into prominence as mummers– or simply all those who wear a disguise to hid their true intent- using exaggeration to make a point! While it was true that sometimes a clown or a jester was kept around as a scapegoat, more often they were recognized as having a special relationship to the spirit, and they could function as a guide or as a counselor… in disguise. The Jester, usually attending to a king or queen was there to provide comic relief… And to advise the members of the court as to what the people are thinking about them… Sort of a comic spy… And informational network that would reveal the truth in public and by using amusing ways … Only the astute knew how to read between the lines of gesture, pantomime, and grin…. Jesters often were also considered to be “touched by God” or possessing special insights. Most notably in the Shakespearean plays such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear, the jester offers wise counsel to overcome problems and distress. From the clown, the jester, and the fool we are given many beloved characters from literature; Buffoon, Harlequin, Joker, Punch, Pulcinello; even Palliacci… Each instructing us on how appearances work to charm and to deceive. Each conveys messages that delve beyond the obvious, and that can be seen to instruct, inform, warn, or alarm….

Since it is April Fool’s, I will spend most of the time with the concept of the Fool. From the ancient Tarot to common psychological perceptions, the idea of a fool or being a fool has many varied meanings…

5

What the Fool teaches us the about the balance point for serious thought, and analytical knowledge. The Fool acts in ways that would seem be superficially irrational, illogical… And yet, it proves to be heartfelt and is often comically true!

The origin of the Fool might even predate the clown and the jester, as it relates directly to displaying the human condition of folly, amusement, and the universal awareness of our human shortcomings. Folly as a word, comes to us from the French, and refers to someone as an inflated windbag- someone full of bluster, but empty of substance. (Hmm-Folly Road or Beach?

The Fool evolved, however, into a different direction from the clown or the jester as someone who shows us the place of the shadow side of life; someone who seems outwardly foolish and irresponsible, yet practices and possess a kind of sensual and crazy wisdom that proves to be more in line with a sustaining compassionate truth; showing us a different reality than what all the rigid codes of morality provides and more truth than the false security of adhering to polite manners fails to supply. Through seemingly foolish risks of openness and wonder, you can turn a problem upside down, and find answers that all your careful analysis might not ever find! Being so open, appears to our common sense to be, a fool’s errand, and we can ask without a willingness to extend ourselves into the very heart of life, do we ever arrive at our full and true selves? Remember on this day, and on every day that you can share a laugh with someone, you can be come silly– which originally meant to be blessed with laughter, and by being silly you gain the perspective that welcomes learning, and how best to accept and embrace all that our lives could contain. So you see, in a reverse analogy or its opposite actuality, the Fool is to being foolish as being child like is to be being childish. Wisdom, then, comes with an open heart and a willingness to suspend judgments and criticism which rarely contains joy or benevolence.

6

By being open and empathetic, ones learns to honor the other person, to find those places in the heart where we truly touch, where we are beheld just as we are, and where we are found, even with our broken pieces, to be accepted, truly whole.

Before I delve in a little deeper, and given that this has to be a short presentation, I will leave the rival archetype of The Trickster for another time… For you see, while the Trickster character in myth, story, and legend will employ humor, it can have a malicious or even a macabre twist to it. When one feel that life has played a mean trick on them, generally it doesn’t feel funny… Yet there may be irony, insight, and instigation that can awaken us to seeing the error in your ways…. The trickster is the metaphysical practical joker, and someone who intentionally upsets others in order to teach them valuable lessons…. So at another time and place, I will venture into stories about Native American Coyote, The Norse god Loki,  The holy fools of India, The vast array of Sufi stories, the path of Crazy Wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism, or the Zen koan and its humorous way. Each of these tricky ways has much to teach and tell us about life, the uses of mischief, the truths found in paradox, and the nature of enlightenment.

Focussing, however, back on our Western religious heritage, and what was so wonderfully sung and spoken of by our choir today, we can easily affirm that The Bible, of course, is a very funny book! When read it as historical literature, and stripped of pious pretense, devoid of its theological inconsistencies, which is the only way many U-U can and do read it with any appreciation, it is filled with sardonic sayings, witticisms, ribald scenes, and hyperbole that teaches and inspires us through the path of foolish wisdom. Frankly, all the humor in the Bible that keeps scholars chuckling- its comic stories, double meanings, and risqué events prove to be quite entertaining!

 

7

From the Hebrew Testament, I recommend the stories of Isaac & Rebecca; Noah (without Bill Cosby) Moses & Zipporah; Esther, Bell, and the great book of Proverbs. But be careful about reading these stories out loud! Some of them would receive an R rating!

 

As for Jewish humor as a whole, our world is far richer because of its contributions.

… Wikipedia references….

The influence of the US Jewish community on American English, include teaching us Yiddish words that just are funny just to say: schmaltz, schlemiel, klutz, schmuck… Many non-Jewish Americans (though certainly not all) will recognize some of these words. Popular books (such as Joy of Yiddish and Born to Kvetch) explain these words to the general public. However, bear in mind that while many Americans from other regions and ethnic backgrounds may recognize Yiddish words such as those above, it is more likely that only those who are more educated, or widely read, or who have Jewish friends and acquaintances via their place of residence or profession, etc., would fall into this group.

There are a number of standard American phrases which originated from Yiddish, including: Get lost, What’s up, I should worry, I should live so long, I need it like a hole in the head, You don’t know from nothin’, Certain types of rhyming slang, especially those where deprecation is shown via partial reduplications, also originated in Yiddish — for example “Joe-schmo” or “Oedipus-schmedipus, so long as he loves his mother.”

In the Christian Scriptures, while Paul recommends that we become “fools for Christ”, it is Jesus, when stripped of his sanctimony and assumed propriety, who was a master of teaching through humor.

Yes, Jesus was a funny man! Who knew? When I was young, the way his teachings were related to me, it seemed to only foster greater guilt and deeper shame. All of a sudden, there was this comic and cosmic twist!

8

His message became one of joy over sorrow, freedom from guilt, and he used humor to challenge his opponents starchy and rigid rule making,

and to overcome the moralistic, and often hypocritical teachings.

Honestly, now, how many of you ever thought of Jesus as being filled with joy and laughter? My conversion… So to speak… Happened one day when I was in my late teens, when my image of him moved from being my painful suffering savior, to being my happy, playful teacher… And guess what! I have Hugh Heffner to thank!

You see, I was avidly reading Playboy at the time… Just for the interesting articles, of course, … when I turned the page to see a picture of Jesus, and I was startled! There, in living color was this picture, in a Renaissance style, of a Jesus, who was laughing gleefully!

I quickly began to read this article by the noted Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, which was entitled, ” For Christ’s sake!”  Well, up to that time in my life, whenever I would whenever I heard those words, it usually did not refer to reverent outcry, but was spoken in great exasperation! Intriguing!

Cox’s premise was that we need to see Jesus as a man who enjoyed life; as someone who taught us about the meaning and purpose of life using stories, parables and humor to get his point across to us. Wow! To think that he was this robust, enthusiastic man who was in love with life, yet he was not simply a comedian, for he lived with moral courage, and he was foolish enough to believe everyone of us could really live by our values and ideals!

Just ponder for a moment, some of his best ironic humor, and how he used hyperbole to make ethical points and give us behavioral guidelines:

” It is easier for a Camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into heaven.”  A comic statement about the value of trying to amass wealth and what ultimate good it would do for you… And this one,  “Don’t put your light under a bushel basket, but put it up on a candlestick”

9

That is, do not hide your beauty, your purpose, your mission under some tight wraps of insecurity, but proclaim the miracle you are!… And he goes one giving us stories about how the self righteous seek to “strain out gnats but swallow camels” and when he warns the judgmental to “take the beam out of your own eye, before trying to take the speck from your neighbors”… and on throughout the various Gospel accounts…

Our own style of religion, as U-Us, has tried to keep the tradition of comedy and humor alive… Well, if you leave out our hymnal! Too serious!

We have advocates for liberal humor as widely diverse as P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain; James Thurber, e. e.cummings, Robert Frost, the cartoons and plays of Jules Phieffer, and one of my favorite theologians, Ogden Nash, will begin our liberal list… Maybe we will have to add Stan Goldberg, too!

In closing, I recommend reading the Bible for its humor, and  wholeheartedly endorse becoming more like a wise fool in your approach to life. Wherever true humor is found, a spiritual quality exists, and laughter as medicine and as friendship are indispensable parts of being alive and free. Without humor, life and religion would be a dry bone of contention, arid intellectual wrangling, irritating moral pronouncements.

 

The real truth, as I see it, is that religion needs to be fun, and that it is fundamental to gaining a healthy perspective on our lives. Try never to lose your sense of humor- and to appreciate how it leads us to a full heart, and how humor can lead us to a greater enjoyment of one another as an inclusive, hilariously diverse community!

So Be It!

Beware The Ides of March! A look at prognostications and predictions

March 13, 2012 - 4:12 pm 9 Comments

Beware The Ides!

Looking at Predictions, Prognostications and Warnings!

March 15, 2012

The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Beware! Beware! Watch Out! Be Very Afraid!

OK… Everybody, get ready, get set, now panic!  Fill yourself with endless sources of  apprehension, fear, dread, angst, and desperation! Doesn’t feel good to be anxious over so much in our lives? If not, Why worry?

Today is the Ides of March… The one day in the historical calendar considered to be even more fearsome, ominous, and nefarious than Halloween! Or January 2nd, or even tax day, April 15th!

Just when you were getting over your tristedecaphobia, along comes a fearful and loathsome day to be sure- with its only remedy known to the ancients were to cast spells of deliverance, or for the reversal of bad fortune, hexes, and other such dastardly sentences that foretold doom…

But back to the Ides… Why is it considered such a fearful day, one provoking dread, despair and danger? According to Plutarch, the great ancient Roman historian, Julius Caesar was assassinated on this day in 44 BCE.  It was the Roman New Year’s Day,  a time for holding public celebrations since calendar year began in March, with the Spring…

The Ides, in Latin, has a simple definition; It was the day that divided the month in half… And in the irregular calendar of Roman times, that dividing day could be anytime between the 13th to the 15th of any given month. This day of dubious significance was a simple way marker, and a well known passage of time that endured into and past the Renaissance, so we can be safely assured that Shakespeare knew this custom.

In his well known history, Juilus Caesar, often taught to us in high school without much comprehension or understanding, he takes the historical records of Plutarch, and adds his particular brand of genius, and dramatic imagery to the famous lines of prediction and prognostication of the sooth or truth sayer: “Beware the Ides of March!”

Caesar, on his way to the Senate, and then on to public festivals, listened to the insistent cry, but refused to heed this ominous advice. According to Plutarch, however, Caesar originally did take caution, but a friend named Decimus convinced him that he was “above” such nonsense… When out in the streets on that day, Caesar and the soothsayer meet again, and Caesar declares, ” See, the Ides have come!” And the soothsayer replies, ” yes, but they have not past! Then, according to Shakespeare’s rendition, we are horrified by the fact that one of his best and trusted friends becomes the first assassin, and Caesar cries out, ” Et Tu, Brute?” So the Ides are a day of betrayal, revolt, and social upheaval!

When looking sociologically, and politically over the centuries, we can look back in amazement to the importance of mistaken predictions and dire warnings, and how they have been taken seriously- so much so, that they could alter the course of possibilities and outcomes.

As time permits, I would like to hear about your reactions to predictions made by politicians, financial experts, etc.,and how our media will use these oftern sensational conclusions, often out of context, to rile and worry us, creating headlines that highlight the scare of the week!

Then in either a few days or a few years, they completely reverse themselves! It seems abundantly clear, that these warnings are like a casino game… They come true just enough times, usually much less as little as 5% of the time, yet people can react in an uproar about them… You know, like the hurricane prediction center, where the weather experts and climatologists will deliver us ominous warnings every Spring! And even if an earthquake or a hurricane has not happened for thirty, or one hundred and thirty years… You know… We are due! So you had better be fearful, and watch out!

I would like to relate two of the many times I have been asked to “deal with” dire predictions, warnings, and apprehensions that became public knowledge and that have served to increase cultural fears, worries, and anxieties… The first was the “scientific and computer scare of 2000, and the second was all the Biblical predictions of 2000 about how the earth will end and the Rapture and the Second coming will soon arrive! Beware!

Concerning the computer changeovers that were to happen… I can remember the cultural panic where everyone was anxiously told about the

possible computer glitch that could wipe out one’s hard drive or create social havoc with tons of lost information! What to do? Will the scientists and the geeks rescue us in time? You all can remember this one!

With all this concern about whether or not our computers would be YTK compliant, I have to readily admitting to be YTK complacent…

Maybe I trusted in technology too much, maybe since I am so unlike a an knowledgeable engineer in these fields, that I did not know better, but when we approached January 2000, I did not do anything… And when there was this collective sigh of relief over a problem that, in all likelihood, was never all that dramatic, there is a lesson, when confronted by something unsettling- out of your control- do nothing.. Listen! Sit with it, do not react! Gather information reliably… Then decide what you will do!

The second, was in my professional bailiwick… It was all the stress and fuss over the Biblical predictions of the End times… When Revelations comes true… The earth will end, and the pious dead will rise from their graves, and the Rapture will take the faithful to heaven! Beware! Be afraid!

Watch out! Jesus is Coming!

While I was at Penn State, as the interim minister at State College,

I was asked to participate in an interfaith panel that had, as its goal, how

best to respond to the nightmarish, even ghoulish expectations of Revelations, and how to answer questions about the Endtimes that seem to be now upon us! Some faculty and a few of the local clergy gathered for this large public forum on these disturbing questions- questions and anxieties made dramatic and forceful by all the media coverage that poorly trained conservative preachers received and whose stock and trade is alarm, fear, and repentance, all during the last, fateful year of 1999…

Without going into a Biblical exegesis, let me say that there are no dangerous books, only dangerous interpretations… And those who lack a metaphorical understanding of Scripture, those who take a modern literal  approach, seeking a direct answer are the one most prone to alarm, and are the people most likely to proclaim it or spread it to others…

As each of the Christian representatives offered their explanations, even their apologies for mistaken translations, erroneous doctrines, and the like, I found myself looking for a common ground that would give people there more of a sense of rationality, responsibility, and hope.

When it came to my turn, I thank the various clergy and scholars who held forth on complex Biblical and elaborate theological themes, and then I presented how I believe that an informed, responsible Humanism is the best benchmark or the most effective way to address all the unnecessary panic and concern.

Applying our best sources of critical thinking, understanding and insights from physical sciences, sociology, and psychology that emphasize our personal responsibilities for the world we have made, was for me, my best answer, and the one that will provide any degree of worldly rescue or ethical salvation we seek.

And what of today’s spinning theories, predictions, excuses, and dire warnings? From the ominous Mayan calendar coming to its end, to resurrecting the obtuse Nostradamus predictions of famines and wars, to the financial blunders of CNBC, to the ever changing rules about health and nutrition, stress and wellness, what is there that one can safely or securely believe? Is our whole culture immersed in political spin? Or preoccupied in the reading of  economic entrails?

It seems to me that our 24 hour news cycle capitalizes on either outrage or disaster, crisis or fear mongering… And for relief, they give us tabloid morality, while quickly reporting every conflicting story, and feeding us with a steady diet of stress and alarm… In fact, I feel that it can be said that our elevated level of national fear from the events of 9/11 and the constant harping on these devastating pictures and dire warmnings is what made the Iraq fiasco possible!  To me, its no wonder that among the leading prescriptions for Americans, are anti-anxiety drugs…

While I do take the threat of nuclear proliferation seriously, and I do give great credence to global warming, I am finding myself refraining from watching the media, keeping up with headlines, and actively abstaining from too many politcal and economic discussions…

Where I would prefer to place my thoughts and direct my actions are towards some collective or shared actions that support both realism and idealism, truth and hope which I would call a Compassionate Humanism.

While guarding against any Pollyanna escapism, no matter how enticing it might be, and without realistically dismissing the difficulties our culture faces or the challenges inherent in economic renewal, I do find myself constantly asking myself how does the mass media help or harm my awareness or contribute to my personal knowledge and responsible actions? How does the scandalous headlines contribute to any creativity, motivation, hope, or sense of renewal? Maybe we all should fast from the Media , or skip the news for Lent!

What are some of the predictions you have heard about our world, and by listening and believing in them, how has your life changed?

In way ways does doom and gloom affect you? In my book on spirituality and time, Spirit, Time and The Future  by Outskirts press, I take on the Mayan and other predictions about the end of the world, and I emphasize how to live a spirit centered life with courage and hope. Whether you read this or stay infromed from other sources, it is imperative to us not to lose eoither our objective and compassionate perspective or our wiollingness to work for personal change and social transformation. Since we are connected to one another by cultuire and climate, by breath and business, it only makes sense to work of overcoming our fears and work together for a sustaining sanse of hope and living in a sacred world.

Pastoral Reflection: “Prepare for the worst, and expect the best”

One of my favorite end times story relates to a small but devout group called the Millerites. Their belief that the world was going to end when we reached the year 1834; so they gathered up all their members, and climbed a high peak in New York (presumably so they would be closer to God and therefore among the first to be taken in the rapture) and there they waited…

The first day and into the night was filled with anticipation… Wow we are all going to be saved: Glory Halleluia! However, when the dawn of the next day came… and nothing happened… They were increasingly distraught, disillusioned and amazed that their predictions could be wrong! Many people left muttering to themselves… What gives here?  Others, the remaining faithful decided to recalculate, and keep believing… Spinning out another theory, and then another to make sense of what they had said, and to make what they are now saying more plausible and believable…

One of the best pieces of advice, is ultimately a pragmatic one, one that is often recommended, but generally speaking, falls short of common practice: Prepare for the worst, and expect the best!

The practical people in our society really get that first part, and we are thankful for their stability, reserve, and ability to build a secure future. The Idealists among us really get the second part- to keep oneself open, willing, and expectant of all the possibilities our lives can hold… The trick as they say, is to be practical and open to change, to be spiritual and realistic, to be relaxed and responsible… The healthy prescription of balance seems to be the necessary strategy to keep fears at bay, and responsible potentials more available to us all!