The joy of the Lord is our strength; and laughter, as the wise man said, is the best medicine. This may go a long way to explaining why western culture has become so weak and sick.
In his book, A Study of History, Historian Arnold Toynbee studied 28 great civilizations throughout history and found the same 8-fold pattern of collapse in each.
It turns out that cultures in a state of collapse, whether Roman, Greek, Persian or others, have quite a few things in common. The list includes saturation in amusement, entertainment, celebrity chefs, depression, sexual enslavement and escapism through drugs and other non-productive lifestyles.
The eighth and final stage is a move from apathy to slavery. What is interesting is that much of the enslavement is self-imposed before it becomes legislated.
Self-censorship, political correctness, restrictions imposed on fertility and more are all features of a culture plummeting towards the ‘S-bend’ of self-imposed slavery.
Self-censorship is of particular importance. Most Christians today can testify to the reality of self-censorship. We know perfectly well what is true and real and good and yet we have willingly censored ourselves to avoid being ostracized by a culture in decay.
But perhaps the most telling mode of self-censorship is the slow cessation of a good belly laugh.
In ancient times the court jester had a very special place in society. He had the freedom to speak truth to power. He could mock the reality of man’s foolishness and could even dare to poke fun at the king without having his head removed.
Today, not even the jester is safe. Comedians are either being removed, censured or shunted off to sensitivity training. Try running an episode of Love Thy Neighbour, Kingswood Country or The Dukes of Hazzard in your local high school and watch the reaction.
Even Dr Seuss is considered “unsafe reading” these days.
It is this way because our culture, having excised the only optimistic aspect of our culture (God) from the public square, now runs on the only alternative: Tragedy, despair and fear.
Though the Bible gives full recognition to sin and its effects on creation, its account of history is very optimistic. We begin in grief but end in gladness. By contrast, pagan culture is dominated by a tragic view in which history moves from a glorious beginning toward a crippling and hopeless end.
Laughter is central to godly culture. It is an aspect of both salvation (Job 8:20-21), and warfare (Psalm 2:2-4). It includes bad jokes (1 Kings 18:27) and glad hearts (Luke 6:21).
Such laughter can only exist in an optimistic culture, and when it dies, it’s important to ask if this is not, in fact, God’s judgement,
And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of laughter and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste. (Jeremiah 7:34)
What to Do, what to do
The bible is deep comedy in which God gets the last laugh. It is not haughty or proud. It does not rejoice in falsehood but rejoices in the truth.
The gospel stands in stark contrast to the muffin-top tragedy currently mushrooming out over its bike shorts and smothering the West in a wide-spread culture of despair.
In the gospel, we see the unpredictable and unexpected victory of a Jewish carpenter from some backwater town in Israel.
In the ultimate plot twist, He turns out to be God incarnate with authority to slay death and despair with an innocent hand by raising His own body from the dead.
The Christian vision is the only vision on earth that can account for an optimistic outlook on history. All else is a slow free-fall into joyless gloom, punctuated and occasionally numbed by the muscle spasms that make up our various lusts.
If you hold to the hopeful vision put forth in the Gospel, then you have every reason to keep laughing and keep smiling, even if it means copping the world’s often violent rebuke.