On Not Getting the Joke

Ian Paul has just posted on the necessity of interpretation in our engagement with the Bible. While I broadly agree with the point that he is trying to make and share his concerns about the position he is tackling, the following is a sketch of some lunch time thoughts that push in another direction (very heavily influenced by Peter Leithart).

When talking about ‘interpretation’, I believe that we often suffer from a lack of necessary distinctions and clarity and care in our use of terms. ‘Interpretation’ seems to connote a deliberative process taken with respect to a text. Do we ‘interpret’ most of the time, or do we just ‘hear as’ or ‘get it’?

In many respects, the relation of interpreting to reading or hearing might be similar to the relation of choosing to willing. In both cases, the first act unhelpfully tends to be employed as the dominating framework for our discussion of the second. Yet, in both cases, the more smoothly things are running, the more the first act seems to retreat into the background and sometimes disappear from sight altogether. The moments in which I experience the greatest freedom are typically characterized by a fluidity of action within which I hardly seem to be choosing at all. Likewise, when things are running as they ought, interpretation hardly seems to occur.

Both choosing and interpreting seem to relate to moments of uncertainty or ambivalence, those moments in which we are unsure of which way to take things. In fact, one could argue that the deliberative processes of choosing or interpreting are the marks of things not flowing smoothly. Of course, this is not to condemn these necessary processes. Acting and reading are typically hard work and deliberative processes are the appropriate and unavoidable ways of responsibly rising to their challenges.

However, as we mature as actors and readers, our deliberative processes change too. Much that we would once have needed to deliberate about now occurs organically, fluidly, and thoughtlessly, while we deliberate about more subtle questions and concerns. Where once we would have needed to pause to think about what to do next, now, through the wisdom gained from experience, we instinctively know how to act. Where once we would have needed to engage in extensive interpretation of particular statements, now we just ‘get it’. The choosing and interpreting have become almost entirely tacit.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people who have no sense of interpreting or choosing are the best hearers and actors—far from it! Rather, when the very best hearing and acting takes place, interpreting and choosing lose their prominence. Interpreting and choosing are necessary ways in which we learn and read/hear and act responsibly, but they do not represent the most mature forms of the activities in which they are engaged. They function to enable us to enter into a realm beyond the hesitancy and uncertainty of the deliberative processes of choice and interpretation. As such, there is a genuine danger of our progress being stalled at their intermediate stage.

When hearing Scripture, like a joke, the goal is to ‘get it’. Interpretation is the process we engage in when we do not immediately ‘get it’ and need to discover why everyone around us is laughing. The person who interprets jokes or needs them to be explained to them is usually an outsider of some kind, someone for whom the ‘aha!’ or ‘haha!’ moment is delayed.

Paul references Luke 24:27 as an argument for the importance of interpretation: Christ ‘explains’ to the disciples on the Emmaus road all that the Scriptures say concerning himself. However, what he misses is that this interpretative act only needed to occur because the disciples didn’t ‘get it’—‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ The process of interpretation here is a corrective and remedial act, necessary, but not the greater ideal at which we should aim. The act that Jesus engages in at this juncture is akin to the process of explaining a joke to a slow-witted listener. While it must often be done, it is unfortunate that it must occur, not least because the joke almost invariably suffers somewhat as a result.

As we begin to appreciate the difference between the process of interpretation and ‘getting it’—and the important connection between interpretation and not getting it—I believe that some other things will come into focus. In particular, it helps to expose some of the dangers that many lay people tend to associate with ‘interpretation’. Interpretation is a place where the wilfully obtuse can thrive, a place where and a method by which smart people can studiously commit themselves to not getting it.

Getting a joke requires, not only understanding, but also openness. Jokes seldom force themselves upon us. The hearer is free not to get it, whether through lack of understanding or wilful resistance. Jokes typically play with ambivalence and uncertainty of meaning; the person who does not want to get the joke has no shortage of avenues of ‘interpretation’ that shield him from its impact. Jokes are easily deconstructed. However, the good hearer brings openness and a sense of humour to the joke, which make it possible for him to recognize which of the various ways the joke could be taken are appropriate. He has the sense to perceive the invitation that the joke is extending and happily welcomes and accepts it.

When reading and teaching Scripture, it is very important to bear all of this in mind. It is not accidental that our Lord placed a lot of emphasis upon the one who had ears to hear. We often face the temptation to think that, if we were only to make our hermeneutical methods sharper and our exegetical explanations more airtight, other people would ‘get it’. We throw ourselves into the task of interpretation and explanation, believing that these are what really matters.

However, time and again we will find that people still resolutely don’t ‘get it’. We will also come up against the inherent ambiguities and subtleties of the text, its vulnerability to contrasting and often hostile readings. At such points the typical temptation is to say that the Scripture itself is unclear, as if a joke could only be an effective joke if its meaning were airtight and beyond question. Yet practically every funny joke works regardless of and often because of its ambiguities. What the joke requires is not so much a robust hermeneutical method as a person with ears to hear. The former cannot substitute for the lack of the latter.

The requirements that jokes make of their hearers are some of the reasons why they can be such effective means of distinguishing insiders from outsiders. This socially differentiating function also contributes to their humour. Outsiders are the people who cannot get the joke, whether through lack of understanding or wilful resistance, whereas insiders bond through their ‘sharing’ of the joke. Scripture often works in the same way. The people of God are the ones who ‘laugh’, the ones who are bound together by getting the meaning of Scripture. Even when they may not be able to explain the ‘joke’ well, they can still ‘get it’. Most Christians have a far deeper tacit understanding of Scripture than they possess a capacity to articulate that meaning. The relationship between one’s capacity to interpret or explain something and one’s ability to ‘get it’ is such that people who genuinely accomplish the latter may struggle with the former tasks.

It is important and helpful to be able to engage in the task of explaining the Scripture in order to ensure that we and others are able really and deeply to ‘get it’. However, we will often find that we are interacting with people who are taking refuge in ‘interpretation’—in the state of not getting it. In such cases it can be important to disengage, to refuse to validate interminable or dishonest engagement in deliberative processes. The responsibility for their failure to get it does not lie with the Scriptures but with them, on account of their closing of their ears, their lack of imagination, or spiritual perception. Leithart writes:

If hermeneutics is a science, then it is possible to train interpreters in the proper methods and techniques, and this can occur without much if any attention to the character of the interpreter. But what do you say about someone who is tone deaf to humor? Are there techniques for developing a sense of humor? An interpreter who doesn’t ‘get it’ might improve with wider knowledge and by imitating the example of a good interpreter. But something like a conversion needs to take place. To lack a sense of humor is not an intellectual vice; it is a symptom of a contracted soul. And so is bad, unimaginative, interpretation.

As we read Scripture as fallen human beings, we will never move beyond the need for interpretation. We will never cease to be strangers in a strange land. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we will frequently be slow-witted and need to have the ‘joke’ explained to us. However, failures of character will not ultimately be rectified by better hermeneutical method and exegetical practice. These things will always fall short of making us ‘get it’. What we need above all else is something that only comes from the Spirit: a posture of openness to the Scripture, ears that are quick to hear, and a heart that welcomes with liberating laughter the doors that the text opens to us. As Leithart rightly appreciates, these things only come with conversion.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Christian Experience, Controversies, Ethics, Hermeneutics, Revelation, Scripture, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On Not Getting the Joke

  1. p duggie says:

    Its strange to think that what we often encounter in sermons or “preaching” as the central act with primacy in reformed worship is explaining a joke to people who have trouble ‘getting it’

    • It is! That said, there are ways of speaking about and enhancing people’s appreciation of a joke that they got. We also love to retell and develop jokes. Preaching involves a lot of these things too, not just explanation to people who fail to get it.

  2. p duggie says:

    I wonder what this says about the buzzword/idea of ‘contextualization’. I’ve encountered a few times people who call certain attempts at contextualization into question being rebuked with the idea that its always necessary, and since we read the bible in English, we’ve already benefited from contextualization.

    But there seems to be a difference between helping me understand a joke by giving me the full context I need to at least comprehend it (if no longer ‘enjoy’ the joke) and what passes for some kinds of contextualization where a person is given a substitute joke that might ‘work for them’ but really isn’t the same joke.

    Can a joke poking fun at the foibles of men be contextualized by giving a man that pokes fun at the foibles of women?

  3. cal says:

    This makes me think about St. Maximus’ discussion of the will. If you’re not familiar, he made the claim in his later writings that the gnomic will was part of Adam’s fallen condition. However, the will itself is still Human, and because Christ was not touched by sin, He did not have a gnomic will. And this has struck people as a disturbing turn to take, and perhaps not worth the pay-off of fighting off monothelitism.

    But perhaps this explanation makes sense of how this might actually look like. To put it in Bourdieuan terms, proper willing becomes a habitus and virtue ethics, when properly explained and qualified, is best to make sense of growth in the Christian life. But, and perhaps it’s my predilections, there seems something missing in the existential angst over making a choice.

    Maybe that’s a symptom of the modern era, where we prize authenticity and ascribe virtue to making a tough call or a hard choice, one we anguish over before we decide. And more deeply still, it’s in that moment that one is more self-aware of consequences, rewards, and full gamut of oneself in the World. The act of choosing becomes a self-reflective moment in which one recognizes one is a self, an agent capable.

    St. Maximus’ account of glorified life accounts for how this act of willing can still exist without positing the possibility of Origen/Origenist cycle of fall/redemption that infinitely occurs. Maximus is 100% right on this, and your elaborations add more nuance and a folksiness to what is beautiful. And of course, the glorified life will not be full of agony of choice when God is before us. But how do we maintain the benefits of self-awareness and the scope of the Cosmos while simultaneously enjoying the effortlessness of a perfect habitus of Human Nature as it ought to be? Perhaps discernment is the separate gift that makes us able to understand our own effortlessness as a science, and hence able to explain to others, without needing somekind of rupture or disunity to realize our own practice.

    What are your thoughts?
    cal

    • I think that this is fundamentally correct. Our thinking about freedom and the will easily falls into some basic traps, not least in such assumptions as that freedom is primarily about the lack of external constraints. As a result, we also struggle to make the necessary distinctions between Adam’s state and the glorified state that is to come. The freedom of the will isn’t just lack of external constraints but the fulfilment of the art of upright human life in glorified humanity.

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