Early in the film Jerry Maguire, the recently fired sports agent Jerry returns to his office and desperately begins calling his clients. He’s frantic, hoping they’ll stay with him rather than the firm that just let him go. Unfortunately he ends up on the phone with Rod Tidwell, an underappreciated and high-maintenance football player who refuses to retain Jerry unless he can “show me the money.”

The conversation turns funny as Rod pressures Jerry to prove his dedication. The football player soon reduces Jerry, frantic to get off the phone, to screaming, “I LOVE black people! Show me the MONEY!” The scene cuts to Jerry’s coworkers standing outside his office, staring in disbelief.

Why is this scene funny? Have you ever been on the phone with someone who won’t let you politely end the conversation? Who hasn’t been the victim of a partially overheard conversation? We can all relate. While exaggerated and extreme, the scene from Jerry Maguire contains elements that are universally understood—and their commonality, so overblown and amplified—make them more comic.

So, what is comedy really? Why are certain things funny to some but not to others? We see many examples of comedy in popular culture, in movies, books, and television programs. Some of it is humorous. Much of it is tragically unfunny—and offensive. How can we tell the difference between good comedy and bad? And as Christian believers, how should our faith inform what we think is funny? Does humor glorify God?

Show Me the Funny

According to Christian author and humorist John Shore, the reason humor is difficult for Christians to define is because it’s virtually impossible for anyone to define. “What happens with a person when they’re suddenly moved to genuine, loud laughter is as rich and magical a mystery as we have,” says Shore. “It’s much easier to understand why we cry, even, than why we laugh.”

In his book, Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor, Robert Darden explores this mystery by investigating the issues surrounding faith and humor. “Bad things happen to reasonably good people,” he writes. “Sometimes we do need to laugh to keep from crying. … I don’t believe you can laugh your way to wellness, but a positive, laughter-infused, Christ-centered lifestyle can help you handle life’s problems.”

Laughter, it seems, is part of what it means to be uniquely human in God’s creation. Ask a parent about the most beautiful sound she has ever heard, and she will likely tell you the laughter of her children. Quoting humorist Mark Lowry, Darden says, “What healthy father doesn’t love to hear his children laugh?” How much more joy then, do we suppose the laughter of God’s people brings to Him? Says Darden, “I believe with all my heart that God laughs and plays. I believe the loving God of the universe wants us to … laugh and to play, too.” Even the often dour book Ecclesiastes tells us there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

“It’s difficult to figure out what makes people laugh. Sometimes it takes years,” says actor and stand-up comedian Anthony Griffith. “Even if your mom laughs at you, or your close friends think you are funny, it’s completely different trying to make complete strangers laugh. You may not have the same shared experiences.”

Griffith (along with comedians Jeff Allen, Brad Stine, and Ron Pearson) last year released a DVD for their “Apostles of Comedy Tour.” The program is an attempt to showcase the four comedians expressing their faith in Christ through stand-up comedy.

“The comedy that I laugh at always has truth to it,” says fellow comedian Jeff Allen. “I’ve never liked contrived humor, I’ve always liked stories based on life because I relate to life and angst and things like that.”

The Love of Truth is the Root of all Comedy

“My mom would be praising God for life with one hand, and trying to take my life with the other,” says Griffith during his performance. He proceeds to pantomime his demonstrative mother, one hand up in the air singing a praise song, the other hand working lose her belt to administer a spanking.

There is truth in that contradiction, especially to a child, or to anyone with a similar conservative upbringing in a Christian church. And Griffith provides a funny portrayal of this truth, illustrating that the essence of all good comedy is found in what is true.

“Humor is clearly something that helps us to see the truth about things–and about ourselves, says author Eric Metaxas. Metaxas, a former VeggieTales writer, is the author of several humorous books and articles for publications as diverse as The Atlantic and Christianity Today. “Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty, and to see ourselves as we are can be humbling, but somehow humor makes it enjoyable.”

Metaxas believes that although humor is hard to define, “it’s important, especially for Christians, to know that humor and the ability to laugh are gifts from God. Like any gifts, they can be used correctly or they can be misused and abused.”

Mark Steele agrees. A former stand-up comic and member of an improvisation troupe, he believes that the truth is the only thing that ministers to people.

“Comedy is only funny when it rings true,” says Steele. “I have found that I am able to make harder-hitting and convicting statements in my comedy than a pastor would ever get away with behind the pulpit.”

Comedy and the Church

Steele is the co-host of The Steelehouse Podcast, a weekly show that examines popular culture from a Christian perspective. Like many artistically-minded Christians, Steele believes the Church has a nervous relationship with humor and comedy.

“It is interesting to me how much the Church has disdained humor over the years as an ‘anti-church’ approach,” says Steele. “Somewhere along the line, evangelicals decided that God is a somber fellow and that He is only impressed when we are liturgical and reverent. Most Christians deem comedy as irreverent. But, that’s like saying that living is irreverent.”

Eric Metaxas says that one reason many Christians are uneasy about comedy is the lack of order you can see in humor. “Some Christians have a strong need to control things, but comedy is about what is uncontrollable.”

“A lot of comedy revolves around taboo topics that Christians are not sure how to address,” says Adrianna Wright. “Comedy allows you to address those issues, often with more insight.” Wright has studied comedy and improvisational theater with Chicago’s Improv Olympics and the famous Second City.

“We Christians tend to take ourselves too seriously. Comedy can help us point out each others’ obsessions, or at least be aware of them,” says Wright. And as with anything, it’s important to have the right motivation. “Some people use comedy to tear down. That’s not what Christians embrace. But if we are trying to build up people up with our comedy, then we [please] the Lord and edify one another.”

“If evangelicals seem less funny,” says John Shore, “it’s because they’re so concerned with whether any bit of humor offends God that they’re constantly eradicating the spontaneous, pre-thought dynamic upon which humor absolutely depends.”

Shore believes it’s important that Christians don’t perpetuate the “Church Lady” stereotype, referring to the Saturday Night Live character popularized by Dana Carvey. In the skits, the pious and matronly Church Lady is the host of her own talk show called “Church Chat.” On every episode she manages to associate everything her guest does with the devil. The Church Lady can find the devil in the most innocuous activities, like playing football for example.

“That’s why the Church Lady is so funny,” says Shore, “she doesn’t think anything is funny. Which, in real life, isn’t funny at all.”

When Good Comedy Goes Bad

As in so many other professions, Christian believers who create humor must seek out ways to honor God and edify others without forgetting what humor is all about.

“Some humor helps us deal with the ugly truths of life,” says Eric Metaxas. “But other humor is hurtful. Just because something is funny doesn’t make it okay. … I love edgy humor, but there’s a time and a place for it, and there is also a place where we go over the edge. The Nazis had plenty of very funny jokes about the Jews, and racists had—and have—very funny jokes about black people. But those jokes … are a misuse of the God-given gift of humor for evil ends.”

Of course, comedy doesn’t need to be racist to be unedifying. Many are concerned about the cutting nature of sarcastic comedy, especially in contemporary sitcoms. While sarcasm itself may not be fundamentally bad, its current uses strike many as overly harsh.

Shore says he is not a fan of strict sarcasm because it so heavily depends upon making fun of something that already exists, which means that it’s grounded in unoriginality. “But I don’t dislike sarcasm because I’m a Christian. I dislike it because I’m a humorist … who loves people. If you can’t be funny without belittling or deriding people, then you’re not funny enough to be in the comedy game.”

“Sarcasm is king in our culture and has been for a while now,” says Adrianna Wright. “Quality satire will often contain sarcasm, but it’s important to consider the source of the comedy. A lot of sarcasm can come from a sense of disillusionment. It’s tricky sometimes but sarcasm can add levity if comedians treat it as the seasoning, not the main course.”

Redeeming the Funny

Wright believes that comedy and humor can be incredibly edifying and should be embraced by Christians. “Comedy should spring from a joyful place … why aren’t Christians more upbeat? Comedy gives us the freedom to laugh, to play, creating together and sharing our work. Culture isn’t culture unless it’s shared.”

Anthony Griffith knows firsthand the pain of sickness and death along with the redemptive power humor has to offer a hurting world. In the Apostles of Comedy Tour DVD he talks about his battle with multiple sclerosis and the death of his young daughter. He believes that his comedy is a ministry to others, often to those who have endured similar heartbreak.

Our faith should give us peace and confidence, says Griffith. “We should know as Christians that God is in control. Being a comedian you can look at things that stick out—if you can make light of your problem and look at them with humor, you can help people realize life isn’t that bad.”

Eric Metaxas believes that a person who can’t see humor in the world is a person who takes life way too seriously. “Some people think being serious about God means taking everything seriously. They don’t understand that God wants us to be so free and full of Him and His love that we can enjoy life and enjoy ourselves and our friends. We can laugh because we know that as bad as things are, God is in control, and He is with us.

“More and more, I think the trend is for Christians to see that without humor, we cannot be very real. It has a place in the Christian life, and a central place. I see a trend toward [Christians] accepting that.”

Stephen McGarvey is the executive editor of Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com for the Salem Web Network, and a freelance writer on issues of faith, culture, and human rights. You can email him at stevemcgarvey@gmail.com.