Let There Be Laughter: Help Students Enjoy the Good News

I love to walk through a school and hear laughter cascading out into the hall. And of all school subjects, religion is the one most naturally associated with laughter. Where good news is told and heard, there should be happiness.

Ah, but some might argue, God is too awesome to be treated lightly and religion, like all matters of life and death, is a serious subject. True, but there’s no denying that God and people have a sense of humor. That God does is obvious. Anyone who can create a giraffe, an anteater, a hippopotamus and a two-year-old human, anyone who can play jokes on an aged Sara and a fire-breathing Saul must have a sense of humor. In creating, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). He then bestowed on humankind the gift of laughter, which distinguishes us from all other earthly creatures. If we believe with St. Irenaeus that “the glory of God is human beings fully alive,” then we will want to cultivate our students’ sense of humor in religion class.

Whole books have been written on the humor of Jesus even though scripture doesn’t ever say he laughed (a serious oversight!) Leave it to him to teach a truth by conjuring up the ridiculous image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle—especially if the camel has two humps. And a twinkle must have been in his eye when he sent Peter, the great fisherman, to fetch tax money from a fish. If the master teacher resorted to humor, can we be successful without it?

Woe to that professor who quotes to fledging teachers, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” Teachers should take their cue from good speakers. They open with an amusing comment or two to break the ice and then sprinkle their talk with funny anecdotes to guarantee that their audience stays with them. Using humor in teaching is good psychology. It creates the warm, nonthreatening atmosphere that is conducive to learning.

Furthermore, laughing is healthy. Not for nothing is it called the best medicine. Someone even told me that laughter massages the liver. I don’t know how true this is, but I do know that even scripture recommends it: “A joyful heart is the health of the body, but a depressed spirit dries the bones up” (Proverbs 17:22.

Following are suggestions for “planned laughter” in a religion class:

1. Collect jokes. For an education methods project I gathered inspiring quotations. Now I wish I had also collected jokes. They make wonderful approaches to lessons. They sometimes crystallize a concept for the students. But, best of all, they spark student interest and add to the enjoyment of the class.

In conjunction with a lesson on God, for instance, tell about the little girl who was drawing a picture of him. Her mother commented, “But no one knows what he looks like, honey.” And she countered, “They will when I get finished.”

Old Testament jokes abound. One of my favorites is about the day Adam and Even and their two boys were walking past the gates of Paradise guarded by the cherubim. Abel asked, “What that, Dad?” and Adam replied, “That’s where we used to live before your mother ate us out of house and home.”

What a joy it is when a student feels free enough to volunteer his or her own funny story to brighten the class.

2. Make and encourage amusing comments. One of my teachers won my heart the day I asked if she knew where I could get hay for the manger we were setting up. She answered, “Nay.” Many of us don’t think of witty comebacks until too late, if at all. If they do pop into our minds while we’re teaching, we should take advantage of them. However, it goes without saying that our funny remarks should be considered funny by the students too and not sarcastic.

When correcting papers add a humorous comment here and there. This adds a personal touch and makes the students feel good. In high school I wrote an essay on Lord Jim, a novel about the sea. The teacher’s “You missed the boat” at the top of my paper took some of the sting out of the C grade.

On the other hand we should be tolerant, and even appreciative, of the witticisms that spring from the students. To repay a clever remark with an ice-cold stare may be to freeze a budding comedian, a creative writer, or a delightfully unique personality. But can you risk the disruptions funny remark might causes in your perfectly controlled, well-disciplined classroom? Of course. hearty laughter on your part may be just the thing to establish that student-teacher rapport that makes other means of discipline superfluous.

At a Catholic-Lutheran dialogue workshop a bit of humor set the tone for what otherwise could have been a stiff, uncomfortable discussion. The session started off with a bang—three bangs to be exact, echoing through the halls of the Catholic seminary. Instead of being annoyed, the main speaker said, “Those are typical seminary sounds. Next you will hear the lawnmower braking down, and then the trash collectors will arrive.” With that, a member of the audience called out, “Maybe that t=was a Lutheran pounding something on your door! The meeting proceeded with a spirit of lightheartedness and fellowship.

3. Set the stage for laughter. Activities guaranteed to evoke laughter should be integrated into the week’s lessons, especially on tense or dreary days. Acting our Bible stories and role playing have great potential for humor. Even a small thing like the sight of Lisa playing the role of the tree in the garden of Edom by dangling an apple from her fingers for five minutes can case merriment.

Lively approaches can brighten dull topics. Imagine the reactions to this approach to law in a morality unit. At the beginning of class the teacher announces that demerits will be issued for those breaking school rules. He or she starts calling students and stating things like “Pat, what are you sitting in front for? All redheads are supposed to be in the back. Ann, you are sitting with your legs crossed. Bob, you have a math book with you. This is religion class. Sue, I notice your hair is curled. That’s a demerit.” When the students ask why they are being punished for silly things, the teacher points to four small slips of paper posted on the bulletin board. These each state one of the new “rules.” A discussion about what makes a law a law follows.

Another source of humor is art. Have students draw on the board, or, what might be funnier use your own artistic talent to illustrate a point.

4. Look for humor. The content of religion class does have tidbits of humor for those with eyes and hearts to see it. To show that our church is a laughing church, catechists should make the most of these. Scripture comes to life when students learn about the fish tale of Jonah and the wale or the proverb “Like a golden ring in a swine’s snout is a beautiful woman with a rebellious disposition” (Proverbs 11:22), or about Rhoda, who in her eagerness to tell others that St. Peter was at the door, forgot to let him in. Then there’s poor Eutychus, who fell asleep during St. Paul’s sermon and fell out of a third floor window and died. Luckily Paul restored him to life.

We should teach students that in the strength of our faith we can “laugh at the days to come” with the ideal woman of Proverbs 31:25. In fact we can die laughing in the tradition of the martyrs. With his belief in eternal life, St. Lawrence could afford to say to executioners who were burning him alive, “Turn me over. I think I’m done on this side.” And Thomas More cheerful went to this beheading. He warned the executioner to aim carefully because he had a short neck and then moved his beard out of the way of the blade, explaining that it had never offended the king.

5. Laugh at yourself. Nobody’s perfect, not even those with a religious education certificate. We all manage our share of dumb things: “klutzy” actions, foot-in-mouth words and ridiculous blunders. Essentially we are a bundle of contradictions. We are part spirit, part matter, part noble, part base; part heroic, part cowardly; part loving, part hating; and so forth. Isn’t this what makes for laughter?

Why pretend to be perfect before our students when they know we’re not? Hypocrisy suits us no better than it suited the Pharisees. Instead of covering up our human weaknesses, we can use them in our ministry. Sharing out not-so-perfect experiences in laughter with the class not only prepares them for real life but encourages them to cope with their own failings. Just as we are consoled when people we admire tell us funny things they did, sour students can be heartened by our “confessions.”

In a classroom where mutual openness and acceptance reigns, our embarrassments is not so acute the day we get caught not knowing something we should know or falling asleep while showing a DVD.

Bishop Anthony Pilla, former bishop of Cleveland, once spoke of the need for a diaconate of humor. As religion teachers we have ample opportunities to exercise this ministry. We must teach laughter to a world that has almost forgotten how to laugh.

The little prince in Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince leaves his friend the gift of his laughter. What a beautiful gift for our students. And it is a natural (or supernatural?) outcome of religion class. For laughter is the sign of joy, and isn’t joy the sing of a Christian and one of the fruits of the Holy Sprit?

(Originally published in Religion Teacher’s Journal)