Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
“Ha, Ha. Very Funny. It Is to Laugh.”
[p.10] Someone will undoubtedly lament that this title is taken from a formulaic Daffy Duck cartoon episode in which he snaps his previously shot-gunned-off beak back onto his face before saying this quip to Bugs Bunny, rather than a neo-classical witticism from, say, Jonathan Swift. Many of us lament the passing of a “golden age” of an “elevated” Mormon rhetoric from 1945-65 (rough estimate) in which we so often heard quotes from neo-classical authors that we started to think Alexander Pope was actually quoting David O. McKay. Incidentally, this was also the golden age of Mormon Sunday school manuals when individuals still wrote them with a resultant stamp of individuality, and, coincidentally, it was the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons. So there.
[p.11] Now back to laughter: it’s a funny thing, as Richard Cracroft pointed out in his classic article “The Humor of Mormon Seriousness: A Celestial Balancing Act” (Sunstone, Jan. 86). I reread this article recently and was so delighted and instructed again as I meditated on several sections from the Doctrine and Covenants dealing with laughter: 45:49; 59:15; 88:69; 88:121. Not known for being a “strict constructionist” (a quote from President J. Reuben Clark from somewhere) when it comes to the Doctrine and Covenants, I’ve always interpreted each of these general laughter warnings as restricted to a specific, prohibited act, suggesting that laughter was inappropriate in that limited context, usually in ridiculing sacred things or participating in lewd behavior. Some commentators suggest otherwise. I refer you to Brother Cracroft’s article for further details on these broader issues.
But to expand these revelations about laughter beyond my limited readings of them seems to me to be incongruous with the life of their recipient, Joseph Smith. The anecdotal evidence suggests he was a man who loved to belly-laugh. One of Joseph’s contemporaries said about him: “Joe had a jovial, easy, don’t care way about him. … He used to laugh from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, it shook every bit of flesh in him” (quoted in Dean Jessee, “Joseph Smith’s [p.12] Reputation” Ensign, Sept. 79, p. 59). In fact, on one occasion, Joseph had to defend his own laughing, tugging and wrestling with “the boys” when some humorless members, while tugging at their heavily starched collars, openly wrestled with Joseph’s apparent lightmindedness. His defense was the story about a hunter who refused to keep his bow strung at all times since it would lose its spring (see Hyrum Andrus, Joseph Smith, Prophet, Seer, p. 18). Joseph then likened the story unto himself. Any biography or novel about Joseph would be severely distorted if it did not include ample episodes of his laughter.
Lest anyone misunderstand me, I’ll admit that the grip of hilarity, like the grip of wrath, can damage and be hard to loosen, as venerable Jorge of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose reminds William, that medieval Sherlock Holmes (p. 131). But Jorge goes too far: “Laughter shakes the body, distorts the features of the face, makes man similar to the monkey. … He who laughs does not believe in what he laughs at, but neither does he hate it. Therefore, laughing at evil means not preparing oneself to combat it, and laughing at good means denying the power through which good is self-propagating.” William responds that, “laughter is a good medicine, like baths, to treat humors and the other afflictions of the body, melancholy in particular.” [p.13] Jorge maintains that Jesus never laughed, while William claims that such negative evidence is insufficient.
It’s too bad neither William nor Jorge had the LDS Topical Guide. I found under “Laughter” in the LDS TG Psalms 37:13, “the LORD shall laugh. “ Maybe we should canonize what David O. McKay’s secretary said, that she once saw him get up from his knees after prayer and laugh to himself. She asked why. He answered: “I was telling a joke to a friend.” I’m also inspired by novelist/minister Frederick Buechner’s conversion to Christianity which was sparked by a sermon in which a minister said Jesus is king “because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place … among confession, and tears, and great laughter” (The Sacred Journey, p. 107).
I, for one, would like to see more humorous pieces in Latter-day literature. Even with the latest contributions from Robert Kirby, Sisters Enid Christensen and Fonda AlaMode, Robert F. Smith, and Elouise Bell, the mantle of Samuel Taylor is still big enough to be worn by many more. For a religion that believes only spectacular sinners will go to outer darkness, and that even telestial and terrestrial inhabitants will be relatively happy, comedy should make good copy.
Maybe we are the problem. As Garrison Keillor [p.14] says, “God writes a lot of comedy … the trouble is, He’s stuck with so many bad actors who don’t know how to play the scenes” (We Are Still Married, p. 359). I believe we are too conditioned to listening to the still small voice to hear the enveloping great laughter of the LORD. I would be satisfied if, on occasion, I could only hear its echoes.