Subverting Expectation: Humour, Tricksters, and Transformation

As a general rule, Christians are considered to be a rather severe bunch, people who tend to take ourselves and world pretty seriously. While there is definitely a positive aspect to this — we do only get one chance to live this life so it’s important to make the most of it — it has its downsides too, most notably in the ways it can cause us to lack humility. Life, both our own individual life and the whole of the living created world, rarely goes according to plan. On a good day, we might make ten mistakes. The best-laid plans oft go awry, as they say. And, we live in a world where exceptions exist to every rule. So, we need ways of handling our confounded expectations and daily disappointments. As I’ve been learning about different Indigenous cultures, I’ve been struck by the ways the subversion of expectation seems to be built into them. Today I’d like to quickly look at three of these ways — sacred humour, tricksters, and transformation — and how they might align with aspects of Christian story and practice.

‘Sacred’ and ‘humour’ are two words most of us in the West wouldn’t put together. But, the two ideas are intimately connected in many Indigenous cultures, to the extent that Randy Woodley (2010, 202) listed it as one of the shared features of the ‘Harmony Way’.* Humour is incorporated into story, song, and ceremony, and is understood to teach humility, put life into perspective, and restore balance. As a saying attributed to Black Elk puts it, “truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs, but it is the same face” (Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker). Métis educator Fry Jean Graveline has put it like this: “Too much power and too much seriousness are feared, for they can unbalance life in the Community and the environment” (Circle Works, Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 1998, 214; quoted by Fagan).

These goals are consistent with the emerging psychological consensus about what humour does. Yes, it captures our attention and entertains us, but it also helps us to take ourselves less seriously and opens us up to possibilities our narrow categories might not ordinarily allow. This suggests that humour is helpful in managing cognitive dissonance — the mental discomfort we experience when the world stops meeting our expectations. As Fagan puts it, “humour tends to indirectly explore troublesome or contradictory areas of life.” Woodley (2010, 88) similarly quotes one of his informants as saying: “Cognitive dissonance is … best met with humor and understanding.”

Poking fun of oneself for one’s failures, disappointments, or mistaken assumptions is a big part of the well-known Trickster traditions in Indigenous cultures. As Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker note, “Trickster stories teach what happens as a result of stupidity, gluttony, lust, and arrogance. Listeners laugh at his exploits, but they also learn societal values and mores through humor.” Tricksters are all about subverting expectations and recognizing ambiguity as an essential characteristic of the world. They are rarely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but exist to sow confusion and humility, often as teachers who fail to heed their own wisdom. I remember someone once describing the Anishinaabe trickster figure Nanabush as a cross between Jesus and Homer Simpson, and it seems an apt analogy for many of these figures. They are meant to be laughed at, but impart important lessons even as they’re as much the butt of the joke as its instigator.

Ambiguity and categorical humility is also at the heart of Indigenous attitudes towards transformation, or shape-shifting. Stories and ceremonies are filled with images of the boundaries between categories — plants and animals, animals and humans — being subverted. As Carol Anne Hilton notes, this goes beyond the ‘purely’ mythological realm and into philosophical and psychological realities: “From within an Indigenous worldview, the concept of transformation serves to provide the opportunity to challenge assumptions about physical and spiritual reality and demonstrates the limitation of human understanding and knowledge.” She continues, quoting Gary Witherspoon: “The assumption … is that the world is in motion, that things are constantly undergoing processes of transformation, deformation and restoration and that the essence of life and being is movement.” Rather than fearing category confusion, this worldview upholds it as being at least potentially, if not essentially, sacred. Thus, change itself can be understood to be a sacred act — if undertaken on behalf of the good of the community and the strengthening of reciprocal relationships.

In ceremony, transformation is often manifested through the use of masks. As James Tully notes, mask-wearing is a “practice of deep empathy, of inhabiting the ways of being of one’s human and non-human relatives in order to see what one is doing wrong, especially seeing non-reciprocation.” The mask-wearer as shape-shifter is thus able to speak on behalf of the creature whose being they are inhabiting. While these masks are traditionally beautifully crafted works of art, it is the act of putting on the mask, rather than the quality of the mask itself, that facilitates the transformation; Sara Florence Davidson tells a powerful story of her Haida great-grandmother putting on a paper bag for a sacred dance since all of the masks of her community had been taken away during the Potlatch bans. Irrespective of what the mask looked like, it was essential in setting aside her own persona and take up the new one.

To summarize, Indigenous cultures have several tools through which they are able to manage subverted expectations in a healthy way. It seems to me that this is something that has been largely absent from Christianity over the centuries, at least in its institutional forms. When met with things that don’t meet expectation, many Christians have tended to deny and attack rather than look at them with curiosity and humour. Woodley (2022) writes of this issue with Western thought well:

This is seen through the law of noncontradiction in Christianity and the West. One is saved or lost, goes to heaven or hell, has correct doctrine or is heretical. It’s a win or lose proposition. No room for mystery or nuance or even non-certitude or humility.

And again, tying it specifically with a lack of humour:

The Western worldview is physically dualistic, morally dualistic, essentially spiritual, religiously intolerant, individualistic, extrinsically categorical … In the Western worldview, humor is reserved for the nonspiritual …

To put it another way, we might say that the West, and much of Christianity with it, has lived without ‘third categories’. Things are good or evil, right or wrong, without a sense of ambiguity or humility with respect to our assumptions. I’m reminded of Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s comments about blessing in the Jewish tradition: There are blessings for things considered to be good, and for things considered to be bad, but there is also the possibility of a third blessing, for things one doesn’t immediately know how to categorize: “Blessed is the One who makes all sorts of different creatures” (Wrestling with God and Men, 190). It’s this third category of conceptual humility and withholding judgment that Christians have generally lacked.

While the West’s rigidity of category is at least partly an inheritance from secular Greek philosophy,  is also partially rooted in our creation stories. There God created the world by separating one thing from another: order from chaotic void, light from dark, land from water. This conceptual importance of difference can also be seen in the Law’s focus on separation of the holy from the profane, and in such otherwise strange prohibitions against wearing mixtures of wool and linen, or planting fields of mixed grains. So, the Biblical story bears some responsibility for Christianity and the West’s historical conceptual rigidity. But, is this the only way we might interpret and learn from these stories?

A number of years ago on a now-defunct blog, I wrote the following about this exact question:

And yet, as tidy as the Creation narratives are, with their firm divisions of night and day, water and dry land, and male and female, what we actually see in the created world is far more complicated. Between night and day there is always dawn and dusk, and as anyone who has ever walked a beach at low tide knows, there is plenty of middle ground between sea and earth. And so it continues: there are mammals that lay eggs, there are fish who bear live young, there are carnivorous plants, fish with lungs, aquatic mammals, and even flightless bats. So diverse and unexpected is the created world that there was a common patristic belief that everything that God could create was created. As much as our Creation narratives love straight lines of division, the fact is, in our world as it has been given to us, when we see a straight line, we know that it is a human hand at work, and not God’s. In a world like this, … all we can do is to stand back in awe and wonder and proclaim: How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!

This adds, I think, an important layer to how we think of our categories. What if instead of viewing the places where our categories meet as being dangerous places of confusion, we view them as ‘thin places,’ the edges where God’s hands have left their mark? What if they are actually vital and vibrant places where the most interesting and holy things happen? (I’m reminded of wetlands, which have some of the most diverse and complex ecosystems, or even ‘the Main’ in Montréal, the street that traditionally divided the English- and French-speaking communities and yet was always the coolest, most exciting part of the city.) As Christine Valters Paintner writes about such borderlands:

Threshold space opens us up to life that is dynamic, intense, and often uncertain. Borders and edges are the places of transformation that call us to something deeper. Pulling away the veils means seeing the heart of things—which always demands a response. As monks and artists, we are called to slow down and see the world more deeply, to plunge ourselves fully into its heart, and to reveal what we discover.” (Paintner, The Artist’s Rule)

There is something of this sensibility in our Scriptures themselves. Rabbi Greenberg helpfully points out that while linen and wool could not be mixed in everyday clothing, priests wore small pieces incorporating just this blend, and high priests even larger pieces. The blending, it would seem, was to be avoided not because it confused categories, but because confused categories were something holy: “Like alchemy, mixtures are about the power of transmutation and miraculous change. They are a divine handiwork” (Greenberg, 187). We might also think of the common biblical trope of mountaintops — understood to be where heaven meets earth — as places of divine meeting and theophany. Borderlands or thresholds are places where God is at work.

On a different line of thought, the subversion of expectation featured prominently in Jesus’ teaching style. He rejected the common religious assumptions of his day, including purity codes and the connection between sin and illness or disability. He cast despised figures as the heroes of his stories and crossed boundaries of social convention. He used funny and hyperbolic images — a lamp under a basket, a camel in a needle, a nobleman running through the streets, a plank in the eye — and gave his disciples teasing nicknames like ‘Rocky’ (Simon Peter, for his solidity but also hardheadedness) and ‘Thunderboys’ (John and James, who argued about who was better and wanted Jesus to call down lightning on their enemies).

While transformation is not a common trope in the Christian tradition, it appears at the heart of things. The incarnation is essentially the transformation of God into a man, in which God does not cease to be God yet fully takes on human personhood. (Interestingly for this post, the word persona, used in Latin Trinitarian vocabulary, means ‘mask’ and is taken from the world of sacred theatre.) Like Indigenous mask-wearing, the incarnation was a transformational act of radical empathy: of God for humanity. Transformation is also present in traditional understandings of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, where the offerings of bread and wine — as both gifts of God and the earth and of human labour — are transformed into the ‘body’ and ‘blood’ of Christ.

When it comes to trickster figures, again we might say that it is both an uncommon trope but so central we can tend to miss it within Christianity. In their own ways, both Jesus and the devil (as shown in the Old and New Testaments, not in the late medieval and Early Modern imaginations) are trickster figures of sorts. But where Indigenous traditions unite the positive (teaching, wonder-working, transforming, teasing) aspects of the trickster tradition with the negative (accusing, chaos-sowing, confusing, tempting) ones, the New Testament has eliminated this essential ambiguity by separating them into two figures, one positive and one negative. So, I would say that the trickster motif is present but also subverted within traditional Christianity.

By way of summary, it seems to me that Indigenous spiritual traditions are benefited by having several tools to help normalize the unexpected. While Christianity is not without such tools, they are not as central and run up against a preference, both cultural and religious, for strong and well-defined categories. We would do well to spend more time on the boundaries and meeting-paces of our categories, and thereby lean into our curiosity and openness to ambiguity and surprise. Following Jesus’s example, we would only be benefited by engaging with humour, undertaking radical empathy for those whose experiences are different from our own (reading diversely is one great way to do this), and holding our beliefs and expectations with an open hand.

 

* Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

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