Writings by Cole Huffman


First Laugh Then Think

I caught a news story last week about the Ig Nobels. These are sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. From the website: "The Ig Nobel Prizes award achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

The 2011 Ig Nobel recipients included research into whether driving while desperately needing to urinate affects attention span like intoxication or sleep deprivation does, and why certain kinds of beetles try to mate with Australian beer bottles. A group of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi took home an Ig Nobel, as did a researcher, one Arturas Zuokas, who solved the problem of illegally parked cars by crushing them with an armored vehicle. For this Zuokas was awarded the Ig Nobel for Peace. My favorite prize was awarded in the Physiology category to a group who presented their findings under the title, "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise." Yes, I too expected none.

Last year, the 2010 recipients included (this in the Engineering category) a research team who collected whale snot with a remote-control helicopter. Their report was entitled, "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs." And back in 2009, a brassiere was invented that can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks. This took home an Ig Nobel—for those times when your lungs need more support than your chest, I suppose. Again, these are achievements that first make one laugh (or gross-out), then think.

I've decided I like these scientists and researchers and inventors who march to a different drumbeat. I like their inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity. I like their willingness to probe questions and concerns no one has yet looked into or even thought about. What if it turned out that whale snot actually has more relevance to cancer treatment than conservation? The "happy accidents" of scientific pursuits are often generated by the mirthful providence of a God who delights in giving red-footed tortoises the ability to yawn in the first place.

I think the church, after we've laughed, should think about what we can learn from the Annals of Improbable Research's Ig Nobel Prizes. The Bible contains a lot of improbable people and events, does it not? Waters part, walls fall, sun stands still, a donkey reproves, chariots of fire, Jonah covered in whale snot, Peter walking on water, Paul and Silas' bleeding hymnody in stocks.

But who among us evangelicals is probing what it would mean if God did such wonders again—a kind of faith research into realities and possibilities inspired by a worshipful inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity? Or do we think this is somehow fundamentally unnecessary now in the age of a closed canon, maybe even ignoble?

The Ig Nobel winners may be the true weirdos of the scientific community for all I know. Or they may be the real adventurers. And if something is starkly missing in most of our lives of faith it's adventure—what Canadian author Mark Buchanan once termed as stepping into the "holy wild."

Most of the Christians I know are more interested in respectability and predictability, in establishing routines and patterns so familiar the red-footed tortoises are yawning at us—though apparently not in unison. Sometimes—how do I put this—I think we're just more wimpy than wasabi. What an old priest observed of himself is true of too many of us: when Paul went into town there were riots; when he went there was afternoon tea.

Or as Annie Dillard put it memorably, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

Some of us have never properly researched this "power we so blithely invoke." The result is tameness and sameness, as if we really don't "believe a word" of the gospel as Dillard's critiques it. Leave it to someone else to figure out how armadillos digging into archaeological sites altered the course of history (a 2008 Ig Nobel winner). Do you believe someone could be seriously intrigued by that? Well, it depends on how much you care about the course of history being changed. Shouldn't Christians have an insatiable interest in that since we believe the advents of Jesus, both the first one and second one to come, change everything? (By the way, erstwhile eschatologist Harold Camping was awarded an Ig Noble in Mathematics this year, "for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.")

I look forward to the Ig Nobels each year now. They're fun and the recipients (most of them, anyway—probably not Camping) enjoy the recognition of their work that makes us laugh and think. Somebody has to show us that armadillos aren't just roadkill, but burrowing shapers of history.

But I also look forward, longingly, to what the church achieves when she steps out with curious, adventuresome courage to truly prize her Savior's interests as her own. It may evoke laughter when we do, even scorn. But it also may astound—and spur people's interest in God.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 1:21 PM
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