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When I was a kid, everyone in my family was supposed to give something up for Lent, but I never got the point. And we were told that Sunday was an exception, when we could go back to our old ways. True?

'Tis little wonder that this practice gets fuzzy in an age of go-go affluence. The tradition of giving something up for Lent goes back to the time when doing without was an actual hardship--when it was about relating to Jesus' suffering during his 40 days in the wilderness. Some devout souls still follow that path of penance and sacrifice. But often today the custom, when it's still followed, is largely about me, yet another grand gesture for improvement of the anxious self. Giving up Johnny Walker Black, or the Four Seasons restaurant or Godiva chocolates or Havana cigars or afternoons at the casino, may be a terrific tactic for instilling temperance or weight loss but hardly ranks with following Jesus' suggestion to the rich young ruler that he sell all he had and give it to the poor. (Scripture notes, wryly, that the young man "went away very sad for he had great possessions"). As for Sunday being exempted, since no church expressly requires people to do the give-up thing, that would be a personal decision. Bob Jones University seems embarrassingly old-fashioned. I know they've changed their policy about interracial dating, but it seemed more like they caved in to pressure rather than changed their belief. Where are they coming from?

They're coming a place closer to the nation's religious pulse than many would like to admit. In the big tent of American Christians, the Bob Jones crowd would be (1) way more conservative than some (2) on a par with some and (3) actually more liberal than others.

Though BJU has become a laughing stock, its racial policies have upheld in public what many of the like-minded people cloak in politeness. In its own defense, the university had voiced the fear that interracial dating would help impose "one world" (shades of the dread Trilateral Commission), which would erase all God-given differences. Christianity would then become reduced to just another means of gaining truth, instead of being The Truth. The dreaded enemy, therefore, was a great flattening of God's creation that would allow Satan to win.

When looking at this latest flap, it's good to remember that not long ago many churches attacked integration on the grounds that the Bible justified the inferiority of blacks. At least the fundamentalists at BJU hadn't been doing that. Now the university has cast its lot with interracial dating while still trying to control it. It's okay so long as you check it out with an administrator and get parents to approve--which should be enough to stifle the romance, or at least to tie it up in prolonged negotiations. As I recall, anything that smacked of parental approval of a date never won much enthusiasm among college students. But as much as Bob Jones deserves scrutiny for what grows out of its outmoded theology, it's probably wrong to be too hard on that crowd alone. They have plenty of company who are, oddly enough, scoffing from the sidelines.

I know that the shortest verse in the New Testament is "Jesus wept." Is there any evidence that he laughed?

One of the problems with the idea that Jesus was God in a human body, and that that human body was a man of his time, is that presumably, he couldn't benefit from things that came later. Laughter itself, for instance, wasn't invented until roadside pretzel vendors realized how much they could overcharge the Crusaders marching off to the Holy Land with their heads in the clouds. Even then, some asked, Which came first, the pretzel or the twisted mind? But back to your question. Jesus expressed exuberance ("Blessed are the peacemakers") and joy ("Woman, behold your son"), and we might logically conclude that his smiles broke into laughter, but Scripture contains no instance of a Jesus laugh, either pianissimo or forte. To his followers, Jesus himself, rather than laughter, was the best medicine. The omission of any Jesus laughter leaves comics in something of a quandary, needless to say.

Stand-up humorists searching for a patron saint find slim pickings. All too many saints wore grimaces and seemed determined to sober up any crowd. Maybe the answer is to reach a little. No religious figure I ever met knows how to laugh like the Dalai Lama. He doesn't want to be a saint, but perhaps that's the very qualification you need.

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