To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: … a time to weep and a time to laugh; … (Eccles. 3:1,4).
Our Puritan forefathers were more than suspicious of humor. Life for them just was not funny. For example, Richard Baxter, who authored A Serious Call to the Unconverted—and several hundred other items—never penned a light line. The archives of homiletics not only reveal that the Puritans did not joke when they preached, but they preached against jokes. Jesus’ warning that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36); Paul’s ban on “foolish talking” and “jesting, which are not convenient” (Eph. 5:4); these and other texts were deemed sufficient to indict laughter as a sin worthy of repentance. “Laughter,” said Edward Irving, “is a kind of bacchanalian state of the mind, just as drunkenness is a bacchanalian state of the body. It is a rather violent change in the law and order of nature to which it is not willingly inclined if sanctified” (Charles Stanford, The Wit and Humor of Life, London, 1886, p. 64).
Augustus Toplady, the Calvinist, and John Wesley, the Arminian, shared a common dislike for the lighter side of life. Watching some children frolic, full of pranks, Toplady is said to have called them “bubbling fountains of iniquity.” Wesley gave it as his opinion that children, as a rule, ought not to play. These, perhaps, are extreme exhibits of the “stern mien” of classic Puritanism. There is not wanting evidence that for all their sobriety, the Puritans knew how to smile. A case in point is Matthew Henry’s commentary which sparkles with genuine wit; and it remained for us moderns to alter the lines of “Old Hundredth” to the Geneva Psalter, from “Him serve with mirth, his praise forthtell,” to “Him serve with fear, his praise forthtell.” Yet, undoubtedly, these men did err in failing to realize how many situations in life there are when it is “time to laugh.”
Comedy Becomes A Business
In our day, it is hard to believe anyone could make such a mistake. Our humor has become big business. The highest paid single attraction of TV in 1956 was the comedian, Jackie Gleason, whose efforts netted him $3,000,000 in one year (Look Magazine, Feb. 7, 1956). We laugh about everything; we feed on flippancy; we are convulsed in one unending guffaw. But laughter is not the final solution to life’s problems; and to use it as though it were, is like beating drums in battle to drown the groans of the dying.
Now it appears to me that our text sets before us a golden mean: “… there is a time to laugh.” This cannot mean that we should never laugh, nor can it mean that we should always do so. But like other rules of conduct in Scripture, this one treats us as adults who are able and responsible enough to make decisions for ourselves. It is ours to develop the fine ethical sense to know when it is time to laugh and time to weep.
Life And Laughter
Herbert Spencer, in his Physiology of Laughter, argued that a sense of the incongruous caused by certain unexpected contrasts will be followed by an involuntary contraction of certain facial muscles. I was once at the performance of La Traviata. As Violetta sang her beautiful swan song, she paused before the last notes, and in that sad, sweet, silent moment, the trumpeter in the pit dropped his instrument. Why is it that under such circumstances we will laugh? Why is it that man only, of all the creatures in the world, can laugh? I would answer: because God has made him so. The various orders of humor presuppose reason, the light of God in the soul. Without it we could never laugh, for the incongruities of life would escape us. Milton is bold enough in Paradise Lost to put a jest on the lips of Deity. When Lucifer and the angels revolted, with grim humor, the Almighty declares:
Nearly it now concerns us to be sure Of our omnipotence, … (V, 721–722)
And the Bible itself, on at least two occasions (Psalms 2:4; 59:8) ascribes laughter to God. Why then should we suppose that tears are pious and smiles vain? In fact, tears, it would seem, are a more direct result of sin than smiles, for the seer tells us that in heaven God will wipe away our tears (Rev. 21:4), but not our smiles.
Furthermore, our Maker has not only endowed us with the capacity for laughter, but he has placed us in an environment which has a touch of the comical. Some animals look funny and some act that way, too. Mark Twain once described a camel as an “ostrich with an extra set of legs.” Who is not amused to see a kitten stalk a windblown leaf like a tigress her prey, or to watch the antics of the apes?
Stewards Of Humor
But if we are committed to humor as a part of our inheritance from the Creator, then we must one day give account of our stewardship; and, I must say, some ministers will have a sad account to render. What we laugh at is a window to our minds. Dr. Johnson once observed, “… no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” Yet the choice of entertainment via the radio, television, and the theater, on the part of many ministers, falls so far short of grace that it is hardly up to the standard, even of enlightened nature. All too often this blemish on our personal piety intrudes itself into the pulpit, which is lamentable. Let me conclude then, with a few canons of procedure, that as ministers of Christ we may know when to laugh—and when not to.
We need, first of all, to develop a taste for excellence in humor, much as we would in art. Leaving behind those depraved expressions of so-called humor which appeal to the mind of the flesh, we should press on in the exercise of our sensibilities to appreciate the best by reading the masters. We should realize that there is something more in our heritage of humorous literature than the comic strip. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the Hunting of the Snark, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad—the best passages in works like these are achievements of pure intellect; and it takes intelligence, unjaded by an overdose of cheap imitation, to appreciate them.
Appreciation is also stimulated by analysis of the various types of humor and their proper function. Highest on the scale of humor, many would place wit. Real wit is a flash of genius. Pope Alexander VI once pressed an ambassador of Venice to tell him who gave the Venetians the prerogatives of the sea, whereupon the ambassador answered, “If your Holiness will only please to examine your charter of St. Peter’s patrimony, you will find upon the back of it the grant made to the Venetians of the Adriatic” (Morris Corbyn, An Essay toward Fixing the True Standards of Wit, London, 1744, p. 6). A poet named Waller presented a copy of congratulatory verses to King Charles upon his restoration, following the fall of Cromwell’s house. The monarch read them and observed, “Mr. Waller, these verses are very good, but not so fine as you made upon the Protector”; whereupon Mr. Waller replied, “Your Majesty will please to recollect that we poets always write best upon fictions” (Ibid. p. 7).
Most of us, to be sure, can only aspire to this level of achievement. At best it comes to us as an afterthought, as something we should have said, if we had had our “wits” about us.
However, other forms of humor, such as satire and ridicule, are much more within our reach, but their proper use requires real skill and—for ministers—not a little sanctification, lest they be used as a substitute for answering the arguments of an opponent. How tempting it is, when setting forth our own opinions, to make those who hold other views appear ridiculous, when in actuality we know that the truth may be more on their side than ours. The great satirist Mr. Addison, of Spectator fame, once made an observation which we should all bear in mind as clergymen. Tracing the genealogy of wit he said, “Truth was the founder of the family, the father of good sense.” We might also emulate Cervantes in this regard, who Don Quixote gives us many chuckles, but in the process no bones are broken and no malice is borne.
No discussion of kinds of humor would be complete without mention of the pun. It is probably the meanest member of the family. Samuel Johnson regarded it as a kind of verbal vice. In his Dictionary he defines it as follows: “To pun is to pound or beat with a pestle.” Boswell gives this account:
I have mentioned Johnson’s aversion to a pun. He once, however, endured one of mine. When we were talking of a numerous company in which he had distinguished himself highly, I said, “Sir, you were a Cod surrounded by smelts. Is not this enough for you? at a time too when you were not fishing for a compliment?” He laughed at this with a complacent approbation. Old Mr. Sheridan observed, upon my mentioning it to him, “He liked your compliment so well, he was willing to take it with pun sauce.” For my own part I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed: and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.
Milton, in the ninth book of Paradise Lost, made Adam, immediately after the fall, a punster—the counterpart of a present day TV comedian. Yet Paul may have given the pun canonical status. In Philippians 4:2 he exhorts two women, one of whom is named Euodia, to oneness of mind. Later on, in the same chapter he refers to the gifts which the Philippians had given him as an “odor of a sweet smell,” literally an odor of “euodia.” It has been suggested that this is a pleasant pun on the name of the lady whom he knew to have been influential in preparing the gift for him.
Propriety In The Pulpit
Along with an appreciation for the types of humor, as ministers of the Gospel, we need especially to develop a sense of propriety in humor. This is because we are constantly handling that which is sacred. Someone has defined humor as the clever association of unlike things. But many ministers, especially youthful ones, are too clever by a half. Their association of the sacred and the profane is more perverse than funny. Such humor is as misplaced as Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. Jokes about sprinkling and immersion, pearly gates, and hell fire are crumbs which we do well to leave to dogs. Bishop Jeremy Taylor once said, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, but not for jesting.”
If, however, we avoid these pitfalls, a sense of humor and the use of that sense is an invaluable asset to every minister of the Gospel. Erasmus, in his introductory epistle to The Praise of Folly, pointed out to Sir Thomas More that the greatest minds of classical antiquity (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and Plutarch) not only wrote on light subjects, but wrote lightly, because they knew that many readers would reap more advantage from such a form of treatment than from some more big and stately argument. Like the sugared coating of a healthful pill, a bit of humor helps people digest solid theology. Furthermore, a sense of humor will help the minister and missionary more than any psychiatric therapy, for it palliates disappointments and alleviates tensions. People who did not know Lincoln well sometimes felt he was more of a jester than a sage. But those closest to him realized that his joking often provided a necessary relief.
The Religion Of Joy
But humor has its roots deeper than any expediency or need of venting pent-up emotions. Christianity is the religion of joy. The promised seed of Abraham was named Isaac which means “laughter,” for Sarah said, “God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6). Now the true seed of Abraham is Christ; he is the Son who was given to save us from our sins. If we know the Saviour and his salvation, if through faith in him we have been justified from all things, then we should above all else be a happy people and, among other ways, express this happiness by entering into the wit and humor of life.
Preacher In The Red
I had arranged to go to a denominational committee meeting with another committee member who lived not far from me. On the phone I suggested we go in my car. “No, we can take mine.” Jokingly I said, “We’ll fight it out when I get to your place.” Arriving there I saw a car at the curb, its motor running, and decided that my fellow committee member had made the choice for us. We would go in her car. I met her at the door of her home. As we headed for the parked car she said, “You can drive.” I thought to myself she was being very gracious! As we drove along I made some comment about her car. At the time it seemed to me her answer was rather vague, but I thought nothing more of it. After the committee meeting we started home. I made some further comment about how well her car handled. She looked startled. “This isn’t my car. I thought it was yours!” “Then whose car is it?” I said, “I thought it was yours.” I headed for the nearest phone to discover that for two hours the car had been listed as stolen.—The Rev. JOHN ANDERSON BARBOUR, Minister, St. Paul, Minnesota.
For each report by a minister of the Gospel of an embarrassing moment in his life, CHRISTIANITY TODAY will pay $5 (upon publication). To be acceptable, anecdotes must narrate factually a personal experience, and must be previously unpublished. Contributions should not exceed 250 words, should be typed double-spaced, and bear the writer’s name and address. Upon acceptance, such contributions become the property of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Address letters to: Preacher in the Red, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 1014 Washington Building, Washington 5, D. C.
Paul K. Jewett is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds the B.A. degree from Wheaton College, Th.B. and Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Ph.D. from Harvard University.
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