06 March 2012

Cutting use of humor

by Dan Phillips

I recently finished my second go-through of the audiobook of Spurgeon's autobiography (see here and here). Among the many things that struck me were the great man's observations on humor, taken in turn from Lectures to My Students:
Sometimes, anecdotes have force in them on account of their appealing to the sense of the ludicrous. Of course, I must be very careful here, for it is a sort of tradition of the fathers that it is wrong to laugh on Sundays. The eleventh commandment is, that we are to love one another, and then, according to some people, the twelfth is, “Thou shalt pull a long face on Sunday.” I must confess that I would rather hear people laugh than I would see them asleep in the house of God; and I would rather get the truth into them through the medium of ridicule than I would have the truth neglected, or leave the people to perish through lack of reception of the truth. I do believe in my heart that there may be as much holiness in a laugh as in a cry; and that, sometimes, to laugh is the better thing of the two, for I may weep, and be murmuring, and repining, and thinking all sorts of bitter thoughts against God; while, at another time, I may laugh the laugh of sarcasm against sin, and so evince a holy earnestness in the defence of the truth. I do not know why ridicule is to be given up to Satan as a weapon to be used against us, and not to be employed by us as a weapon against him. I will venture to affirm that the Reformation owed almost as much to the sense of the ridiculous in human nature as to anything else, and that those humorous squibs and caricatures, that were issued by the friends of Luther, did more to open the eyes of Germany to the abominations of the priesthood than the more solid and ponderous arguments against Romanism. I know no reason why we should not, on suitable occasions, try the same style of reasoning. “It is a dangerous weapon,” it will be said, “and many men will cut their fingers with it.” Well, that is their own look-out; but I do not know why we should be so particular about their cutting their fingers if they can, at the same time, cut the throat of sin, and do serious damage to the great adversary of souls. [Spurgeon, C. H. (2009). Lectures to my Students, Vol. 3: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the students of the Pastors' College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (43–44). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.]
This is a topic worth greater focus, some time. We would see that the most frequent form of humor in the Bible is parody, satire, sarcasm. You'll not be surprised that the examples leaping to my mind come from Proverbs, which features both brief and extended send-ups of the lazy (6:6-11), the blinkingly-naive immoral lad (7:1-27), the harridan (27:15-16), the drunk (23:29-35), and of course the various kinds of fool (17:12; 26:11; 27:22). In fact,
The fact is that God moves His servants to communicate His truth, and to warn people away from deception, by all sorts of means. He moves them to employ instruction, explanation, reasoning, pleading, warning, and yes, even acerbic, sarcastic satire. Indeed, the most common forms of humor in the Bible are satire, sarcasm, and irony. [From this, p. 62]
"Dangerous tool," yes. But a tool nonetheless, and an effective one.

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yankeegospelgirl said...

Oh, oh, am I the first to comment? YES!

I'd have to double-check to see if you beat me to it, but it seems this post could be filed under "tone." A certain brand of Christian seems to think there is something inherently wrong with sarcasm. In fact, I see this attitude even among relatively conservative Christians. "Now, now. We are not going to belittle our opponents. We are going to treat them as equals and have a civil discussion."

Leaving me going, "But... but... what if they're not my equals? What if they're throwing out asinine ideas that deserve to be belittled? Most importantly, what if they are leading innocent people astray?" Sarcasm is not a dirty word.

DJP said...

Ah, you got me, Girl. I added it.

Very good point. That's exactly when I had in mind in describing the raised-pinkie, "careful" elite, who seem bound and determined ABOVE ALL THINGS to see to it that nobody look bad or feel bad for perverting God's Word and preaching damning heresy.

GW said...

Ridicule in the Bible makes me think of Elijah ...

And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
(1 Kings 18:26-27 ESV)

However, many of the sermons I hear these days use humor differently. More of the sarcastic, put down everything we can possibly think of humor of sitcoms and stand up comedians... Like that's a good idea. :-)

Solameanie said...

Wow. What a gem of a quote. Have to FB that one.

Steve Drake said...

From your Feb. 7th post,

We should not be careful to sell out God's dignity, honor and truth and the health and wellbeing of His church by avoiding offending anybody, making our false priority to avoid trouble, to avoid disagreement, to blunt the edges of the Gospel or of truth, to protect the credibility of false teachers and enable their continued harming of souls, to avoid being unpopular and ill-thought-of by those among whom the truth is ill-thought-of, to avoid all criticism, to protect our reputation and popularity among the elite.

We should care about doing our best to see God's truth triumph decisively over error — first in our own lives, then in our churches — more than we care about how we ourselves are perceived.

Wow, powerful stuff!

Chip Byrd said...

About 4 years ago I was at the Banner of Truth Conference. During the Q & A, the question was asked about the appropriateness of humor in sermons. As I recall, the men on the panel were Ian Murray, Ian Hamiliton, Sinclair Ferguson, and Alistair Begg. Ian Murray had the first crack at the question and he made it clear that the pulpit was not a place for humor. Next, the microphone went to Ferguson. He chuckled and said he would defer to his father in the faith. When Begg got the microphone he made a humorous remark. It seems that Spurgeon’s words are wise.

By the way, I sat next to Tom Chantry for a couple of those BoT sessions. It has been nice to see your comments on this site.


DJP said...

Yeah, humor in sermons is not what I was thinking of, but it's a good topic.

I'd say don't tell jokes, as a rule, period. I mean, never get up and say "Here's a joke. ____. Okay, now let's pray and do a sermon."

Humor in sermons I have no problem with, as long as it serves the message. I've known guys who should never tell jokes, but who provoke genuine and appropriate chuckles in the course of preaching well and passionately and dead-seriously.


bl_davis said...

Paul certainly understood sarcasm, suggesting that the Judaizers take their commitment to the law (circumcision) all the way (to CONcision - ouch!)!- Phil. 3:2

Johnny Dialectic said...

But Dan, Joel Osteen always begins with, "Ah lahk to start with somethin' funny..." and then tells a joke. And look at the size of his church! QED

Halcyon said...

Johnny D:

I always assumed that the "somethin' funny" was his sermon.

DJP said...

JD - seriously?

Oh dear.

yankeegospelgirl said...

I'll tell you what would be funny. If Osteen tripped and hit his mouth on the table and knocked out two of his front teeth... now THAT would be funny!

Tom Chantry said...

Hey, Chip,

I hope you make the trip again. I never miss Banner - there's nothing like it.

J Ken said...

Ha! I tweeted this blog and a random website about humour picked it up and put you in the society section.


Lynne Kerr said...

So...I wasn't wrong when I laughed at seeing Joel Osteen's books in the "Christian Fiction" section at my local non-Christian bookstore??

Canyon Shearer said...

I agree with everything written except for one of the words used: sarcasm.

I don't believe we should ever use sarcasm in the literalist sense of that word; sarx-flesh asmos-according to. Sarcasm is speaking according to the flesh. Historically this flesh has been understood to be sinful flesh; to be bitter and sneering. Let it never be so!

Let us be hyperbolic, entertaining, parabolic, anecdotal, but let us never be speaking in sin.

A long the same line, just something to think about: amuse comes from a-to negate, and muse-to think deeply, to be amused is to cease thinking. Let's make sure our humor is not there just to amuse.

Long-facedly yours,

Darlene said...

There is also something that could be defined as crass humor, which is very popular these days. This kind of humor has made its way into Christian circles. Secularization among Christians tends to occur like the frog-in-boiling water effect, and tasteless, vulgar humor has crept in, in like manner.

i.e.: Some of what passes for "Christian" humor is no different than the humor of secular culture.