The True Repentance of an Inconvenient Jester
September 14, 2010
Some months ago, a Presbyterian magazine criticized a response I had made to comments about me by a certain well-known writer in a popular Christian publication. My response, the writer declared in good, contemporary fashion, was unfortunate because it contained `jesting, which is inconvenient' and handled a 'senior figure' somewhat roughly. The writer clearly thought that prose which used the occasional bit of humour was far more reprehensible than the original accusation of slander by said `senior figure' to which I was responding. That's `slander' as in `misrepresentation with malice aforethought of a person's actions with a view to damaging their public reputation' - apparently a fairly trivial accusation as far as my Presbyterian chastiser was concerned. After all, the accusation of slander was, if false, merely a breach of the Ninth Commandment and nothing like as serious as a bit of `inconvenient jesting;' and, if having any substance, not a charge one would want to bother making in the appropriate, procedural fashion, involving charges, specifications, a fair ecclesiastical trial with a chance for the defendant to clear his name and all that sort of bleeding-heart liberal malarkey. What a waste of time and effort that would be. As to the rough handling of this 'senior figure,' I guess I must apologise: all I can plead is that, at the time of writing, I was not aware that observing the Ninth Commandment or the decency and order of due process was unnecessary once one had a bus pass and a pension book.
Still, I was grateful to the writer for one thing: the timely reminder that serious sense of humour failures are, in Protestant circles, if not exactly compulsory, at least something highly to be desired, a good metric for judging sanctification. And that was sufficient to bring me to my moral senses. Thus, I am happy to report that this particular inconvenient jester is now, if not a thoroughly convenient killjoy, at least well on his way to becoming such a one.
I should have known, as a goodish Protestant, that all humour in theology serves a wicked purpose. After all, it is the papists who produce the funniest writers, from Newman to Chesterton to Waugh, with even Walker Percy having his moments. Need I say more? Can I rest my case at this point? To put it in logical form: Catholicism is bad; Catholicism has produced funny people; therefore, funny people are bad. Thus, given the religious provenance of its best exemplars, humour must therefore be intrinsically evil: if they make you laugh today, then, by good and necessary consequence, we know they'll be forcing you to kneel down and kiss the Pope's ring tomorrow.
In comparison with Catholic wit, Protestantism has clearly been far more sanctified. While Spurgeon was definitely a master of the one-liner (hey - nobody's sinlessly perfect this side of glory), and Kierkegaard a master of irony (but no orthodox person reads him today, on the grounds that Francis Schaeffer told us he was a naughty boy), Protestantism has thankfully produced very few decent humorous prose stylists. In fact, just to be on the safe side, Protestantism has actually produced few decent prose stylists of any sort, for that matter. Indeed, I suspect one would have to go back to Jonathan Swift to find a broadly orthodox Protestant churchman who was actually able to write sustained, elegant prose that still proves capable of provoking laughter. And he wanted to eat Irish babies, didn't he? Now, I love Irish babies; but I could never eat a whole one We can be grateful, therefore, that polished Protestant prose more or less died with the Dean, and we are now free to enjoy the more godly, less ambiguous, and certainly less jesting prose of modern day wielders of the Proddy pen, from Peretti to LaHaye. How convenient is that?
Of course, there were early attempts to destroy the essential godliness of Protestantism. Martin Luther was particularly reprehensible in this regard: making jokes about how much he drank, and about farting in the face of the Devil; mocking that poor, hardworking, sincere preacher who spoke at length on the virtues of marital sex at a service held in a home for elderly single ladies - pace Martin's condescending sneers, many of the old ladies found it `very deep,' or so I am told; and as for telling his wife in love letters about how many bowel movements he was having in a morning while away from her - words fail me. But then, as a repentant inconvenient jester myself, such failure should, I suspect, be a source of some personal comfort and encouragement. Indeed, to extrapolate, it is surely a cause for rejoicing, as we look at the wider Christian world, that Luther seems to have ultimately made so little of an impact on contemporary Protestant church life.
Calvin was, thankfully, fairly humourless most of the time, though we should be cautious about ascribing this to pure godliness - no hagiography, please, we're Calvinists after all! In fact, I imagine that the great (the greatest? - in a non-hagiographic way, of course) saint's humourlessness was, in part, one of the few benefits of the severe bladder stone problems and other health issues from which he suffered throughout much of his adult life. Still, even he had his moments of sinful and disappointing weakness. The famous satirical inventory of relics is a case in point. If you read it after drinking a couple of glasses of red wine and filling in your tax return, it can indeed provoke laughter; but this is just sad testimony to the fact that even one of the great and the good like Calvin can on occasion exhibit unfortunate Romish tendencies.
As to John Owen, when it comes to satire the man was a virtual crypto-papist., making it incomprehensible that he still seems to enjoy such vogue among those otherwise concerned with jesting which is inconvenient. Ok, his early attempts were generally over the top misfires, a bit like any American knock-off of a British comedy you care to mention, and thus safely devoid of anything approaching clever humour. Case in point: the description of free will as some pagan idol in A Display of Arminianism; but then he really hit his stride in the 1650s. Just read his Socinian Catechism - God having a body, sitting in heaven, wondering what might happen tomorrow? Didn't he realize these were serious issues with which he was dealing? And how hurtful and counterproductive this mickey-taking of admittedly absurd theology was to senior figures among the Socinian movement, senior figures who, one might add, would surely not have taken kindly to such rough handling by a pre-pubescent theologian in his late thirties? Was this satire likely to win such to Jesus? I don't think so, Johnny Boy. Straight to the detention room and write out `I must not have fun ridiculing silliness and its advocates' four hundred times, please!
This is one reason why it is so good to be alive today. The greatness of contemporary Protestant evangelical literature and church life surely lies in the fact that it is, by and large, so godly as to be utterly humourless and, on frequent occasion, beyond parody. Novels that talk of the endtimes, where every Arab and almost every European, is wicked, and never use words of more than three syllables; blogs that witness the modern day posturing of the Little-Endians and Big- Endians as they do battle over vitally important topics such as coffee machines and single malt Scotch - it's all very encouraging, really. As Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, so one might today respond to the literary culture of Protestantism that has placed itself bravely beyond the reach of satire: `Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!'
Indeed, when you think of the dangers of humour, it is a very good job that the Protestant church today is not burdened with the likes of Luther, Owen, Swift, and even Spurgeon. Humour, after all, implies that the world in which sin and evil are rampant is somehow absurd and not the way it should be. Ridiculous. It also hinders us from understanding that our opponents really are dangerous and powerful in an ultimate sense and that our conflicts with them are of cosmic proportions. Nonsense. That's why fools like Luther used to laugh at their opponents, as if, in doing so, he might somehow convince himself not to fear those who destroy the body but rather him who has the power to cast body and soul into hell. So silly. Above all, it might prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously, and stop us from realizing that yes, it really is all about us, and that we are indeed the meaning of the universe. That's why Luther rabbits on about his bowel movements: it is in part a constant reminder of his mortality and, frankly, the absurd, earthy, undignified and ridiculous thing that humanity is in this world of countless towers of Babel, golden calves, and creatures strutting around with `Worship me! I'm the Creator!' tattooed on their chests.
So, when you sit down tonight and pick up your copy of Really Serious Piety by the Rev. Ichabod Horatio Morticius (Convenient Press, 2008), raise a glass to modern Protestantism, both orthodox and radical, to sense of humour failures everywhere, and to the idolatry of ourselves to which all this po-faced piety -- traditional, emergent, and all points in between -- witnesses. The last thing the church needs is more jesting. That would be far, far too inconvenient.