The Rise of Theological Humor

Several years ago I presented two papers at the regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society—a conference where evangelical scholars and scholar-wannabes 1) present papers, 2) discuss theology, and 3) avoid eye contact.

With rare exceptions, 1) the papers usually range from mediocre to awful, 2) the presenters leave little time for discussion, and 3) the avoidance of eye contact comes from people staring at each other’s name tags.

It’s all part of the game, really, and I keep going because everybody else does.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. . . . the two papers. I presented them both on the same day. The first paper was entitled, “Christ as Arche in Revelation 3:14—Source, Ruler, or Beginning?” It explored a difficult exegetical issue on Christ as “the Beginning of the creation of God,” and drew a crowd of nearly 5 people, give or take a few. I was proud of that paper. It was at least mediocre and was therefore published in Bibliotheca Sacra.

And I wasn’t disappointed that only an elite remnant attended my presentation, where I at least left a few minutes for discussion. In fact, I was delighted by the turn-out in a depraved sort of way. You see, I knew that at that very moment dozens of other conference attendees were enduring with precarious patience other presentations that ranged from mediocre to awful.

That was the first paper.

The second paper I presented an hour later was entitled, “Coffee as a Means of Grace: A Sip of Theological Humor,” complete with zany PowerPoint slides and highbrow (my wife calls it snobby) satire. In that paper I constructed an argument for the incorporation of coffee into worship as a sacrament, appealing to biblical, theological, historical, and experiential grounds (all of which were completely illegitimate). The paper was a success. Many unfaithful rebels who neglected my paper on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ flocked to hear me poke fun at theology in “Coffee as a Means of Grace.” A few of my professors were there, scowling. There went my hopes of ever getting a teaching job at Dallas Theological Seminary. That paper was the beginning and end of my career as a respectable theologian. Das ist das Leben.

Nevertheless, the paper was a hit. . . . and it still gets quite a bit of attention today.

What Is Theological Humor?

The genre of “theological humor,” as I call it, has a rich and interesting history that few people know, which allows me to pretty much tell it any way I want.

The Bible itself is peppered with irony, sarcasm, and hilarity—from the original blame game in the Garden of Eden after the Fall . . . to Aaron telling Moses that the golden calf just jumped out of the fire when he tried to burn the Israelites’ gold . . . to Elijah taunting the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel . . . to Jeremiah’s sarcastic polemic against idolatry. God knows that satire can be an effective tool for communicating truth.

Jesus did the same thing. Our distance from the history, geography, culture, and language often veils Christ’s sense of humor. An old book, The Humor of Christ, by Elton Trueblood, used to help us back when people actually read old books (that is, back when they were still new). He wrote, “Anyone who reads the Synoptic Gospels with a relative freedom from presuppositions might be expected to see that Christ laughed, and that He expected others to laugh, but our capacity to miss this aspect of His life is phenomenal” (p. 15). He concluded, “Any alleged Christianity which fails to express itself in gaiety, at some point, is clearly spurious” (p. 32). In short, Trueblood suggested, the failure of Christians to express humor is no laughing matter!

After Christ, the early church fathers—when they weren’t busy either dying for the faith or misunderstanding it—made jokes. At least some of them did. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies provides great examples of satire and hilarity as he often lampooned the outrageous beliefs of the Gnostics and other heretics (see especially his hilarious polemic against Valentinus in Against Heresies 1.11.4). Then again, their beliefs were sometimes so bizarre it didn’t take Irenaeus much effort to make them sound crazy.

Luther was well known for his sense of humor. (I’m skipping the medieval period because Popes, monks, priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals just aren’t very funny.) Calvin laughed, too. At least a little. Well, I have no evidence of it, but he must have had a sense of humor . . . right?

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that theological humor began to have its heyday. As far as I’m concerned, the modern great awakening of theological humor ignited with the fictional German works of Franz Bibfeldt, the stereotypical German theologian created by Robert Clausen, popularized by Martin Marty, and developed by a variety of theologians ever since (see the collection of Bibfeldt essays in The Unrelieved Paradox [available at any Half-Price Books in America]). Outside the evangelical tradition, we find similar works of humor, too. “Abendmahl fur Hunde (‘Communion for Dogs’)” by Charles Merritt Nielsen is one stellar example. It appeared in Perspectives in Religious Studies 10.1 (1983). That work may very well mark the pinnacle of theological humor.

To this scattered field of works of theological humor, I added my “Coffee as a Means of Grace,” to which I also added “Toward an Evangelical Theology of Cussing,” to which I eventually added “The Secret Gospel of Keith.” The first article does not, in fact, seriously argue that coffee should displace communion (or whatever other pseudo-sacrament evangelicals have already used to replace the eucharist). The second article does not really suggest we should start cussing like Minnesota Lutherans. And the third does not, in truth, translate a recently discovered lost gospel. They all, however, poke fun at certain methods used by scholars and theologians to support the unsupportable as well as the tendencies of evangelicals to take unsupportable views on things by means of unsupportable support. In short, all good theological humor points us to a deeper assertion of theological truth.

The Conclusion of the Matter

What’s the point of all this? I wouldn’t be a good evangelical if I didn’t end with at least two practical points. (This is our way of justifying any twisted interpretation of Scripture or any bastardization of sacred tradition.)

First, evangelicals need to stop taking everything so seriously—beginning with themselves. We need to be fundamentalists in the sense of holding to the true essentials of orthodoxy. But at the same time we need to put the “fun” back into fundamentalism. People remember jokes, jabs, sarcasm, and satire. And if you can communicate theological truth by these means, they’ll remember that as well.

Second—and pay attention to this—evangelicals need to keep from making everything into a joke. Growing up in a postmodern world (we’re in it, and you can’t stop it), I’ve seen unhealthy, pessimistic, and mean-spirited cynicism creep in among the younger generations of evangelicals—even among scholars. (I was tempted to say, especially among scholars.) We need to be ready to squash and kibosh destructive and mean-spirited cynicism that amounts to demolition rather than edification. Some humor pokes holes in things that really need to be deflated. Those of you who know me well know that I’m no wild iconoclast. . . . but on the other hand I confess that some icons need to be clasted. Attitude, however, is everything. I consider myself an optimistic cynic—cynical about man, but optimistic about God. Man will let us down, but God never will. We must filter our humor through a grid that deconstructs overconfidence in humans and heightens confidence in God. Then we will wield the double-edged sword of wit and wisdom in keeping with a long line of satirical saints who learned to join God in laughing out loud at the folly of man while tempering their delight with the light of truth.

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