March 27, 2015

[This article was published as a ‘Letter from the Manse’ in the church magazine of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport, Cheshire (March 2015).]

I spent last week with seventeen other men. We came together for a ‘study week’ and we studied. Seven hours together each day around the conference table and personal assignments to be completed in the break times. We worked through Galatians, grappling with historical issues, exegetical problems, biblico-theological themes, questions of application. We wrote paraphrases of the sections, drew up sermon outlines, presented them with the help of the OHP. It was demanding, intense, purposeful, exhausting, and deeply serious. We were conscious that we were wrestling with God’s Word, and the goal was that we should be better equipped to preach it to God’s people.

And it was fun. We enjoyed it. Lots of laughter around the study table, as well as at meal-times and cryptic-crossword-times and late-night-cocoa times. We had among us a specialist in bad puns – and his contributions set off chains of puns around the room, getting worse as they continued. (I enjoyed the story someone told after the answer to a crossword clue had turned out to be ‘tern’ … It concerned a German who swapped his sausage for a seabird, and took a tern for the wurst). There was the usual north-and-south teasing; there were the hilarious stories of embarrassing personal disasters; there were the absurd flights-of-fancy; as the week went on, there were the practical jokes and the appropriate retributions.

Humour is dangerous

The Bible warns us many times about the dangers of humour. Humour can become unseemly and crude: ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving’ (Eph. 5:4).

Humour can spring from folly – a refusal to take life seriously: ‘For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools’ (Eccles. 7:6).

Humour can be blasphemous – the men who stood at the cross and mocked the Lord Jesus thought they were being funny. ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself!’ (Matt. 27:42).

Humour can be dangerous and irresponsible: ‘Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I am only joking!”‘ (Prov. 26:19). (Remember the two ‘pranksters’ who rang up the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was staying?)

Humour can be ill-timed and insensitive. Humour can be cruel and hurtful. Humour can be used to excuse wicked behaviour. Here’s C. S. Lewis – or rather, here’s his senior devil Screwtape explaining to his pupil how to destroy human souls – Screwtape’s advice:

Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows for having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow … Cruelty is shameful – unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation as much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke…
But, Screwtape goes on to say, there is a still more effective way in which humour can destroy souls:

But flippancy is the best of all … Only a very clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people, the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No-one actually makes it, but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy (God), that I know …

If you want to understand what Lewis is getting at, just listen for ten minutes to any Radio 4 ‘comedy’ show. What do you get? A stream of flippant comments about virtue, immorality, Christians, heaven, hell, angels, devils, the Bible. No-one ever actually says what’s supposed to be funny about these things. But all the clever people talk as if they’re obviously ridiculous.

There are some subjects which we as Christians must never make jokes about. We cannot trivialise serious things – things that ought to make us tremble. I’ve heard jokes from the lips of Christians – and yes, from preachers – about Adam’s Fall – the act of wickedness from which all human sin has flowed. I’ve heard jokes about the Flood – the greatest catastrophe yet to come upon the human race through human sin. I have heard jokes about Satan – my greatest enemy and God’s. I have heard jokes about Judgement Day and hell. And I’m leaving wondering, ‘do we really believe what the Bible says about these awful realities?’

Humour: better banned?

So humour is dangerous. And yet, every study week we hold is full of laughter. And this year’s was no exception. Should I feel guilty about that? Is humour inappropriate when we’ve come together for such a serious purpose? Should men studying the Bible and training as preachers be laughing together? Doesn’t it undermine the sanctity of what we’re seeking to do and to be?

Of course it’s not just study week. At almost every meeting of the church I hear something that tickles my sense of humour. And if Christian friends join us in our home, it would seem strange if we never laughed together. Should I be alarmed by that? Are humour and holiness incompatible?

No, I don’t think so. The Bible itself is laced with humour. Word-play, wit, satire, farce, are all there within the pages of Holy Scripture.

The Bible writers loved puns, word-play, riddles. The story of Samson is full of puns and double entendres. Of course most of them can’t be translated into English. Take Samson’s words in Judges 15:16:

With the jawbone of donkey, heaps upon heaps,
With the jawbone of a donkey I struck down a thousand men.
Not very funny, until you realise that the Hebrew words for ‘donkey’ and for ‘heap’ are identical. ‘With the jawbone of a hamor, I made … hamors out of them!’ He obviously thought that he was being very amusing … and at least his pun was better than most of the ones we heard on study-week …

Some Bible word-plays are very dark. Remember Joseph’s interpretation of the butler’s and the baker’s dreams? First to the butler, he says, ‘In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head … he will restore you to your position!’ The baker hears what Joseph’s said to his colleague and ‘seeing that the interpretation was favourable’ decides he wants Joseph to tell him his fate too. And Joseph does: ‘In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head … (wait for it!) – he’ll lift it up right off you. And he’ll hang your body on a pole …’ First Joseph uses the phrase ‘lift up your head’ to mean something very positive. And then he uses it again, leads on the baker – and us – to expect something equally positive, until – bang! – the punchline. Grim humour – but so effective in driving home the message of God’s sovereignty. The same God who had ordained that the butler’s head be lifted up in honour, had ordained that the baker’s head was lifted up in disaster.

Satire in the Bible

The OT prophets often used satire. Sometimes it can be very barbed. Remember Elijah’s mocking of Baal’s prophets and their ‘god’?

Cry aloud, for he is a god! Either he’s musing, or he’s on the loo, or he’s away on business – or maybe he’s asleep and you need to wake him up!
Or in the same vein, Isaiah’s exposé of the absurdity of those who worship idols:

He cuts down cedars or he chooses a cypress tree … Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes half of it and warms himself, he lights a fire and bakes bread. And he makes a god and worships it; he turns it into an idol and worships it! Half of it he burns in the fire, eats meat over it, roasts the meat and is satisfied … And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down before it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘save me, for you are my god!’. (Isa. 44:14-17).
Jeremiah’s picture of idol worship is even more cutting. The idol has to be fastened into place ‘with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot speak; they have to be carried everywhere – for they cannot walk!’ (Jer. 10:5). What a picture! The great gods of the nations, shining with silver and gold, decked in royal robes, adored by the crowds, are just scarecrows stuck out in the field, putting up a fine show but incapable of doing anything!

The Bible tells us that God laughs – at the hopelessness of human attempts to overthrow him (Psa. 2:4). And there are times when God’s spokesmen – the prophets – have to laugh with him. But their laughter doesn’t make sin seem trivial or funny. Rather it shows up human sin as contemptible and inexcusable.

The Bible faithfully records the absurd things that people do and say – and we laugh at them. My children laughed when we came in our family worship to Aaron’s words in Exodus ch. 32: ‘they gave their gold to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’. But as they laughed at Aaron’s absurd excuse, they were made to feel how absurd their own excuses so often are.

Comic pictures, comic situations

The book of Proverbs is perhaps the funniest book in the Bible – full of witty observations and comic pictures:

The sluggard says, ‘there is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!’ As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish, but he’s too tired to lift it back to his mouth! (26:13-14).
Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears… (26:17).
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a beautiful woman without discretion (11:22).
It is better to live in a corner of the roof than to share a house with a nagging wife (21:9).
Any preacher who preaches on verses like these without making his congregation grin or giggle has failed to use them the way they’re intended to be used. They’re supposed to tickle the imagination. That was the writer’s – and God’s – intended way of challenging his hearers to serious thought and changed behaviour.

What about the comic situations in the Bible? Baalam, the greatest prophet of his day, feared and respected across the East for the power of his words, finishes up in an argument with his donkey and comes off worst (Num. 22:22-30). What a rebuke to the ‘wisdom’ of man, when a donkey shows itself wiser than its master!

Pharaoh, the great Emperor, worshipped as a god by his people, can’t keep the frogs out of his bed (Exod. 8:3). What a rebuke to man’s fancied greatness!

And what about the sheer farce of Esther chapter 6 where Haman, convinced that he’s ‘the man the king delights to honour’ lists off all the honours due to such a man, only to find that he’s committed himself to give them all to his worst enemy, Mordecai? Haman is forced to dress Mordecai up in royal robes, to mount him on the king’s horse, and then to lead him through the streets, shouting his honours. Can you read that chapter without laughing? I can’t. But what a rebuke to man’s lofty ambitions.

And what about the teasing? Joseph’s kindness to his brothers was beyond measure. He forgave them freely; he lavished gifts upon them. But he couldn’t resist a sly dig as they set off back to dad. ‘Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Don’t quarrel on the way!”.’

Jesus the Master, Paul his pupil

What about the Lord Jesus himself? Jesus was not afraid to use comic pictures and stories to drive home his utterly serious message. One man with a plank sticking out of his eye is determined to get the speck out of another’s. A man has a collection of pearls and decides to feed them to pigs. A camel tries to force itself through the eye of a needle (and no, there’s no evidence that there was ever a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye”). These are absurd over-the-top pictures. People must have smiled when Jesus drew them. But they went home with an arrow of conviction in their hearts.

Jesus’s hearers must often have grinned as they recognised his wry caricatures of their friends and neighbours: a widow who wears out a ruthless judge by her constant nagging; a man who’s got the cheek to knock up his neighbour in the middle of the night to borrow food for his visitor; a manager who’s given notice but hangs on to his job long enough to make friends with his master’s money (‘the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness!’). But as Jesus pressed home his applications, the same hearers must have squirmed as they found their own follies exposed.

Paul was not above using puns and word-plays in his letters – sometimes with shocking force. Again they often can’t be translated effectively into English. But we can still appreciate them. Judaising false teachers went on about the importance of peritome – circumcision. But when Paul responded to them, he preferred to use a different word – katatome – mutilation! (Phil. 3:2). He was fond too of sarcasm. ‘Already you have everything you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – without us (apostles)! I only wish that you were kings, so that we might be kings along with you!’ (1 Cor. 4:8). I hope the Corinthians smiled ruefully as they realised the absurdity of their vanity.

Of course, all these examples I’ve given of humour in the Bible have a serious purpose. The Bible is a serious book. It was breathed out by God in order to make us ‘wise for salvation, for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim. 3:15-16). But the Bible writers are not afraid to use puns, satire, farcical episodes – all the tools of comedy – to drive home their serious message.

And what about fun?

So laughter can be used for serious purposes. But the Bible doesn’t say that that’s the only way it should be used. Laughter can simply be the natural overflowing of friendship, happiness, celebration. When Sarah at last gave birth to Isaac, she laughed! And she said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age’ (Gen. 21:6). She knew that other folk would laugh when they thought of her – at her age! – nursing her first child. But it would be happy laughter, and she would laugh with them.

The exiles who returned from exile in Babylon were like people in a dream. It seemed too good to be true. ‘Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy …’ (Psa. 126:2). When a group of people who love one another are together, delighting in some happy experience, it takes very little to set them laughing! Jokes that would fall flat at other times seem hilariously funny. A bad pun is enough to set them giggling with delight. That was the way the returning exiles felt!

C. S. Lewis describes so well this sort of happy laughter. Here’s Screwtape again. You will see it, he says

among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause …
I’m glad to think we’ve tasted something of that on study week year after year. I’m glad when I find it within the life of the church.

C. H. Spurgeon – Pure Fun

For some Christians, natural, overflowing, happy laughter is rare. For others, it seems to be woven into their whole personality. C. H. Spurgeon was an intensely serious man, utterly committed to the cause of Christ and his kingdom. He went through harrowing experiences and through times of black depression. And yet, he was never far from laughter. I wish I could quote the whole chapter ‘Pure Fun’ from the Autobiography,1 but I’ll just give a few sample paragraphs:

Arriving late at a friend’s house, he explained that he

had stopped on the way to vote. ‘To vote!’ exclaimed the good man; ‘but my dear brother, I thought you were a citizen of the New Jerusalem!’ ‘So I am,’ replied Spurgeon, ‘but my old man is a citizen of this world.’ ‘Ah! but you should mortify your old man.’ ‘That is exactly what I did; for my old man is a Tory, and I made him vote for the Liberals!’
At one of the meetings when contributions for the new Tabernacle were brought in, the names of Knight and Duke were read out from the list of subscribers, whereupon Spurgeon said, ‘Really, we are in grand company with a knight and a duke!’ Presently, ‘Mr. King, five shillings,’ was reported, when the Pastor exclaimed, ‘Why, the king has actually given his crown! What a liberal monarch!’ Directly afterwards, it was announced that Mr. Pig had contributed a guinea. ‘That,’ said Mr. Spurgeon, ‘is a guinea-pig.’
Dr. John Campbell was once in a second-hand bookseller’s shop with Spurgeon, and, pointing to Thorn on Infant Baptism, he said, ‘There is a thorn in the flesh for you.’ Mr. Spurgeon at once replied, ‘Finish the quotation, my brother – the messenger of Satan to buffet me.’
Preaching at a wedding,

the Pastor, addressing the bride, said, ‘According to the teaching of the apostle, The husband is the head of the wife. Don’t you try to be the head; but you be the neck, then you can turn the head whichever way you like.’
You never have to read very far in Spurgeon’s works – his sermons, his letters, his lectures – before coming across a whimsical comment, a lame pun, or a comical anecdote. Even his Commenting and Commentaries2 is littered with jokes. You might expect a catalogue of Bible commentaries to be the dryest of reading. Not if it’s written by CHS! Here he is, reviewing Coke on Exodus:

… next door to a fraud, for it is ‘in the main a reprint of the work of Dr Dodd, without that author’s name’. Ah, Dr Coke, this is a burning shame!
And here’s his comment on Barker’s Thirty-six psalms with commentary and prayer for use in families:

What platitudes people will write for the use of families. Families will best use these commentaries and prayers by lining their cake tins with them.
Holiness and humour

Spurgeon wasn’t unique. Luther, Berridge, and Latimer were all deeply serious men who overflowed with humour – and who turned it to good use. Here’s a sample of Latimer’s preaching – before the king of England, and many magistrates and judges:

A good fellow on a time bade another of his friends to a breakfast, saying, ‘If you will come you shall be welcome, but I tell you beforehand, you shall have but slender fare, one dish, and that’s all.’ ‘What is that?’ said he. ‘A pudding, and nothing else.’ ‘Marry,’ quoth he, ‘you cannot please me better; of all meats that is for mine own tooth; you may draw me round about the town with a pudding.’ These bribing magistrates and judges follow gifts faster than the fellow would follow his pudding.
Lovely. Courage and comedy marching together. Holiness and humour going hand in hand. I’d like to think that’s what we tasted on study week. I hope we’ll find it often in our gatherings.

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell;
Come ye before him and rejoice.

Stephen Rees’ material was published on the BANNER OF TRUTH online website.