Free: Preaching and Comedy – chapter 1

 

Chapter 1 – Should Preachers Use Comedy?

 

I was having a casual conversation about preaching and comedy with another preacher. I mentioned an occasion when I used some comedy in my preaching at a church service. The Bible passage for the occasion was John 10:6-10 – one of Christ’s beautiful illustrations where he refers to himself as, ‘the gate for the sheep.’ I had prepared a sermon focusing on the word ‘gate’, investigating many things that Jesus being ‘The Gate’ might mean. However, as the service progressed towards the moment of preaching, I became steadily more aware of a dour atmosphere hanging over the meeting. This unpleasant ambience was so noticeable by the time I was called upon to speak, that it felt as if an invisible barrier had formed between those in the main seating area and those on the staging at the front of the church: musicians, readers, prayer and worship leaders. Stepping up from my place within the congregation and passing from one grim ‘side’ to the other made me long to see the barrier removed. If we felt disconnected from each other, surely a sense of worshipful connection with our Father might also be in jeopardy? I felt I needed to reach out to my brothers and sisters in manner that would be unifying in some way. How better than to invite everyone to laugh together with a good joke, or, failing that, a poor one?

 

It is questionable as to whether or not the joke bears repeating, but I shall do so, for the purpose of illustration only. In the most serious manner I could muster, I told everyone that my sleep had been disturbed the previous night by a thief who was trying to steal our garden gate. As I said this I walked with the microphone back into the main body of the congregation. I steadily embellished the peripheral details of the story ‘conversationally’ with those nearest to me until one of them asked me, “Didn’t you shout out of the window at him?” This was my moment to reply, “No, because I didn’t want him to take a fence!”

 

Perhaps a spiritual, emotional or some other barrier had genuinely formed and divided our gathering. If it had, then the moment of comedy, however strained it may have been, seemed to permanently rupture it. Laughter came – much of it might have been in sympathy for my efforts, rather than as a response to something hilarious – but with the laughter came a relaxed closeness and communion. Perhaps I had entirely imagined the unpleasant atmosphere. If I had, then the joke was still very beneficial for me as the preacher. It helped me reach the point of proclaiming something I believed to be God’s message for the congregation with a personal sense of communicative connection with the congregation.

 

“I don’t do comedy” said the other preacher. The question is, should he?

 

Does it have a Scriptural precedent?

 

In his letters to the emerging Christian Church, St Paul includes an array of explanations, encouragements, admonitions and instructions. The subject of humour is not absent from his epistles and, arguably, neither is his use of humorous comments.  It would be hard to forget Paul’s opposition towards those who preached circumcision and his witty invective in wishing that ‘they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves’ (Galatians 5:12). Paul waxes lyrical to his Philippian friends about confidence in his formidable Judaic heritage.  Having done so, he has no hesitation in dramatically changing his tone and vocabulary to describe the whole array of qualifications as skubala – literally, dung, but often politely translated into the English as ‘rubbish’ (Philippians 3:4-8).

 

It also seems that there were certain types of humour that met with scant approval from St Paul. In Ephesians 5:4, he specifically forbids ‘obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking’. There can be little debate over the translation and meaning of Paul’s original words: aischrotes is filthiness, morologia is foolish talking and eutrapalia is inappropriate joking. Paul’s disfavour is entirely unsurprising and in keeping with his other writings. The Christian should steer well clear of the immorality that is so often either the fuel for comedy, or the sinister visage behind a comedic mask. However, I believe that Paul makes no attempt to stop humour per se, or the laughter it engenders.

 

Paul wrote to a church that contained hundreds, if not thousands of Christians who had sat at the feet of Jesus Himself and who had been entertained (or even humoured) by His use of hyperbole in dealing with the religious authorities: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). Perhaps this faithful crowd had also been spurred to joyful laughter by Christ’s satirical manner of story-telling and so a Pauline ban on all comedy might have jarred against their experience and their expectation.

 

Far from banning comedy, there is a specific occasion where it appears that Paul tries to marry it to the proclamation of the Good News: ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt (halas), so that you may know how to answer everyone’ (Colossians 4:6).

 

Scholars and commentators have disagreed about the meaning of the Greek word halas in this context. The literal translation is simply ‘salt’ and many mention its flavouring and preservative properties that symbolised goodness or ‘denoted moral worth.’[1] Others cross reference this statement with Christ’s call to be salt within the world in Matthew 5.[2] But some claim that Paul was referring to wit. Murray J. Harris explains that salt is, ‘pungency and wittiness of speech’.[3] David Garland gives a more detailed explanation:

 

In our idiom, salty language is something replete with profanities, but obviously that is not Paul’s meaning. “Seasoned with salt” was used to refer to witty, amusing, clever, humorous speech. Their saltiness will prevent them from being ignored as irrelevant bores.[4]

 

The New Jerusalem Bible of 1985 abandons any footnotes and provisos and directly translates Colossians 4:6 in this fashion: ‘Always talk pleasantly and with a flavour of wit but be sensitive to the kind of answer each one requires.’

 

It is, therefore, arguable that some aspects of comedy – such as hyperbole, wit, and righteous invective – might be employed in written or spoken Christian ministry with Scriptural justification.

 

“I don’t do comedy” said the other preacher. The question is, should he?

 

Can it ever really be in harmony with the proclamation of the Gospel?

 

Christians are called to preach the Good News, the origin of which is well known and celebrated. No-one really knows where comedy came from. Its history is both fascinating and very fragmented. The beginnings are particularly shrouded in mystery. Aristotle makes note in his Poetics that, ‘The various stages of tragedy and the originators of each are well known, but comedy remains obscure because it was not at first treated seriously.’[5] This begs the obvious question, why were the ‘originators’ of comedy not treated with seriousness and painstakingly preserved? Aristotle not so subtly suggests that this was because comedy found its source among the ‘phallic songs’ of the poorer classes in the cities and because it is, ‘a representation of inferior people.’[6] Thus, he places the blame for vagary upon the impoverished communities where he believes comedy found its roots.

 

Aristotle lived in and out of Athens from 384BC to 322BC. He was well placed to observe and comment on the origins of comedy. It might, however, be the case that observing the modern nature of comedy can add further light to the issue of the gaps in its history. Today it is plain to see that the world of comedy is both fluid and transient. That which is witty, daring and hilarious today is found to be staid, clichéd or stultifyingly unfunny tomorrow. Comedy exists in an ever changing stream of fashions, culture and consciousness. A distinguishing feature of comedy might always have been that it was temporary. It is, by necessity, a chimera, built not of lion, goat and snake, but of constantly shifting elements, borrowed from wherever, whenever. The creature is incessantly being renewed and rebuilt, as different ages, fads and fashions contribute a claw or paw to its shape. Comedy is recognisable only by the laughter it generates. It dissolves and reforms many times in each generation.

 

Comedy captured by writing (or film, or ever more modern means) soon becomes no comedy at all. Often, all that can be gleaned from it is a glimpse of the age that created it, but the life blood of all comedy, laughter, is long gone – in all likelihood never to return. The study of comic history is usually the study of an exsanguine thing. Perhaps Aristotle’s antecedents realised this and abandoned the recording of comedy as a futile exercise.

 

And what of the laughter that comedy generates? When it rings out as an expression of joy in a pure and lovely form, what could be more in keeping with the Gospel? However, sometimes laughter is an ugly or condemnatory sound that brings derision, hatred and disharmony. Dr Robert Provine is considered to be one of the world’s leading researchers into the phenomenon of laughter. He has published the results of numerous studies investigating the processes which prompt laughter and the wider effects of it on individuals and groups; he comments:

 

Laughter is a harlequin that shows two faces – one smiling and friendly, the other dark and ominous. Mardi Gras floats and sinister mechanical jokesters of old carnival funhouses mirror this duality – a volatile mix of gay and macabre that speaks to the emotional centres of our brain. Laughter can serve as a bond to bring people together or as a weapon to humiliate and ostracise its victims. Despots have rightly feared its power and have savagely repressed it. Plato thought that undisciplined laughter could threaten the state.[7]

 

How can shape-shifting comedy – the father of two-faced laughter – embrace and proclaim the unchanging Gospel? Was there ever so solid a thing as the Good News? Since its inception, it has been lambasted, attacked, outlawed and vilified, but it has not altered or faded away. Could there be more unlikely bedfellows than comedy and Gospel?

 

Nonetheless, comedy can be a messenger and the Good News is a message. It is a message that has frequently been delivered by those who have allowed their manner of delivery to be shaped by the surrounding culture, just as comedy is shaped. Paul is unequivocal in his epistle to the Corinthian church:

 

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1st Corinthians 9:20-23)

 

William Willimon noted that, ‘Christian communicators readily used the Greek language that was available to them. Yet they did not accept the cosmology, the world which Greek language conventionally described. The language was seized and used for a very different message in order to construe for the hearers a very different world.’[8]  Could humour not be embraced in a similarly selective manner by the preacher? I believe that it is sometimes possible to detach the cultural eloquence of comedy from its components that are contrary to the Gospel of love and peace. Once it is free from indecency, comedy can be assigned a more heavenly task: to equip the preacher and to, ‘enflesh the message of the homily, to clothe a declarative sentence announcing good news with the shared symbols and images of the gathered assembly.’[9]

 

It is worth mentioning that attempts were made in ancient times to improve the morality of comedy. Between the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC, an Athenian dramatist and poet sought to steer comedy in a new direction. His name was Menander and he is commonly regarded as the founder of Athenian ‘New Comedy’. Emil Benecke said of Menander:

 

Indeed, the essentially “proper” character of the Menandrean drama is emphasised by more than one ancient witness. That Comedy could be anything but indecent was a revelation to Athens of the fourth century…[10]

 

How fitting it is that Paul chooses the works of Menander from which to select a witty quotation and include it in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character”’ (1 Corinthians 15:33).[11] It seems right that a word or two of Menander can thus be elevated to Scripture.

 

“I don’t do comedy” said the other preacher. The question is, should he?

 

Do the various genres of comedy contain hidden lessons in preaching? What, exactly, can the preacher learn from the comedian?



[1] G. Kittel, G. Friedrich, trans. G. W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing 1985), 36

[2] R. P. Martin, Colossians: The Church’s Lord and the Christian’s Liberty, (The Paternoster Press, 1972), 139

[3] M. J. Harris, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians and Philemon, (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1991), 197

[4] D. E. Garland, Colossians – The NIV Application Commentary, (Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 274

[5] Aristotle, trans. W.H. Fyfe, Poetics, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 23, (Heinemann, 1934), 1449a

[6] Aristotle, trans. W.H. Fyfe, Poetics, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 23, (Heinemann, 1934), 1449a

[7] R. R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, (Penguin, 2001), 2

[8] W. H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, (Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1992), 80

[9] S. V. De Leers, Written Text Becomes Living Word: The Vision and Practice of Sunday Preaching, (Liturgical Press, 2004), 100

[10] E. F. M. Benecke, Antimachus of Colophon and the Position of Women in Greek Poetry, (READ Books, 2008), 171

[11] This pithy quotation comes, in all likelihood, from Menander’s comedy, Thais

©2011 James East. Used by Permission.

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