Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Quest for Biblical Blogging, Part III - Humor, Sarcasm & Strong Language

In this last post for The Quest for Biblical Blogging I wish to address the very touchy subjects of humor, sarcasm and strong language; at least to the extent that I might be able to in a short weblog post! Let me say that with every post on The Armoury I continue to think about how deep these biblical subjects are and how they could all warrant a complete book, rather than a short post; thus, I fear that I will only graze the surface of what is a very deep subject, but something is better than nothing. I do think that this is another important spoke in the wheel of biblical communication, and it is especially needful in a culture that nearly worships comedy and entertainment. To get to this subject, I believe that I need to say a few preliminary things:

  • Prelim #1 - This is a Very Touchy Subject: For myself, I love a good laugh and can say that throughout my youth I have struggled greatly in the area of coarse jesting; and while the Lord has brought about much change in my life (in this area), I still must recognize and confess that this is a natural weakness of mine that must be guarded carefully. Ultimately, the counsel that I offer here is that which I myself continue to meditate on, and seek to glean for myself.
  • Prelim #2 - No Rules, Just a Few Principles: Whenever I find myself dealing with a subject matter that might be especially sensitive, I find it all the more necessary to emphasize principles rather than doling out what might be perceived as a set of arbitrary rules. I often think of the 39 Pharisaical rules that were enforced on the Sabbath day in the first century A.D. - I don’t want to be the one who creates the 40th rule. Besides, when it comes to the subject of humor it would seem that not everyone will agree entirely over what is legitimate and acceptable humor, therefore a good deal of charity is needful in a discussion like this. Having said this, let me address the subjects of humor, sarcasm and strong language with a very broad approach, focusing on our need for self control in view of the numerous texts which urge us to do so; after all, for every biblical justification that can be found for jesting and laughter, there are scores of other passages which warn us about the fleshly dangers that these activities can bring.

I believe that what is central to this discussion is the question regarding the source of our joy and laughter; that is to say, what is it that makes you laugh? Clearly, our joy and laughter can potentially be righteous, or unrighteous, depending on what it is that we are rejoicing in (1 Corinthians 13:6). It can be the result of that which bewilders us, or is perceptibly contradictory (Genesis 17:17, 18:12); or it can even be the corrupt product of a deceiver (Luke 6:25). Because of these realities, we must always measure our laughter objectively and subjectively. Objectively, we must consider what it is that we are laughing at, and subjectively, we must consider the intentions of our own heart whenever we find ourselves rejoicing or enjoying a chuckle. If we confess the truth of soli Deo gloria, then we should recognize that even our laughter ought to be something that glorifies God rather than that which satisfies our flesh. Laughter, as an ordained part of our lives (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4), must be considered with great care, for it can become an occasion for sinful hypocrisy with very little effort:

  • It might feed sinful appetites: Ephesians 5:3-4: 3 But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; 4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
  • It can be the product of a casual attitude towards sin: Proverbs 14:9: 9 Fools mock at sin, But among the upright there is good will.
  • It can become a mask which hides our pain: Proverbs 14:13 Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, And the end of joy may be grief (for the full context of this verse, read Proverbs 14).
  • It can be a way of avoiding a serious discussion: Proverbs 29:9 When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, The foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest.
  • It can be a covering for a double minded man: Proverbs 26:18-19: 18 Like a madman who throws Firebrands, arrows and death, 19 So is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, “Was I not joking?”

By these verses we are reminded of the great need that we have to continually review the subjective and objective content of our humor. What we deem as humorous and what brings us joy are crucial considerations which deserve our constant attention. As already affirmed, our laughter can serve the purposes of God, or our flesh, depending on the circumstances -

Where we often go astray is in the areas of pointless sarcasm, coarse jesting and critical humor.

Thus, this observation then begs the question, “what exactly is appropriate?” To explore this question, let’s first look at the example of Elijah when he faced down the prophets of Baal on mount Carmel:

1 Kings 18:27 At noon Elijah began to make fun of them. “Pray louder!” he said. “If Baal really is a god, maybe he is thinking, or busy, or traveling! Maybe he is sleeping so you will have to wake him!” [NCV]

I enjoy a good belly laugh whenever I read this. Not only that, I rejoice in my heart that the Lord God in no way compares to the idols that Elijah mocks. Much more could be said about this verse, but it is sufficient to point out here that this is a rather pronounced moment of prophetic irony. Elijah taunted those godless prophets through ironic language, but for a very important purpose: he was making the clear point that their “god” was clearly no god at all. We see a similar form of this sardonic irony when Christ exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:23-24: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” [NASB, bold mine].

The Lord’s sardonic statement at the end (strain out a gant and swallow a camel) is yet another example of ironic speech that is used in order to point out a contradiction - the extreme contradiction of the Pharisees. Even Paul lauded the Corinthians as if they were “distinguished,” whereas he and his co-laborers were “without honor”; and with the Galatians (as we mentioned in the last post), Paul employed the strong and ironic language suggesting that the Judaizers in their midst should “go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” These examples of strong and ironic speech are very important anchors for our thinking, for in a culture which exalts humor and knows very little of serious mindedness, these texts help us to moderate our thinking. Therefore, a few observations are in order here:

  • Their Purpose: In the above cases, the ironic language that was used was not an end in and of itself, but served a pedagogical purpose in every case. By their irony, Christ, Elijah, and Paul sought to teach their audiences an important lesson. If we miss the pedagogical purposes in their irony, then have we missed everything.
  • Their Godliness: By the life examples of Elijah, Paul and above all Christ, let no one say that these humble servants were professional court jesters. In an age which exalts entertainment and humor, their examples are sometimes used by some in order to justify a boundless degree of laughter and joking; but Christ spoke “as one having authority” (Matthew 7:29) - not as a standup comedian; and to the extent that Elijah and Paul reflected the godliness of Christ, they did so as the sober servants of God, whose moments of sardonic irony did not dismantle the seriousness of their overall ministry to others.
  • Their Object of Irony: Those who were chastened by these statements were remarkably worthy of the rebuke that they received. As a principle, we can see that these godly examples before us demonstrate that such rebukes were selectively used in the most needy moments; they had a clear pedagogical purpose, and they were presented in the context of a ministry of the Word that was of a serious mind. On the other hand, a person who continually dables in humor and irony will make it difficult for others to know if or when he is being serious: If people can no longer determine if you are being serious or not, then you ought to consider making some changes!

Elijah’s, Paul’s and especially Christ’s legacy of communication is not that of a standup comedian, but of great sobriety and serious mindedness. The reality of such godliness is reflected in that scene given to us by John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian saw in Interpreter’s house the portrait of a godly pastor - seven key descriptions are supplied:

“Christian saw the picture a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it: he had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back; he stood as if he pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.” [John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, bold formatting mine].

Let’s just hope that no modern translations of Pilgrim’s Progress will ever include the words: “...and he was a great stand-up comic.” Bunyan’s description of God’s messenger is very clear, the first description of which is most telling: this person was a very grave person. A person such as this would be one who speaks with great authority - like Christ Himself. Whatever we might want to remember about the most godly servants of the past, their seriousness and sobriety for God and His Word should be recognized as the most dominant feature of their Christ-like lives.

By pointing out these things, I have absolutely no intention of suggesting here that we ought to hang up our sense of humor in the closet - not at all. As already stated, laughter is very much a part of our lives - we’d be fools to deny it. But what I am doing here is advancing what I believe is a very clear truth: we need to measure our our laughter to the standards of Christ above all.

As I said earlier - no rules here, and no 40th rule to add to the Mishnah.

Finally, when I first posted “The Quest for Biblical Blogging” a number of other blogs linked to my article. In some cases, my article has been used to advance arguments that are not the focus of what I have written. In one case, my article was embeded in an article that is in the center of a discussion concerning cessationism at Pyromaniac. I sought to distance myself from some of these things by mentioning the following in the previous post - it is worth repeating:

On the subject of spiritual gifts, let me mention that Phil Johnson and Jonathan Moorehead will be submitting posts on the subject of cessationism & continuationism. Let me kindly say that these are important discussions, as noted by Paul’s example above. I can’t vouch for all the details of their views at this point, but I believe that the subject matter is a worthy one. Both series should be helpful, and it will be important for all contributors to make it a good, grace-filled, and Christ honoring discussion - rather than turning it into a war.

I only mentioned these discussions, because others were drawing my own posts into the debate. I’m not debating anyone here - I can assure you of that. In writing this series, it is crucial that people understand that I am addressing a very general discussion for the sake of a very broad audience of Christian internet users - even in their use of e-mail. Thus, let no one think that I am targeting a particular blog, because I am not. Ultimately, as a result of writing these posts, I feel that I have had the greatest profit of anyone. It has increased my own sense of caution concerning what I type and how I might write a critique of another man’s theology.

Finally, tiffany had asked this question: “In the case of reading a blog which professes the name of Christ but whose words aren't matching that profession, what is our responsibility?” Based upon Matthew 18, I would recommend that you write the person who is erring. If the response is not satisfactory, then you may want to move along or continue to pursue it further, depending on the gravity of the problem. The problem with the internet is that it is swelling with autonomy and it is therefore very difficult to foster the kind of accountability relationships that are needed among brethren - in other words, the internet isn’t the church. In the very worst of all cases, where there is a very clear offense, then you may want to contact the leadership of the church that this person attends - however, I would urge caution concerning this. All such decisions must be bathed in prayer and pursued with caution.

Soli Deo Gloria - in everything...