Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. It was only one passing comment in a book filled with challenging ideas, but it was the one statement that haunted the unswept corners of my mind. Alarmed at the modern megachurch’s flirtation with the process of secularization, Os Guinness referred to the comment of a Japanese businessman who said, “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.”1 While I have never been (and probably never will be) the preacher in a megachurch, this stinging rebuke dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a serious evaluation of my own ministry in general and my preaching in particular. Over the next several years I searched for ways in which my words and deeds would be expressions of holiness. Help came from an unexpected quarter: humor (or as we Canadians spell it, ‘humour’). Preachers are not, nor should be strangers to humor. We want to know how to use humor and when in our sermons. We know humor’s value and we have experienced the fall-out for its overuse or misuse from the pulpit. My route of discovery took a slightly different path. I unearthed, much to my surprise, the profound relationship between humor and holiness. This understanding of humor was not so much a matter of timing and technique as it was a perspective, a way of seeing and understanding my faith in Jesus Christ, a, if you will, ‘humorneutic.’
Humor and holiness seem to be strange bedfellows, at least at first glance. After all our faith is serious business, and a lot of what passes for humor these days is anything but holy. True. And we have endured (or preached) our share of sermons where the preacher did more of a stand up routine than announce the gospel. Again, true. And is not humor mere escapism, allowing us to laugh for a moment and temporarily forget our despair? Granted. Allowing for the truth of these objections, and several more, it is still important to see the connection between growing in holiness and developing a humorous perspective to faith and life. If we see humor as our ability to take God seriously and everything else (especially ourselves) less so, then its helpfulness to our spiritual and homiletical formation is more obvious. This article, then, is not intended to be an exclusive endorsement of this path against all others. Rather, it is a tentative proposal to balance our perspective, when we approach the preaching task as a matter of the efficient management of technique, with a sense of reverent but playful awe. It is a call for the preacher to be and play the holy fool when it is warranted by the situation. After all if “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe,” (1 Cor 1:21b) we preachers would do well to learn what it means to be a holy fool.
The God Who is for Us
No perspective is worthy of consideration, let alone adoption if it does not have a proper theological grounding. Can we find support for the humorous, playful perspective in the person and work of God himself? Before an answer is attempted, a few terms need to be defined. Although related, ‘humor’ and ‘comedy’ are not identical. Comedy is more of a literary term referring to a dramatic genre which deals with the limitations, foibles, failures and incongruities of the human state and comes to a happy ending.2 Humor, on the other hand, relates more to the quality of any action, speech or writing which excites an amused response.3 So our biblical investigation of humor should be open to both evidences of comedic plot in Scripture as well as aspects, actions or words in Scripture that we would describe as humorous.
First, a look at the big picture. Could we look at the grand sweep of redemptive history as a comedy? Northrop Frye asserts, “The entire Bible, viewed as a “divine comedy”, is contained within a U-shaped story of this sort, one in which man loses the tree and water of lie at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation.”4 While it might take a bit of getting used to, it is true that the story of salvation tracks us from the time of our creation and through to the experience of our misfortune (humanity’s rebellion and fall) on to the point when this calamity has been reversed through a gracious turn of events (through Jesus Christ) so that our initial standing with God has not only been restored but enhanced (so we anticipate a heaven that trumps even the Garden of Eden). While this understanding may not cause us to double up with laughter, it should at least bring a smile to our faces.
Creation contains evidence of a humorous perspective as we see a self-existent God freely and graciously creating the world “for no apparent reason.”5 By speaking the world into being we have the first example of divine word play and the biblical record of these events is punctuated with puns and subtle ironies.6 Following this dazzling display of creativity, God celebrated his work by sanctifying a time of rest designed to enjoy and appreciate all he had made.7 Such a perspective might bring some balance to what may appear to be dry and dusty doctrines.
While the next chapters of the biblical story unfold, humorous devices are never far from the surface. These remind us of the joy God takes with even a fallen creation as well as the futility of mere humans usurping divine prerogatives. The drama of salvation peaks with the coming of Jesus, born in Nazareth, the proverbial home of fools in first century Palestine, and who apparently could enjoy humor, especially camel comedy (Matt 19:24; 23:24). It was the death and resurrection of Christ, the saving event, that was described by Paul as “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23b). This same Jesus had come preaching a redemptive kingdom where the ‘normal’ values were reversed-where the ‘first’ will be ‘last’ and the ‘last’ ‘first’; where you give up in order to gain; where the greatest is the least; and where you die in order to live. While this is not a full-blown call to enter the quest for the ‘hysterical’ Jesus, it is an invitation to view God in the flesh as One who appreciated the incongruities of life. These profound and playful truths should bar us from an antiseptic view of our faith and spur us on to a joyful recognition of the God we serve. To the one willing and able to see it, our faith does have a humorous side.8
Those Who Have Gone Before Us
If we can see the theological merit in the humorous perspective to faith, how might that be applied in ministry? One model, and again a seeming unlikely one, is that of the holy fool. Since this is a post-biblical term, we need to define it. The holy fool is not to be confused with the ‘fool’ found within biblical wisdom literature. The sages condemned the fool because of his lack of self-control, moral incorrigibility and resistance to wisdom,9 rather than his ability to enjoy the humorous and ironic aspects of the faith. So the holy fool is no ordinary fool but one with a message and a rather unconventional way of delivering it.
Holy fools and their secular or pagan counterparts (even pagans recognize a good thing when they see one!) are found in many different cultural and religious contexts: in Russian Orthodoxy they are called yurodive; Judaism and Islam have the shlemiel; Tibetan Buddhism have their lamas; in Hinduism there is a figure called avadhuta; the English have the jester; Greeks, the salos; the French, their jongleur; and many African and Native North American peoples have the trickster. While it would hardly be prudent to advocate the full range of activities of these ‘characters,’ they represent a societal role that can be instructive to those of us who preach an ‘intrusive word.’
Holy fools have been regarded with some ambivalence over the years. They have often been shifted to the margins of society, but, at the same time, are highly valued by society. Holy fools are those ‘we don’t know what to do with’ but ‘don’t want to do without.’ The pointed parodies of the words and actions of the holy fool both amuse and scandalize. They tease, cajole, mimic, lampoon, shame, teach and inspire. They prod their peers to change when they are slow to move; they inspire restraint when people are too prone to abandon what should be cherished. In the words of Peter Antoci, “…the essence of holy folly is salvific scandal-making.”10
It may help to see some of the representatives of this tradition in our own roots. The ancient biblical prophets occasionally acted the holy fool with antics like: nudity (Isaiah 20:1-6); wearing an ox yoke (Jeremiah 27:1ff); playing with clay (Ezekiel 4:1-3); and marrying an adulteress (Hosea 1:2,3). Again, while not advocating all these actions for the contemporary preacher, there is a lesson to be learned. It is the sheer unconventional quality of such action that would burn the prophet’s message into the minds and wills of God’s wayward people. Such activity tends to circumvent the conventional defense mechanisms and shocks the audience into response. Many of the prophets’ words also have a similar quality to them. It’s hard not to laugh, for instance, when Isaiah is describing the futility of idol worship (44:12-20).11 Partly why we may be so impotent in our pulpits today is that the people know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there before we do. While not advocating turning preachers into ‘shock jocks,’ many of us could use a little more voltage in our preaching.
From the pages of church history, St. Francis might serve as a memorable example of a holy fool who considered himself a preacher. Even if we are uncomfortable with some of his actions (and I am), we still can learn from his epistemology. Francis seemed to have an inverted vision of reality, like he was always walking on his hands. Chesterton explains this phenomenon by stating, “[t]he whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”12 Because of this perspective, Francis looked like the fool. In retrospect, however, we ask, ‘Who really was the fool?’ St. Francis had (and still has) an influential and disquieting influence on the church. Not bad for a fool.
The Joy Set Before Us
If we are in the least persuaded by this plea to take God more seriously and ourselves less so, how does it apply to the task of preaching this Sunday’s sermon? There is hardly a fail-safe ten-step process to becoming a true holy fool. As a matter of fact, the holy fool tends to lampoon such thinking as pompous and potentially idolatrous. Does it mean we open our next sermon with a humorous monologue a la Jay Leno? Hardly. One of the worst things we can be is merely funny for the sake of being funny or appreciated. A true holy fool knows the feeling of rejection and even persecution at the hands of the ones he longs to help. They killed the prophets. Court jesters were executed. The life of the holy fool is hardly stocked with only laughter and leisure.
What does it mean? At the very least it calls for a commitment to think God’s thoughts after him and be willing to speak his word no matter what others might think or do. It means remembering our primary Audience. It means steeling ourselves so as not to become mindless mouthpieces for powerful political and theological positions rather than faithful heralds of the divine conspiracy.13 It means refusing to slip into our own evangelical version of ‘political correctness’ rather than expound and expose the scandal of the gospel. It also means refusing to say, ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace (Jeremiah 8:11). And if preachers consider the kingdom perspective to be a ‘subversive’ word, and if they take this message seriously, they will find themselves at odds with ‘normal’ perception and therefore potential ‘fools-in-training.’ If we believe the ‘heavenly realms’ to be the ‘real’ world and our earthly existence with all its temporal attractions to be a temporary prelude, we will want to bring our methods of communication into line with the content of our message. Invariably that will lead us to look at least ‘off the wall’ if not upside down. Hence the ‘foolishness of preaching.’ However, if we start with the right footing, then we can trust that God will lead us in new ways that will bring the life-giving gospel to people in creative and powerful ways. And if that footing just happens to be seen as upside down, so be it!
Blayne A. Banting is Associate Professor of Church Ministry at Briercrest Biblical Seminary in Caron-port, Saskatchewan, Canada.
1 Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 49.
2 C, Hugh Holman and William Harman, A Handbook to Literature 6th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 95.
3 Cf. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., S.v. “Humour”.
4 Northrop Frye, The Great Code. The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1982), 169.
5 Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Play (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 16,17.
6 Cf. Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981), 81-89; J. William Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 19-41.
7 Cf. Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 276,277.
8 The ‘serious’ student of humor in the Bible might consult: J. William Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981); Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, eds, On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990); Jakob Jonsson, Humour and Irony in the New Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985); Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985); Conrad Hyers, And God Created Laughter (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987); and Blayne A. Banting, Proclaiming the Messiah’s Mirth: A Rhetorico-Contextual Model for the Interpretation and Proclamation of Humour in Selected Gospel Sayings (D.Min. thesis, Acadia Divinity College, 1998).
9 Cf. Chou-Wee Pan, “’ewil,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis.
10 Peter M. Antoci, “Scandal, Maginality, and Holy Fools,” Christianity and Literature 44 (Spring-Summer 1995): 285.
11 Cf. Good, Irony, pp. 115-167.
12 G.K. Chesterton, St. Francs of Assisi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), 84.
13 Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998).