Archive | Comedy

Why April Fool’s Day Is No Laughing Matter

Here’s something that sounds like a joke but isn’t:

When is a joke not a joke?
When it’s an April fool.

I told you it wasn’t a joke. It’s not funny. But then again, neither is April Fool’s Day. You will detect a mild note of disapprobation in my tone here. I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day, mainly because, as you have discovered, I’m boringly technical about comedy.

Practical jokes aren’t jokes. They are pranks. They are hoaxes. Not jokes. Here’s why:

If you read the first section of The Sacred Art of Joking, you’ll know why practical jokes are not really jokes. Jokes require shared information. But if you are being pranked, either by an individual or by a national newspaper, you don’t have all the information. If you’re being pranked by a schoolboy in a black-and-white Will Hay film, you don’t know he’s put a bucket of water above the door. You aren’t in on the joke. You are part of the joke. In fact, you are the joke.

The dynamic shifts when we scale this up to a full-blown hoax. This is the favoured April Fool gag of the moment. Newspapers, radio breakfast shows and large corporations love to tell a story that is on the edge of believability but is actually pure fiction. In 2017, Emirates airline announced its triple-decker plane, complete with swimming pool, games room and park. A year earlier, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts tweeted that Texas would start to issue its own currency. In 2014, King’s College Choir in Cambridge announced that they were replacing boys singing soprano with older men using helium instead. They produced an amusing video illustrating this.

In these cases, an enormous bucket of water is being placed on a huge doorway in order to drench an entire nation. Only the perpetrator of the hoax has all the facts. The rest of us are not in on the joke. We are all the joke. Anyone who ‘falls for it’ is the joke. And rather than getting wet, you feel foolish. How is that a joyful comic experience? The hoax then is not a joke. It’s a prank.

This is why I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day. Thank you for reading.

For more insights into comedy and how it so easily goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion, get hold of a copy of The Sacred Art of Joking, either directly from the author (UK Only) or via Amazon UK or Amazon US.

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Reading the Bible Aloud in Church

Last time you went to church, there’s a good chance someone read a part of the Bible out loud. How did that go? Were they sight reading it? Were they trying to put some feeling into it? The odds are they were on a rota and hadn’t given it much thought. This is to be expected. We don’t have a great tradition of reading the Bible well, which is a real shame.

Read it and weep

I write about this in the Sacred Art of Joking, and have talked about it on my Sacred Art of Joking show, which is a YouTube Channel and Podcast. You can see that below. But first, here’s a snippet from the book:

Let us take a brief step sideways into music, something that many churches, large and small, take very seriously. Cathedrals have choristers’ schools set up to provide willing voices for their choirs, under the baton of choirmasters and directors of music. Small churches might expect to pay something for the services of a trained organist. Larger, more lively churches have enormous sound desks and miles of cables plugged into multiple instruments.

They may even employ a ‘worship leader’. Other churches will make do with the expertise around them. A lot of effort and care is taken to ensure that the music in churches is as good as it can be. There is an expectation this will cost money and require trained or experienced practitioners, if not full-time staff. No one expects someone with no experience of playing the organ, piano or guitar to step forward and lead the congregation in their singing.

This is not the case with the public reading of Scripture. Reading the lesson on a Sunday morning is normally put on a rota and thought of as a job to be done, like opening up the building before the service or making the coffee afterwards. It is certainly not on a par with musical worship. Sometimes, it is thought to be a good way of involving people in the service who might otherwise feel underused.

As long as the reading of Scripture remains an after-thought in most church services, the wider Church will never rediscover the literary richness of the Bible, especially the comic themes and moments. These become obvious when you hear Scripture read extremely well, having been rehearsed and memorized and then presented with confidence. On those occasions, something remarkable happens. People laugh.

p96 The Sacred Art of Joking published by SPCK Jan 2019. Order here.

I talk about this phenomenon and how to tackle scripture another way on YouTube and in the podcast. Using the story of The Man Born Blind in John 9, I show how you can read the Bible aloud and find the jokes.

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The Sacred Art of Joking Podcast

I like podcasting. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I have a big mouth, talk a lot and want people to know how clever I am. All the while I cling on to the idea that I’m an introvert. And humble. Ah well.

Maybe I like podcasting because I can’t be seen. Except now I can, because the podcast isn’t just an audio experience but a visual one. I’m doing YouTube videos that you can hear as podcasts. This is partly because podcasts are increasingly popular, but YouTube is where the debates are really happening, so I’m looking to be part of that in the future.

And what a future The Sacred Art of Joking has. There is so much to talk about. Comedy is in the news all the time. Barely a day passes without someone making a joke that goes horribly wrong, and the press react as if they don’t know what jokes are (as Jonathan Pie vigorously points out here) They should really read my book rather than the press release. If they read it, they will find a few paragraphs which I explicitly say are for journalists to read, so do look out for those.

The first brief episode is up on YouTube and is working its way through the iTunes Podcast system and will hopefully appear out the other end sooner or later. But for now, at least, the YouTube video and the podcast are identical.

In the opening show, I talk about how this book came to be, and how my interview with Ben Elton became an international news story a decade ago. I ended up on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. It was very exciting. I also took part in a global phone-in show on the BBC World Service called World Have Your Say along with Anjem Choudray, who argued that he had a great sense of humour. He was subsequently jailed for recruiting young people to banned radical groups, so there’s a bit of context for you there.

And that’s what it’s all about: context.

And that’s what everyone seems so determined to ignore when it comes to jokes that cause offence. But that’s arguably even more important than the joke itself, as I argue in the first part of the book. We’ll get to that material in good time. The first episode, running at a bite-sized seven minutes or so is up now. Have a look. Or a listen:

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Stupid Woman

Our august parliamentarians leave the majestic home of democracy with the phrase ‘Stupid Woman’ ringing in our ears. Is it a vicious sexist slur, revealing the dark misogynistic heart of the Leader of the Opposition? Is it a Tory fabrication, mendaciously smearing the character of their political foe? Or is it merely a statement of fact?

As a voter, I don’t really care. But as a sitcom writer, I am interested.

In many ways, this tawdry political storm in a teacup is wonderfully apt end-of-act scene which neatly encapsulates so much about the last year in Westminster. As season finales go, it’s unexpected, bizarre and entirely in keeping with previous episodes.

For sitcom geeks like me, the phrases has another resonance. The chosen insult of the day is a catchphrase from another well-known and scarcely believable farce about European politics gone badly wrong, Allo Allo. The only difference is the addition of the word ‘You’.

Never a show to shy away from repetition, this phrases feature in one of those moments that was almost guaranteed to happen every week. (Computers are now intelligent enough that they could probably write an episode of Allo Allo with an algorithm) The hero of the show, Rene would be propositioned by one of his waitresses who were bafflingly in love with this overweight, aging café proprietor. Here is one such incident:

Others have probably noticed this link between Corbyn’s words and Rene’s, but have probably not been as geeky about it as I am going to be here. Why is it funny when Rene Artois says it?

On reading those very words, some may cry out that it wasn’t funny either then or now. That’s often a knee-jerk response that one has to deal with when talking about jokes. Comedy is a bit of a confidence trick and some people like to defend themselves against all such tricks by folding their arms and not playing that game. If that’s you, you can stop reading now and have a nice life. (It won’t be all that nice).

Have the killjoys now left the room? Good. We continue.

When Rene Artois says ‘You stupid woman’ it is funny. You can hear lots of people laughing. That laughter isn’t fake or canned. They thought it was funny. They did the joke week after week, so it was clearly effective and worth revisiting, which in turn made it even funnier. And up and down the UK (and Germany, I’m told), millions of people laughed along.

But why is it funny? It has good basic rhythm. That’s a start. What’s more, Edith, whose intellect is being impugned, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But then, in Allo Allo, no-one is. It’s a panto filled with buffoons and clowns. But that’s not really why the line is funny.


The line is funny because of the situation. Rene is trying to defend the indefensible. He is obviously making a pass at a sexy French waitress and been caught red-handed. He is about to cover his tracks with a scarcely plausible cock and bull story. The line ‘You stupid woman’ was often followed by another line like ‘Isn’t it perfectly obviously what I was doing?’ A lie is then spun, and Edith believes it. Because she is stupid. And a woman.

It does sound a bit sexist now, doesn’t it? No point in pretending otherwise, but times change. It didn’t seem quite so bad in the 1980s which was a more sexist time. And let us also bear in mind this is a 1980s depiction of France in the 1940s during wartime, which was more sexist again.

Complicated, isn’t it?

In some ways, it isn’t that complicated. You just need to understand the importance of context.

That’s the point I make in my forthcoming book, The Sacred Art of Joking. Context is crucial. It’s such an obvious point that it seems hardly worth making and yet jokes are now in the news virtually every week. Someone has said a word that is deemed unsayable ‘in any context’. They must be hounded from office or have their honorary professorship taken away. Someone did a comedy routine ten years ago and are not sufficiently ashamed of it. They must be prevented from hosting an awards ceremony. So perhaps this is a truth that is so obvious, we’ve forgotten that we actually know it.

In The Sacred Art of Joking, I make the point that the words used in a joke tell you virtually nothing about whether or not those words should have been said or not. We cannot isolate phrases and words. It just isn’t good enough.

I go on to discuss some examples in more detail, especially in the realm of religion since God-fearing can be especially humourless and prone to lose their minds at the use of certain words. Hopefully, readers will find them to be sane words, in a world that’s lost its mind.

The Sacred Art of Joking is out on Jan 17th in UK and you can pre-order a signed copy directly from me here (UK Only) or find the book on Amazon (UK). For those in USA, you’ll have to wait ‘til March.

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The Secret Rules of Comedy

A colony, rookery, huddle or waddle of penguins?

Everyone loves a collective noun: a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows and a parliament of owls. A group of ravens is an ‘unkindness’ or ‘conspiracy’. Why birds merit such elaborate collective nouns is beyond me.

I was reflecting on this with my dad many years ago. We were in a car and in quick succession saw two learner drivers. I wondered what a collective noun for learner drivers. My dad suggested ‘a clutch’. Nice one, dad.

You can tell I’m a writer and that I’ve been involved in the Writers Guild of Great Britain for a couple of years because I’ve gone out of my way to credit my dad for that joke. I could easily have passed that joke off as my own, but that would be wrong.

I spend a lot of time with other writers, and occasionally we wonder what a collective noun for writers should be. We usually end up with things like ‘a disappointment’ or ‘a moan’. Writers tend to be fairly nervous and shy types. Maybe it should be ‘a quiver’. (I know, Dad’s joke is better)

I’m not just a writer, but a comedy writer. (I clearly get it from my dad.) I realise that saying I’m a comedy writer is a bold claim. My writing is intended to amuse. I write mostly situation comedies (Bluestone 42 or Hut 33), along with the odd play.

When comedy writers get together, the vibe is different. The collective noun should reflect that. I would suggest the collective noun for comedy writers should be ‘a deconstruction’. After all, that’s what comedy writers do. In order to amuse, parody or satirise, we look for ways of getting our hooks into the subject matter. Pretty soon, one hook presents itself, which is to deconstruct the genre or the form. 

Getting To The Point

Writers have been doing this for longer than one might think. One of the first works of fiction in modern English is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanby Laurence Sterne in 1759. One could call it a novel, but it’s more of a spoof memoir in which Tristram, the narrator, is clearly unable to tell the story of his own life clearly, demonstrated by the fact that the work runs to nine volumes, and he doesn’t even get to his own birth until volume 3. That’s the joke.

If you’re hungry for yet further deconstruction, watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the movie version of this book called A Cock and Bull Story, about a failed attempt to turn Tristram Shandy into a movie. It’s deconstructive, self-referential heaven. Or hell, depending on your point of view.

Visual Art is just the same. For hundreds of years, and especially in the last century, artists have been asking the question ‘what even is art?’ This is the question at the heart of the long-running West End  play Art by Yasmina RezaA man called Serge buys a painting for a considerable sum. It’s white lines on a white background. It looks like a blank canvas. Serge’s friend, Marc, is furious that Serge has wasted his money on it. But he is happy with the art. Why can’t Marc be? Who says what art is anyway?

In The Sacred Art of Joking, I write about how comedy works and why it so easily goes horribly wrong. There is a myth that we all like to believe is that jokes must have rules. There has to some explanation for why Things Are Funny. But I’m not so sure.

Grand Unified Comedy

The idea of some Grand Unified Theory of comedy is an attractive idea. Our physicists persuaded tax-payers to spend billions of pounds on a Large Hadron Collider so that they could join up the laws of physics into one law that explains everything. It’s too early to tell if they’ll succeed. Some of them seem pretty confident, but then they’d have to be after coaxing all that money out of us.

Comedy doesn’t work like laws of physics and here’s why: jokes are inherently anarchic.

They tweak your nose; they ring your doorbell and run; they drop ice cubes down your back; and on some occasions, like a blinded Samson with his last gasp of supernatural strength, they bring the whole edifice crashing down around our ears. Jokes can do that. Ask the people who work at Charlie Hedbo.

Establish a joke format with some rules, and immediately a comedy writer will start doing jokes about the format, thereby undermining it and making all future jokes in that style seem rather naïve.

It’s a pity that there aren’t any comedy laws, as the media and governments seem desperate to find some way of navigating the choppy waters of jokes and offence. Every week or so, a prominent person’s Twitter feed is ransacked for any light-hearted comment that could be wilfully misunderstood before it is presented at someone who could conceivably take offence. The pointing and shrieking can then begin, until the celeb or politician in question grovels for forgiveness. (See the story of Professor Tim Hunt) We are witnessing an arms race of offence, where each victim must sound more devastated and humiliated than the last. Where will it end?

Flicking Matches in St Paul’s Cathedral

The Church should have something to offer here. Jesus made people laugh. He also deliberately caused offence. I look at numerous examples in the book. Sadly, over the centuries, the Church generally has turned the sense of humour failure into an art form, and there are various reasons for that.

A key reason is the desire of order and control. Church is serious. The Bible is serious (it isn’t, entirely, but it seems so). If people start laughing, ecclesiastical authority is apparently undermined. Telling jokes in church would be like flicking matches around in the old wooden St Paul’s Cathedral: very high risk, and entirely pointless.

The Church needs to recover Her sense of humour, and be quick to laugh, rather than scowl or burst into tears. After all, Christians regularly confess their sins. We should know our own failings and have the humility to laugh at ourselves. Only then can we be the beacons of bonhomie that our society so desperately needs.

The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary is published by SPCK in January 2019. More information and pre-ordering options here.

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The Hunt for the Joker

Imagine you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist.

You’re really good at science. So good, you were knighted and made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. You’d think you’d be most known for your big breakthrough, wouldn’t you?

Cyclin, C-terminal domain (not to be confused with Cyclin, N-terminal domain!)

In your case, you discovered a family of proteins called cyclins. Nice one! (You called them ‘cyclins’ as a joke, because you were into cycling at the time. Ha ha.)

You might hope that the vast majority of your Wikipedia page would contain a lengthy explanation of your discovery and how it teaches us a lot about the mysteries of cell division.

But no. You made a joke.

And it wasn’t a joke about cycling. It was a joke in 2015. About girls. In an improvised speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, you said that the trouble with having girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

People decided that it wasn’t funny. They either didn’t know about the context, in which you framed your comments by saying self-effacing things like “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists” and that “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Or, more likely, they didn’t care.

Hunting for the Joker

The next day, it was decided that what you said wasn’t just unfunny but grossly offensive to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t interested in the context. And that’s pretty much everyone.

So you were forced to resign from your position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. You were reinstated to that committee a while later, but let’s face facts. You won’t be known as Sir Tim Hunt FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, MAE but ‘that guy who made that sexist joke’ for a long time.

And here’s the real kicker, and perhaps why it was so offensive. What you said is factually and scientifically true. People do fall in love with each other in the workplace, and women are much more likely to cry at criticism than men. You might think scientists and science journalists would be able to process those facts rationally and understand the joke. Apparently, they can’t.

Instant Meltdown

None of this should be a surprise. It is possible to set fire to your career and reputation in the blink of an eye, or the refresh of an app. It just takes a few words and a hitting ‘send’. Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett caused her successful comeback sitcom to be cancelled. That one lousy joke might have cost her tens of millions of dollars.

You don’t even have to be famous to be disembowelled by the twitchfork mob. Justine Stacco only had 170 followers when she tweeted a very dubious AIDS joke before getting on a plane to Cape Town. She thought she was among friends, but apparently not. Unaware, high in the air, she became a global sensation. Nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind of rage that greeted her when she landed. There was even a hashtag for that moment: #HasJustineLandedYet Jon Ronson wrote about her in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

And here’s the kicker for Justine Stacco. Her joke wasn’t nice, but it was considerably nicer than similar AIDS jokes in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed, Broadway smash-hit show, The Book of Mormon. But that was written by the creators of South Park and Team America: World Police, so everyone was expecting jokes in poor taste. So that makes it okay, right?

Holy Writ

The Book of Mormon is an interesting case of how to take a joke well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could have had a serious sense of humour failure over this commercially-successful broadside attack on their faith. Instead, they smiled (Mormons are good at that), took it on the chin and suggested people read the real book for themselves. That was the suggestion in the adverts the church took out in the official show programme. Nice move.

This pragmatic and gracious reaction of the Mormon church is surprising because it’s so rare. Religious people are not known for their sense of humour. One immediately thinks of Mary Whitehouse counting swear words in TV sitcoms, or the painful discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about The Life of Brian in 1979.

More recently, consider the reaction of mainstream Christians to Jerry Springer: the Opera, which attracted over 50,000 complaints for its BBC broadcast in January 2005. Most of these were received by the Corporation before the performance was even transmitted. There was legal action and a private prosecution for blasphemy. This is not a surprise. Christians often fail to see the funny side.

All of the above is nothing compared to the reaction to cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The deaths of 12 people and the injury of 11 others in broad daylight on 7th January 2015 was a distressing reminder that jokes can have very serious consequences.

The Sacred Art of Joking

I’m a comedy writer. And a Christian. And I love jokes. What’s more, I think Jesus was funny. The Bible is full of comic moments, images, stories as well as a talking donkeys and bushes. Christians should be laughing more, both at themselves and the idiocy of the world around them. After all, God laughs at us (Psalm 2:4), so we might as well join in and see the funny side. (It’s pretty basic advice: When the boss laughs, you laugh.)

All this is why I’ve written a book called The Sacred Art of Joking. In it, I explain how jokes work, how they can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion, and what Christians can do about it. You can pre-order a signed copy from me HERE (UK Only), or Amazon if you’d rather.

But this is the internet, so I have to write a list.

Here’s one about extreme measures you can take when navigating the potentially fatal waters of making a joke anywhere other than inside your head.

Five Rules for Making Jokes In Public

  1. Before you make any joke on Facebook or Twitter, assume everything you write publicly online will be available to all people across the universe for all of eternity. Seriously.
  2. Before you send a mean-spirited joke on a private message or email, read it back to yourself. And then imagine how it would sound when read aloud in court.
  3. When making an off-the-cuff speech, remember it might be recorded on someone’s phone. So think about what you’re saying and imagine how it will sound when a Newsnight presenter reads a transcript back to you in the least funny way possible, in front of a member of a lobby group who is professionally offended. How’s that speech looking now?
  4. If you go ahead with the joke, and it causes wide-spread offence, and your motives were good, consider not apologising. An apology will never be enough for the twitchfork mob. They don’t really care about the joke. They are lonely keyboard warriors looking for someone to bully. And the pundits are using you to virtue-signal for their own ends. It’s not about you. It never was.
  5. If you’re a celeb or a politician and you torch your career with a joke, there’s always I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

This list sounds drastic. But it’s actually excellent advice.

But you won’t follow it. And nor will I, because we instinctively know how important jokes are. They are too precious to be handed to the shrieking mob and the Thought Police. We were made for jokes. We were made for joy. We were made for laughter by the God who laughs. So Keep Joking, Carry On and Buy My Book.

I will also be performing part of the one-man show based on the book at The Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, alongside Paul Kerensa and Simon Jenkins, on 19th October at 6.30pm. Come on down! You can hear a sample of The Sacred Art of Joking show here.

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It Got A Laugh

Did you hear the one about the preacher who wanted to be funny? James Cary looks at the downsides of starting sermons with jokes.

A basic rule of preaching seems to be that no matter how long your sermon is, you’re allowed to take up a minute or two at the start telling a joke.

Sometimes it’s an anecdote snipped from a local newspaper, or a personal story about a humorous calamity. Maybe it’s a holiday disaster, or a funeral that went hilariously wrong. Ideally, that joke should, in some way be linked to the text or topic of the sermon. But the overall intention of that comic introduction is to do one thing: get a laugh.

This is a problem.

Why? Am I just being too hard on jokes? I’m a professional comedy writer and have been since, well, I failed to get any other job. Normally in a church context, aversity to jokes isn’t associated with professional pride or comedy snobbery. It’s normally down to an over-inflated sense of holiness. Being down on jokes in church makes one sound like Jorge, from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.He was a monk who (NB: spoilers) was prepared to murder and set fire to a whole precious library in order to suppress laughter, given that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christ laughed.

Jorge may be misguided, but his point cannot be denied. In the gospels we see Christ being angry, hostile, sad and enigmatic. But laughing? No. Is it that comedy has no place in the pulpit? Is it un-Christlike to tell jokes?

By no means! True, there is no ‘Jesus laughed’ verse, there are many verses in which Jesus says things which can only really be described as jokes. The most obvious examples would be his use of hyperbole with specks and planks in the eye, and swallowing camels. This is undoubtedly intentionally comic.

The Comedy of Jesus

From there, is not much of a leap to imagine Jesus impersonating the Pharisees who twist their faces with hunger in their public show of fasting. One can also imagine gasps and sniggers as Jesus called his powerful haters ‘vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’.

Was Jesus a comedian? Perhaps, in the sense that he didn’t laugh at his own jokes. That’s bad form. But no, Jesus wasn’t a comedian. But he used comedy. And he was funny. His very incarnation as the God-Man is inherently comic, for reasons I go into in my forthcoming book and hint at here. But to present Jesus as a comedian would be going too far.

Even so, the pulpit should not be a laughter-free zone. So what’s the problem with starting sermons with jokes? After all, if you want to reach your audience, you have to show you have a sense of humour, right? We Brits think it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Comedy is now a common currency on television, radio and even the realm of politics. Boris Johnson, for example, has side-stepped numerous political storms thanks to well-turned comic turns of phrase. And a willingness to look like an ass.

Comedy is regularly used in teaching, to make it more fun and memorable. My children now know an awful lot about history because it’s presented in comic form in Horrible Histories books and TV shows. Comedy is the lingua franca.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the sermon is a culturally very odd phenomenon. When does one listen to one person speaking uninterrupted for 15-30 minutes? For most people, the only other time they would do that would be watching a stand-up comedy set, either live or on TV. Isn’t it helpful to nod towards that in sermon, making it more palatable for the average Joe in the pew?

Given that comedy is everywhere, it should be no surprise then, that lots of people don’t enjoy speaking in public, including gifted preachers. It’s because they feel that they have to be funny. That’s what the people want, and that’s what they mostly get from the culture. The pressure is on. (This is why there is a secret speechwriting industry.)

Getting a Laugh

The desire to start a sermon with a joke and get a laugh, then, is entirely understandable. But it is misplaced. A congregation who spend their whole week listening to secular radio and watching secular television are hungry for God’s word. Surely, every second of the sermon should be trying to give them just that? Why waste time on indulging in jokes?

Many preachers long to preach for more than their allotted time, bemoaning the attention span of the average Christian. What preacher doesn’t long to share the riches of the scriptures with the assembled faithful for longer? So why do the same people cheerfully give away a couple of minutes of their limited time for a bit of Songs-of-Praise-meets-Live At The Apollo? Is this time well spent?

In a few cases, it might be. A joke at the start of the sermon may be entirely pertinent to the sermon, and lines up exactly with the main point being made. But. Any preacher with their hand on their heart will know that is rarely the case. They might find themselves telling a joke about a disastrous wedding, and then say ‘Well, the wedding in our passage in John 2 went wrong, but in a very different way.’ The gulf between the anecdote and the passage of scripture has been made, and mostly people didn’t spot the join, or even see the need for one.  But we should be able to do better than that.

The desire to use comedy in a sermon is not a bad one. All techniques and forms of rhetoric should be employed in the preaching of the Word, as the text or the topic demands. The preacher should use humour as well as changes of pace and pitch, dramatic pauses, emotional appeals and stark warnings. Some of these techniques fit better with different personality types. A naturally serious preacher probably will not tell jokes well, but used sparingly and carefully jokes can be very surprising and effective. Likewise, a naturally comic speaker can make good use of silence and seriousness as a counterpoint.

Never Preach Like Your Heroes

CH Spurgeon (1834–1892)

When preachers aspire to preach like their heroes, they are in danger of becoming clones of that hero. Perhaps it might not seem so bad to have 500 cloned Spurgeons or Whitefields, or even a dozen Evangelical Frank Skinners. But preachers are to preach using the gifts and abilities they have been given, not to seek to ape the gifts of others. Moreover, every preacher has been placed in a specific pastoral situation. There’s no point trying to preach like much-renowned Manhattan church planter, Tim Keller, in a rural Devon parish or the Highlands of Scotland. In fact, it would be wrong to do so. This would be either misusing your gifts or disrespecting your congregation by speaking in a language that’s broadly alien to them – for your own satisfaction.

Telling jokes is a little bit like importing someone else’s rhetorical style. A joke works for the comedian who wrote it, and for his or her audience in a secular setting on a Saturday night, but it is likely to be inappropriate when copied, pasted and then retold in church on a Sunday morning in a sermon about the Wedding at Cana. It’s not that it’s not funny. Lots of jokes are funny in many contexts. It’s that it’s inauthentic. It’s fake. The preacher is not giving of themselves and their gifts in pointing their congregation in their care towards Jesus Christ. The preacher is telling a joke. Why?

Why not? Maybe the odd joke here or there is fine, but here’s what happens when you do it a lot. If one consistently imports comedy one will eventually persuade the congregation that God’s word is not surprising, vibrant and comic, when it is all of those things. The Bible is not a dull book that needs to be jazzed up with some jokes.

Why tell a passable wedding joke you found on the internet when the story in John 2 is already inherently comic? Because John 2 probably won’t seem so in your Sunday service. This is for a variety of reasons. One is that your congregation might be very familiar with the story, and therefore any kind of comic surprise evaporated years ago. The bizarre events of that wedding could be re-presented much more humorously if the passage is read aloud with feeling and empathy.

The Public Reading of Scripture

The chances are, however, the lesson was read at best mechanically or audibly by someone with no desire, training or encouragement to do the task well. Reading from the lectern is often seen as a way of ‘involving people in the service’. You wouldn’t let anyone lead the music on this basis. It seems odd to allow God’s word to be treated in this way.

Bear in mind that scripture is a script. For most people in history, scripture was not something they absorbed in private study, but was read aloud, even on one’s own. The Bible doesn’t need rewriting to be dramatised. It is already dramatic, as well as inspired by God. Beat that. Scripture just needs reading properly. This takes time, preparation and effort. But reading scripture aloud well will often surprise a congregation. What always strikes people when this happens is how funny the Bible is.

Meanwhile, In Cana

Read the wedding story in John Chapter 2 with fresh eyes. Jesus’s mother drags him into this embarrassing situation. He says that his time has not yet come. Mary completely ignores this and tells the servants to do whatever he says. Thanks, mum. They fill the jars with water as instructed even though they must have thought Jesus was mad. Only in recent times has water been fit for human consumption. And since when did water just become wine? That’s not how it works. And to make matters worse, some poor fellow has to take some of this water to the master of the banquet. In a cup. To drink. He would be cringing as it is tasted. At best, he will have the water spat into his face. Why is Jesus asking him to do this? It’s insane, surely? Imagine the sigh of relief and euphoria when it is revealed that the water has become wine.

Why not talk about this in a sermon, rather than scrabbling around for jokes written by someone else about weddings that look nothing like the one in John 2? Even stories about your own wedding, or weddings you’ve attended, are of limited value. Why not marvel at the true events of the wedding in Cana, which point to the great wedding feast of Christ and his bride, the church?

If we take the text of the Bible seriously, we will find all kinds of humourous, incongruous and bizarre moments. Expectations are confounded. Down is up. Black is white. The blind are given their sight and forced to explain themselves to the spiritually blind religious people. Jesus proves his power over death by calling Lazarus from the tomb, and the priests and scribes decide it would be best to kill him. Why replace all this with a joke about a life-long golfer at the pearly gates or what happens when three men walk into bar? The Bible contains stories about the Supreme Being walking into a world. Why not start with that one?

James Cary has written a book about comedy and religion for SPCK called The Sacred Art of Joking. You can buy a signed copy of the book directly from the author here here. (UK Only). Or via Amazon UK HERE  and Amazon USA here.

You can listen to James talk to Barry Cooper and Glen Scrivener about this on the Cooper and Cary Have Words podcast.

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Springtime For Pug Dogs

One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”

When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”

Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.

That Belongs In A Museum

Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.

That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?

A Dog Called Buddha

Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.

Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.

But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.

Indy Meets The Fuhrer

One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.

If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.

The Producers

The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.

But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.

In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?

Who is Who

The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.

Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.

With Friends Like These

Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.

The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.

An Odiuous Criminal Act

The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.

The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.

I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.

But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?

 

A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.



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What’s So Funny About Easter? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about the comedy of Easter, with Easter Day being on April Fools Day in 2018. Read the first post here.

Crucifixion is a cruel and painful punishment. It is literally excruciating. That’s where the word comes from. It would therefore seem hard to describe the brutal execution of any man – let alone the God-Man Jesus Christ – as funny. It isn’t funny, despite the age old saying that tragedy + time = comedy. But the Passion of Christ is comic.

What does ‘comic’ mean? What is comedy? I’m not about to posit a grand unified theory of comedy akin to the physicist who wish to explain everything in a one simple equation. Many august philosophers have tried that with comedy. But no matter what your theory, you encounter jokes, routines and formats that just don’t fit. Comedy is like that. It is subversive and anarchic. And yet based on truth – but we don’t really have time to get into that. (You’ll need to read my forthcoming book coming out in January 2019. Sign up for my mailing list on the right).

In A Nutshell

The most compelling explanation for comedy is incongruity. It’s placing two things next to each other that don’t belong together. The artistry of comedy is revealing or creating that juxtaposition in an elegantly surprising way. Man walks down the road. Not funny. Man falls down manhole. Funny. Man sees manhole and walks around it. Not funny. Man sees manhole cover – and manages to fall in anyway. Very funny.

If we look at the Passion narratives for incongruity, we see it everywhere. Because the story unfolds with such a sense of inevitability, and those taking part have no idea how it appears, and how it fulfills prophecies going back centuries, the incongruity is also highly ironic.

There is, of course, a point at which irony stops being funny. There’s a sense of symbolism in the Passion narratives that are more dramatic and didactic, rather than funny. For example, the arrest, sham trial and crucifixion of Jesus takes place at Passover, the memorial of the release of Israelites from Egypt, during which time an innocent lamb was sacrificed. Jesus is that Lamb.

Much Ado About Lazarus

But the idea that Jesus can be killed is comic. That’s one of the more subtle themes in John 11. After Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, some Jews reported back to the Pharisees and a meeting of church elders was called. The reason for their dismay is not disbelief of the miracles, but what the miracles point towards: trouble. They complain that Jesus is performing these signs of his power, but that If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him” (v48). Ha ha! Wouldn’t that be awful? Everyone believing in the GodMan who clearly has power over life and death? You want to nip that in the bud, guys.

They then show that they are still more afraid of the Romans who “will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (v 48) Then the High Priest, Caiaphas pipes up with a statement dripping with irony, “You know nothing at all! (ha ha! Really? THEY know nothing?) You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v49-50) The gospel writer, John, points out the irony, but the joke is in v53. From that day on, they plotted to take his life.”

Erm, excuse me? So far in John’s Gospel, Jesus has turned water into wine, fed five thousand people, walked on water and healed a man born blind. And now he’s just raised a man from the dead. You’re planning to kill that man. Who raised a man from the dead. Good luck with that.

False Sense of Security

Killing Jesus, however, proved worryingly easy. For a man of such apparent cosmic power, he seemed curiously easy to beat up, whip, mock and torture.

They should have seen the signs. That’s another huge comic irony of the story. God becomes man, and we kill him. But who kills him? Religious people. The people whose job it was to know and teach the scriptures, many of whom will have memorised the prophecies with which the Old Testament is riddled.

The religious people rush a trial through, but the crowd are also implicated. They had been cheering Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then when he was arrested, they demanded a murderer and a terrorist to be released by Pilate, instead of the Prince of Peace, the one who can raise the dead. Jesus wasn’t the king they were expecting, when he turned up riding a comically pathetic donkey. What a ludicrous sight. It is almost as comic as the young man running away from the scene of arrest in Gethsemane Mark 14:42 who was so desperate to get away that when his coat was caught, he wriggled free and ran away stark naked.

Even though Pontius Pilate knew this man was innocent under the law, and washed his hands of it, he allowed his soldiers to do their worst. Luke also points out that Jesus’s trial united Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:12) which is not the kind of peace or kingdom that Jesus was talking about.

Black Friday

In the blackest and bleakest day in human history, all of the above mocked and jeered as  Jesus was forced to drag his own cross to the top of a hill, where he was nailed to it and hung between two common criminals. One of the criminals, despite being near to death himself, used his dying words to join the mockers, by sneering at him. They mishear Jesus quoting Psalm 22, saying ‘He is calling Elijah’, when he was giving more clues to his identity and the awful mistake the religious leaders had made. But they just taunt Jesus, telling him come down from the cross, which he could do, but chose not to. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” (Matthew 27:42) He is, of course, saving others at the cost of his own life.

The ironies abound. Above Jesus is a sign saying that this is the king of the Jews, which is funny because it’s true. Peter, the sturdy fisherman, Jesus’s rock, is denying Christ to a young girl. Jesus tells a common criminal that he will join him in paradise. (Luke 23:43). A centurion, the despised Roman occupier, could see that this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, healer of the sick, God’s chosen, prophesied king, has been killed by priests. It doesn’t get more incongruous than that.

James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK. To keep updated on that, do sign up for the mailing list on the right of the page.

He also discussion of this subject with Glen Scrivener.

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What’s So Funny About Easter?

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing funny about April Fools’ Day. Media organisations and large corporations collude to create stories that seem ludicrous but plausible. Then they have a good chuckle to themselves that some people were tricked. But given we live in a world in which the daily news seems to be a catalogue of the implausible, and some is already fake, how are we supposed to discern what stretches credibility and what is real?

In 2018, April Fools’ Day takes place on Easter Day, another day not known for its humour. Sceptics would be tempted to describe it as another day of implausible stunts. But let’s not get into that. Many books have been written on the subject, like Norman Anderson’s Evidence for the Resurrection or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter.

What’s less documented and written about in modern Christianity is the comedy present in the Easter story. On the surface, the death of Jesus doesn’t seem like a comic tale. The church certainly rarely presents it as such. But it used to. The phrase Risus Paschalis can be found in Easter celebrations in previous centuries. It means “the Easter Laugh”.

Easter Laughter

The origin of the phrase is obscure. Some attribute to the phenomenon to early church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa. But these early Christians weren’t known for their sense of humour. In 390, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) preached “This world is not a theatre in which we can laugh, and we are not assembled in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins.” Clement of Alexandria and Augustine were also suspicious of humour, just as the church is today.

But comedy did become associated with Easter somehow. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote for hymns for Good Friday and Holy Saturday with the stanza,

Grant us, Lord, so to suffer with you

that we may become sharers in your glory,

to spend these three days in grief

that you may allow us the laugh of Easter grace.

Curiously, no reference to bunnies or chocolate.

What’s the Joke?

To those outside the church, and plenty inside, it may not be easy to say what the big joke is about Easter. In bald terms, the gag is that God tricked Satan into letting him kill Jesus. But in so doing, Satan achieves God’s purposes, Jesus saves everyone with his death and Old Nick is humiliated by Jesus’s resurrection on the third day. Jesus 1. Lucifer 0.

This is pretty niche comedy, in today’s secular age, at least. Biblical knowledge and church attendance has declined in the West, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Risus Paschalis is no longer a thing. Ask the man in the street what Easter is, and he might not even know that it’s Jesus related. In order for comedy to work, to ‘get it’, you need shared information. As a society, basic Christian doctrine is no longer known, let alone understood or believed.

The Devil In The Detail

The Risus Paschalis tradition may also have fallen by the wayside because of theological shifts in the last 500 years. The habit of telling jokes in Easter sermons attracted criticism from Luther’s contemporaries, Oecolampadius and Erasmus who were shocked by the bawdiness and tone of the gags. But the Reformation, for Protestants at least, shifted the understanding of what exactly was happening at Easter, which perhaps tracks with the level of fear that the West has for the devil: virtually none. Read the CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters  for how that’s not exactly progress.

The idea that God tricked the devil by allowing him to have Jesus killed arguably inflates the importance of Satan in the overall biblical story. There are some verses in 1 Corinthians 2 in which Paul writes that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age (Demons and the Devil) understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:7-8) Demons are not omniscient and therefore were as blind to the consequence of the crucifixion of Christ as anyone.

But as theology grew and developed from the 1500s onwards, the role of the devil in the Easter story is sidelined. The reformers were clear that the Devil is not the piper who needs to be paid, teaching that it is God himself who demands satisfaction for sin. Justice is his realm. Jesus does not save the Christian from everlasting punishment by the Devil. Hell is the place in which the Devil is also punished. He is thrown down. Read Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Oh, and the Bible.) Misery loves company. (That’s not in the Bible). Satan is grabbing as many souls as he can on his way down. But the point is this: Satan is not the one who punishes sin. That would be God who is utterly and ineffably just, unpalatable for some as that doctrine may be.

Getting Tricky

In the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7), Eve may have been tricked by Satan, but the promise in 3:15 is not that Satan will have the tables turned on him, and that he will be merely tricked when he’s least expecting it. The implication of the promise is that his head will be crushed. God is the one offended by the sin of Adam. It can only be undone by a second Adam. And the only one who can provide that Second Adam, untainted by sin, is God, in his Son Jesus Christ. And he does that because he made us and he loves us. People much prefer hearing that bit.

So, is Easter not funny after all?

It is, actually. It is certainly very comic in ways that we will explore in the next post HERE.

If you can’t wait, have a look at a discussion of this subject with me and Glen Scrivener.

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