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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 is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK, which will be available from January 2019. Join the mailing list (right) for further information.

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

You can also listen to James talk to comedy legends like Paul Merton, Graham Linehan, John Finnemore and Barry Cryer on the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

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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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Why I Can’t Hide Like Eddie Stobart

A few years ago, I read a book about the Eddie Stobart company. I’ve forgotten most of it, but my lasting memory is that Eddie himself barely featured in the day-to-day running of this company. In fact, he was soon a distant memory. The other members of the family enjoyed this because if someone stomped into their office with a problem and demanded to see Eddie Stobart, they would be disappointed. Someone else would step in and offer to deal with the problem and suddenly the situation was already beginning to be diffused. And no-one had to take the blame for being Eddie Stobart. Convenient.

I don’t have that luxury on this website. I am James Cary, and this is Jamescary.co.uk. Welcome to my new website. Hopefully it is a permanent online home for my articles and blogs, more of which below. But for now, I realise that I’ve left myself very little room for manoeuvre. If I post a thought or opinion on this site, it’s me. I take the credit or get the blame. Anyone who stomps up and waves a fist will be doing so to the man whose name is at the top. There is no hiding.

In Pursuit Of The Obvious

My previous and now defunct website was called ‘In Pursuit of the Obvious’, which is a curious title for my website. It did not mean that I consider my own views to be merely common sense and self-evident or that that anyone who disagrees with me is clearly wrong-headed, illogical or in denial. Many newspaper columns pride themselves on what they consider to be ‘straight shooting’ and ‘telling it like it is’, in a world of political correctness, PR, spin and fake news. Much as it would be nice to have a website called ‘Both Barrels’ or ‘Shooting from the Hip’, my aim is not to shock people with the truth or rant like a rabble-rounsing demagogue.

There is a Christian justification for being cantankerous and pointing out the uncomfortable truths in the great and the apparently good. ‘Speaking prophetically’ is a thing, biblically-speaking. And if you’re going to be like anyone in the Bible – apart from Jesus – you could do worse than Moses, Elijah or any of those guys. Many of them were living dangerously and met a sticky end (except Elijah who went to heaven in a chariot of fire. Lucky him.)

No, this website and blog has a different purpose, and a different hero. My earthly hero, of the last hundred years, at least, is GK Chesterton. I was inspired to read one of GK Chesterton’s finest works, Orthodoxy, by another author, Philip Yancey, who wrote in Soul Survivor:

“We direly need another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further apart, we could use his brilliance, his entertaining style, and above all his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarised, as ours has, it is as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Chesterton had another approach: he walked to the centre of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud. GK Chesterton managed to propound the Christian faith with as much wit, good humour, and sheer intellectual force as anyone in th[e Twentieth C]entury.”

 

GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton

I wanted to find out more about this man. I’d heard his name many times, not least because GK Chesterton is quoted extremely often by evangelical preachers, despite not being an evangelical himself, and he ended up drifting into Roman Catholicism. But he wrote so well and concisely, constantly using beautiful prose and paradox (perhaps the latter to a fault), that he is eminently quotable. He is such an appealing author because he is profoundly serious, but does not take himself too seriously, very much aware of his own flaws and failings. He cut an absurd figure, being extremely tall and large. PG Wodehouse honoured him by referring to his bulk in Mr Mulliner Speaking, in which the hero, Cedric, is creeping around, but surprised by a noise which is described thus:

“The drowsy stillness of the summer afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.”

Given the mass of Chesterton, we assume this is a loud noise. He would have been thrilled, amused and flattered.

We digress. Okay, I’m doing most of the digressing here, but many great truths have been expressed in digressions, just as many great discoveries were accident. That said, people tend to quote pencillin, but then dry up with further examples rather quickly. Where were we? Ah yes. “In Pursuit of The Obvious”. Why that as the title of my previous blog?

Responding to Yancey’s exhortation, I read GK Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy. It remains one of my favourite books of all time, being an inspiration for me in my non-fiction writing and precisely the kind of book that I would one day like to write. The opening chapter of the book is a wonderful admission of his own spiritual and philosophical trek about how it would look if an English yachtsman sailed off on a voyage of discovery, only to miscalculate, land on a beach and plant the British flag on a beach, only to discover that his hitherto hidden nation is in fact, England. And if you read the whole chapter – or the whole book – here, you will see that Chesterton admits to being that deluded sailor, looking around the world for something new and exciting, but realising that the thing he was looking for was orthodox Christianity. He writes:

“I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.”

Much as I’d like to write more about this wonderful chapter, I realise a little more explanation is still needed. Chesterton’s circuitous journey back to faith in plain old Christianity is something that we may yet end up experiencing as a society and nation. I am not saying that we had it right in the old days. There’s no one particular year or even century where we’d really cracked Christendom. In the fifteenth century, Britons were very religious, but it took a form of superstition, rather than a Christian faith. A century later, Protestantism had taken hold (which I’m a fan of), but lots of people were killed in the process. Within another hundred years, life for Protestants serious about their faith found living in England untenable so they left to start another country in the Americas.

The Future

I’m not nostalgic about the past, but I am optimistic about the future because I believe God is good, and that he has made the universe to be a friendly place, and despite our best efforts, our story ends well. As a nation, we are on a journey, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. We’ve tried Kings, Parliaments, Empire-building, War, Socialism, Pluralism, Capitalism and various blends of the aforementioned, many of which have their strengths and their place.

Like Chesterton, I believe, this journey can only end with the obvious: Christianity, no matter how bizarre that may seem to us today. In that same chapter, he writes about how we chase after the novel:

“It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths.”

The question is what mature, authentic Christianity looks like in the 21st Century, a land of iPhones, science labs, nuclear weapons, cloning, fake news and reality TV. How do Church and State fit together? What is the State? How is this discussed in the Media? What is the media? Sorry, what are the media? (We all know it’s ‘is’ really). What sort of society do we want to be? And what do we do about people who want something else?

These are questions with which I seem to constantly be wrestling. I have elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. But rather than the call the website that, I’ve called it Jamescary.co.uk. Disappointing, but there it is.


How to accidentally ruin a perfectly decent society

Death by Civilisation

I’ve written more on some of the above in a book called Death By Civilisation, available in some good bookshops, a few dreadful ones and unavailable in far more of both. Best bet is Amazon.

“‘a wonderful cascade of sage snippets…fit to grace bedside tables and smallest rooms in the greatest houses” – Alan Wilson, Church Times

“This is a lovely selection of well-thought out and witty articles which you can pick up and put down at your leisure. Cary is not just accomplished, but engaging too. Oh, and funny.” – DeanT, Amazon Review

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