The Laughing Theologian

truemanCarl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), 198–199:

In general terms, of course, Protestant theologians have not been renowned for their wit, and Protestant theology has not been distinguished by its laughter. Yet Luther laughed all the time, whether poking fun at himself, at Katie, at his colleagues, or indeed at his countless and ever increasing number of enemies. Humor was a large part of what helped to make him so human and accessible. And in a world where everyone always seems to be “hurt” by something someone has said or offended by this or that, Luther’s robust mockery of pretension and pomposity is a remarkable theological contribution in and of itself.

Humor, of course, has numerous functions. It is in part a survival mechanism. Mocking danger and laughing in the face of tragedy are proven ways of coping with hard and difficult situations. Undoubtedly, this played a significant role in Luther’s own penchant for poking fun. Yet I think there is probably a theological reason for Luther’s laughter too.

Humor often plays on the absurd, and Luther knew that this fallen world was not as it was designed to be and was thus absurd and futile in a most significant and powerful way. Thus, he knew that life is tragic. It is full of sound and fury. It is marked by pain and frustration. The strength of youth must eventually fade into the weakness of old age and finally end in the grave. We believe ourselves to be special, to be transcendent, to be unique and irreplaceable.

And yet the one great lesson that everyone must ultimately learn in life is that they are none of these things, however much we want them to be true and however much we do things to trick ourselves into believing our own propaganda. We are fallen, finite, and mortal. We are not God. And because God is and has acted, because in incarnation, Word, and sacrament he has revealed and given himself and has thus pointed to the true meaning of life, our own pretensions to greatness are shown to be nothing but the perilous grandstanding of the absurdly pompous and the pompously absurd.

Jovial Calvinism

cslYesterday’s post (Sammy Rhodes on Twitter humor and resurrection hope) reminds me of an exchange at the 2013 DG National Conference on C.S. Lewis. During the speaker panel the topic of “jovial Calvinism” arose, and the discussion was later published in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 2014), pages 166–69:

Douglas Wilson: I guess the first thing I would say is that you have to be careful that the joviality is not sort of a Dr. Pangloss, like out of Candide, where someone who’s going through a terrible world of suffering is not clued in to what’s happening. That’s not joviality. That’s not someone who is responding appropriately. He needs to be dialed in. True joviality, I think, has to be understood as an act of defiance. The world is a mess. It is fallen. It’s filled with wickedness.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the White Witch comes across the feast in the woods and asks, “Why all this gluttony? Why all this self-indulgence?” Lewis captures that wonderfully. Judas is the one who wants to know why the ointment was not sold and given to the poor. Judas is the one who is being the skinflint. Judas was the one pinching the pennies — and there was a reason for that, as John tells us. The White Witch captures that wonderfully. If you’re celebrating at some Sabbath dinner, or you’re celebrating because you’ve never heard of any of the conflict, then you just are not clued in. But if you are at Rivendell, The Last Homely House — if you’re feasting — then it’s an act of defiance. It’s a declaration of war. It’s the recognition that this is how we fight. We are the cheerful warriors, the happy warriors, the cavalier. We should fight like a cavalier. We should fight like Dartanian and not like a thug. Right? We need to fight. We must fight, but the person who fights like a cavalier is an attractive leader. He’s going to attract more people to his side. He’s going to be more effective.

Think about a pro-life activist who says, “But they’re killing babies, and it’s terrible. And the whole world’s falling apart. The whole world’s going to hell.” So they write their letter to the editor with a fisted crayon — what I like to call the spittle-flecked letter. That is, they can’t say, “But abortion’s so important, I’ve got to do it this way.” I would say no. Abortion is so important that you must not do it that way. You’re not venting; you’re fighting. And if you fight, you want to fight effectively. You want to use your head. You want to keep your cool. And part of this is, I think, essentially joviality.

Joe Rigney’s talk yesterday was wonderful, and he pinpointed King Lune as the quintessential jolly man. He’s king of Archenland. But he’s the quintessential jovial character. He’s not a pacifist. He’s first in and last out. He is the fighting king, but he’s the kind of fighting king that I would want to follow. There are people who are so hard-bitten — they’re so disillusioned — that they’re not going to motivate anybody to do anything. So that’s in a nutshell what I would say.

Philip Ryken: Joviality is not the only mood of the Christian life, but somebody that does not have a godly, sanctified joviality perhaps has a one-dimensional or not as fully human expression of the Christian life. The New Testament seems to present both fasting and feasting as normative for the Christian experience — both lamentation and celebration. Most of us find it hard to get the balance or proportion right, but those are both strongly held values in the Gospels. And C. S. Lewis is one of the best exemplars we can think of as the jovial Christian.

Douglas Wilson: Yeah. The apostle Paul says in Corinthians, “We are sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” So you can go through afflictions. There’s tears and bruises and hard times, and that’s what I think a biblical joviality means. Death is swallowed up by victory at the end, and we must never forget that. . . . If you have a true community of believers, if you are plugged into a church and are a vibrant member of that church and you take the words of the Scripture seriously, “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice,” then you find yourself having to do a lot of those things in quick succession. You’ve got the funeral on Wednesday and the wedding on Friday or the funeral on Wednesday and the wedding rehearsal Thursday evening and then the wedding on Friday. And you’ve got to go from one to the other.

We’re not called to schizophrenic scatteredness. We are called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. The thing I must have to orient me in all of this is the recognition at all times that this is a comedy, not a tragedy. This ends well. It is comedy not in the sense of a sitcom, but comedy in the sense of The Divine Comedy, where it ends well. So it begins with a garden. The Bible begins with a garden and ends with a garden city. It ends with the bride coming down the aisle. That’s how it ends. That’s the story I’m in. So if I’m preaching the funeral of someone whose death just shocked the whole congregation, do I know where I am? Do I know what kind of book I’m in? This goes back to your point of knowing the genre. Do I know the genre of the history of the world? It’s a comedy.

Randy Alcorn: Many of you have had this experience. Certainly when I’ve been doing memorial services, the therapy of laughter occurs as certain stories are told about the loved one who’s departed and is now with the Lord, and you’ll have tears just streaming down your face and then laughter — and it’s not a superficial laughter. It’s a laughter that is an overcoming laughter. It’s a laughter that says we know a God of joy, a God who is eternally happy, and we’ll be happy for all eternity, and we’ll be with him and enjoying that happiness, and our loved one has gone on to be with him. That doesn’t minimize our tears, but it does give a tone to the memorial service that’s remarkable. There are times when laughter is louder at memorial services than in a normal context, and when it’s done for those reasons it’s Christ-centered laughter. I think it’s very healthy.

Twitter Jokes, Hope, and the Resurrection


Sammy Rhodes serves as RUF campus minister at the University of South Carolina, and he moonlights as one of the wittiest comedians on Twitter (@sammyrhodes). He recently talked humor with Alex Early on the Acts 29 Podcast (MP3).

In the following transcribed excerpt, Sammy explains why he turned to Twitter and the redemptive value of laughter in the Christian life:

The way this started for me, trying to be funny on Twitter, was a dark time in my family. Our youngest daughter had a condition called Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a relatively new diagnosis, a rare brain condition where her cerebellum didn’t quite develop like it should, creating swelling and excessive fluid of the brain. Nobody knew what would happen. She could die soon after she was born. She would probably need a shunt to drain excess fluid, and she could live, and you wouldn’t even notice the condition for her whole life.

It was in this dark time in our family when humor was needed. I think if you listen closely enough to laughter you will hear echoes of hope. We didn’t know what God was going to do. We knew he loved us. We knew we could trust him.

There’s a hopefulness in humor that we needed — I needed, and I think my wife, too. . . . But that’s when I really started to try to be funny on Twitter, because I almost needed to laugh a little bit in the name of the hope that comes from trusting in Jesus and belonging to him.

There’s that scene in Lord of the Rings, the last book, after the ring has been destroyed, and [Tolkien] says, “Gandalf laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land.” That’s the image of laughter — it’s hopefulness.

God is on the throne. God has begun making all things new in the resurrection of Jesus, and that frees us up to laugh in hope, to laugh in the face of dark things and hard things, appropriately. . . .

There is a way of laughing to escape, but I think there is a way of using humor in dark times that is very healthy coping.

Laughter is a reminder to one another that it’s going to be okay, not because that’s a cliché thing to say, but because truly for us as believers we really do belong to Jesus. He really is raised from the dead. He really is taking us somewhere. And he really is using every hard, broken thing in our lives — even our own brokenness — to sanctify us and grow us and to bring good into our own lives and into the world.

Amen. This conversation with Sammy reminds me of a conversation over “jovial Calvinism” at the 2013 DG National Conference. I’ll post that tomorrow.