John Ortberg is senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and author of many books on spiritual formation including “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”, “Know Doubt”, “The Me I Want To Be”, “Who is This Man?” and “Soul Keeping”. He graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in psychology. He holds a master of divinity and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has done post-graduate work at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
I was asked to write a piece about evangelicals and humor. It was supposed to be funny. Which means it won’t be. Robert Benchley, a wonderful humorist, once wrote an essay explaining that nothing kills humor faster than attempts to analyze it. His essay wasn’t funny either.
But it’s still a topic worth looking at. C. S. Lewis wrote that he divided the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper and Flippancy (You can’t write an evangelical essay and not quote C. S. Lewis. If you try Alister McGrath comes to your house and deletes it from your computer). Joy, he said, stands so close to heaven that it is opaque to hell. Flippancy, on the other hand, “is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.” (Still not funny.)
I suppose one reason why we should cultivate the ability to laugh at ourselves is that the humility required carries a whiff of redemptive grace. “Angels are able to fly because they take themselves lightly,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. On the other hand, “The devill…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked,” wrote Thomas More in the days before spell check.
Another reason is that evangelicals have made so many contributions to the larger culture that we ought to learn to take joy in them: flannelgraphs, VeggieTales, Rook, Amish Romance novels, and the actor who played Eb in Green Acres.
There are lots of evangelicals who have a wonderful sense of humor: Donald Miller, Tony Campolo, Margaret Feinberg, Jon Acuff, Chuck Swindoll. Anne Lamott is pretty funny, but I don’t think she’s evangelical. Tim Keller is pretty evangelical, but I don’t think he’s funny. I could be wrong about this. Tim often calls me up and begs me to write “jokes” he can use in his sermons. But he’ll never use them unless they include a quote from Calvin. Calvin wasn’t funny either.
We should cultivate a sense of humor, because if we don’t laugh at ourselves, who will? Mark Noll wrote, in his yet-to-be-published classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Sense of Humor, “The scandal of the evangelical sense of humor is that there is not much of an evangelical sense of humor” (Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Sense of Humor, Chick Publications, to be published posthumously). We are at our funniest when we’re not trying to be.
We should look at joy because joy is commanded in the Bible; because joylessness is a sin. As one of the most joyful people I’ve ever known put it: “How many people are radically and permanently repelled from The Way by Christians who are unfeeling, stiff, unapproachable, boringly lifeless, obsessive and dissatisfied?” We should look at joy because joy, said C.S. Lewis (bonus points for a second quote) is the serious business of heaven.
Still wish I could find a funny way to end this, though.
This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.