August 29, 2014

Paul Zahl: Humor in the Pulpit

Davidson_The_Court_JesterI remember well a special meeting we had in seminary when our wives were invited to join us for a discussion of marriage. One of the speakers was Walt Kaiser, one of my favorite profs at Trinity. Dr. Kaiser is among the most winsome people I’ve ever met. His lectures and preaching were always filled with humorous asides and stories that drew us in and often drove home serious points from the biblical text. I will never forget him speaking at that marriage event and saying that one of the greatest evidences of grace in a person’s life is when that person has the ability to laugh at himself.

I’ve been dipping into Paul F. M. Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, and have been feeling especially nourished by what he says about grace in the church and pastoral ministry. I thought we might discuss one small section that deals with the minister’s use of humor in preaching.

I’d love to hear how you respond to Zahl’s words and what your own experiences have been with the use of humor from the pulpit.

* * *

Humor in the Pulpit

Another indispensable aspect of grace as applied to the pulpit is humor. Humor is a vital part of the theology of the cross, which is the blood of Christ de-mystified and connected to real things. Humor is an embodiment of humility, because it demystifies human importance and transfers this importance to God. Humor in the pulpit says that the preacher takes his or her own role with a grain of salt. It also lowers the walls of denial that people bring to any form of public address and builds up what we today call the “comfort level.”

. . . Humor plays two roles in the pulpit. First, humor deconstructs the preacher. He or she is just a fool and martinet and narcissist like everybody else. The preacher needs humor for the sake of humility. This is a requirement for speaking the gospel. Second, humor takes down the defenses of the listener. When you laugh, you are then ready to cry. Your emotions are working. Humor is part of the “heavy lifting of worship.”

- p. 234f

Comments

  1. I think a bit of humor that does not overshadow or take people out of the gospel is fine.

    Humor, coupled with a ‘how-to’ sermon…or social gospel sermon is also fine. Because at least there, you might get a good laugh…if you get nothing else that you really need.

  2. Pat McCown says:

    Anybody remember the book “How to be a Bishop without being Religious?”

    The chapter on sermons was titled “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em feel religious.”

  3. Mule Chewing Briars says:

    Fifteen years ago, I went to a Promise Keepers convention. There were a lot of heavy-hitting testosterone-y preachers there, all burly manly men with an attitude. The only speaker I remember was the comedian, Brad Stine. I’m sorry, but when it came to preaching a challenging, uncompromising, Christ-centered message, he kicked @$$ and took names.

    Sometimes,the fool is the only one who can speak truth to power and remain with his neck intact.

    • Christiane says:

      Stephen Colbert is a devout Catholic.
      That says something to me about the co-existence of ‘faith’ and ‘humor’. :)

  4. Wow, what a stretcher for me here. Although I am not a pastor (a former missionary/Pharisee) I do get to speak from time to time. I am thinking of where the balance of humor may rest within a liturgical setting. Thinking , that is… no conclusions yet.

  5. I was unaware that the ability to laugh at oneself was evidence of grace but it makes sense to me. I have long propounded that humor, our most wonderful trait, is the ability to laugh at ourselves and NOT others. I know some people who make a habit of “teasing” and “humorous” insults. It creates a sense of unease.

  6. Then there’s the pastor whose humor is all about the others in his family: http://www.larknews.com/archives/5350

  7. I agree that self-directed humor is welcome. I grew up in a church where the teasing/just-kidding kind was prevalent, especially in the pulpit. It was not good.

  8. There is a place for humor in preaching, but there are also preachers who try much too hard to be funny and hip.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Agree. I am suspect of the practical uses of humor in Religious or Political environments. It goes wrong very easily. If a pastor is going to use humor he should have a few trusted people to vet his humor first; to make sure it isn’t simply about his prejudices.

  9. I’ll admit to my biases from the start: I hate the usual kind of humour you get in sermons or homilies. My heart sinks when I hear the priest begin “I read this story in the paper the other day…” because (a) nine out of ten times, I’ll have read the same joke and I’m pretty sure most of the rest of the congregation have as well and (b) it won’t be funny,

    You can guess my opinion of the cheesy, sentimental anecdotes that attempt to tug at the heart-strings :-)

    I’m not saying go back to the old Redemptorist mission sermons about the terrors of Hell, but so often I want to say “Look, forget the jokes and third-hand inspirational messages lifted out of an old copy of “Readers’ Digest” and just preach on the Gospel text for today“.

    I have a Dante quote for this (you knew this was coming). In the 13th/14th century, you got two styles of preaching: the one from the pulpit in the church, which could often degenerate into a pretty exhibition of showing off the preacher’s command of all the rhetorical tricks, and the street preaching done in the public square, in the language of the people, by mendicant orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans.

    The problem with the second type was that, in its desire to avoid the ‘learned’ language and philosophy of the first type, it often rushed to the other extreme:

    Canto XXIX, “Paradiso”, “The Divine Comedy”:

    115 ‘Now preachers ply their trade with buffoonery and jokes,
    116 their cowls inflating if they get a laugh,
    117 and the people ask for nothing more.

    118 ‘But such a bird nests in their hoods
    119 that, if the people saw it, they would see
    120 the kind of pardoning to which they give their trust.

    121 ‘Because of these such foolishness has grown on earth
    122 that, with no warrant vouching for its truth,
    123 they still would flock to any promise.

    • Michael says:

      I understand your ambivalence. Humor as a way of being humble and self-effacing is a good thing. But there are also some wanna-be comedians in the pulpit (usually in the more lights-camera-action type of churches) who need to be told that they aren’t there to entertain the audience–excuse me, congregation. In my experience in the RC world, you do sometimes get the sense that they’re forcing a joke into the homily because someone told them in a sermon class that it’s good to use jokes.

      But having gotten those caveats out of the way, I agree with Chaplain Mike’s post. Especially the part that being able to laugh at yourself is an evidence of grace.

    • Fr. Weejus says:

      “…so often I want to say “Look, forget the jokes and third-hand inspirational messages lifted out of an old copy of “Readers’ Digest” and just preach on the Gospel text for today“.

      Have you been visiting our congregation, unbeknownst to us? If so, after I’m done pointing out that you’re sitting in our pew, I would love to greet you by name, shake your hand, and welcome you!

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        There are certainly pastors/priests who can pull it of. But given my experience – if a pastor/priest is convinced that describes himself – he is probably wrong.

        And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE no more happy-wife-happy-life or understanding-women-you-know-what-i-mean or … ugh, … humor from the pulpit can be a really stomach turning thing. I just want to stand up and say: “Sir, I am a male, and I have no problem understanding women, so what is your issue? If 52-55% of your congregation baffle you then maybe you are not qualified to be standing there? If you are joking – it is not funny.” if you humor involves gender, race, age, or class, in any way whatsoever – JUST SHUT UP, it is not humor.

  10. Still my favorite church 25 years after moving away, an ELCA Lutheran church in Grants Pass, Oregon, the pastor invariably started off his sermon with a joke. Not a knee-slapper, not late-night standup, not something out of a joke book, more like an amusing anecdote or story you might hear at a banquet or family reunion, which is basically what it was. I can’t remember a single one of them, all I remember is a room full of real people gathered to meet with their Father and beginning with a collective release of any tension or pious religiosity brought in.

  11. Al Rider says:

    Especially at funerals…!

    I’m an ELCA parish pastor, and when meeting with the bereaved family to prepare the funeral, I go “fishing” for stories of the deceased that will set the whole assembly laughing in loving and affectionate remembrance of that saint. Then immediately after in the homily/obit is the right time for another story that will bring on the tear of affectionate remembrance. I always say that a good funeral should send us out both laughing and crying, grateful to a gracious God who loves and embraces us in the fullness of our human foibles and our human achievements.

    The congregations I’ve served have loved and embraced this approach. There’s one man who wants me to call him to usher ANY time there’s a funeral: He says my funeral sermons give him hope. It’s all about humor and all about declaring God’s grace. I’m with Dr. Zahl…!

  12. My favorite preacher is probably Steve Brown from Key Life. He was a homiletics professor at Reformed Theological Seminary for a very long time (and may still be, for all I know). I remember one of Dr. Brown’s videos of advice to preachers where he (as a good Presbyterian) used the TULIP acronym in a new way:

    Therapeutic
    Unconventional
    Lucid
    Illustrate
    Pathos/Passion

    And in all of those, humor really, really helps. And anyone who knows Steve Brown’s work knows that to be true. I find that being somewhat self-deprecating in my humor really reaches the congregation. We’re in the more Anglo-Catholic element of Anglicanism, and that means that a “Father knows best” mentality is often part of the package. Knocking myself off the pedestal is good for all of us!

  13. I think humor can play a role to help communicate and connect with your audience. However I think Zahl give humor too much weight.

    Granted we are only reading a small excerpt from his book, but I have some serious issue with his statement, “Humor is a vital part of the theology of the cross, which is the blood of Christ de-mystified and connected to real things.”

    Perhaps I might be missing his intent but I am not aware of any scriptural support for humor being part of the theology of the cross. I would think it would be more likely to make light of the cross instead of light of us.

    • I think this is a response to those who say “humor should not be a part of our service, or even for that matter of our christian life, because the Bible never records Jesus as laughing.” What Zahl is saying is that without humor you have a theology that puts puts God at a distance, unconnected to human beings. Humor is one way to communicate that Jesus broke through the barrier between man and God.

      • I think he also means that our human foibles are real and that our failure to laugh at them betrays a sense of self-righteousness that shows we really don’t accept ourselves as sinners.

      • Michael says:

        Humor is one way to communicate that Jesus broke through the barrier between man and God.

        If you don’t have a sense of humor, you have a problem with the Incarnation. :-P

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And one of the signs of a True Believer (and not in a good sense) is they have NO sense of humor; especially about their Righteous Cause. The Righteous Cause is always DEAD serious, and The Righteous take themselves far too seriously.

          “There can be no laughter in Islam.” — Ayatollah Khomeini

          And look how much humor or humanity is in the Islamic Republic that Khomeini founded.

    • Like you, I have not read “Humor in the Pulpit,” so I write with limited knowledge. Even so, when he writes that “Humor is a vital part of the theology of the cross” I cannot imagine that his intent is to poke fun at the sufferings of Christ in order to connect the gospel to real life and get the message across in a more effective manner. In a broader context, however, there is much room for humor, especially as it applies to our feeble and prideful attempts to earn righteousness before God and standing with one another.

  14. As a pastor this is very refreshing to hear and I loved Zahl’s take on humor in the pulpit. I often hear pastors and professors denounce humor in the pulpit and if humor is intended to simply be a clown I agree. But I think it is an incredible tool for a pastor to be “real” before a congregation. Especially when he is being real about his failings and weaknesses. It does bring him down a level to where he is one with the hearers and it brings a sense of unity before God. I do believe humor should be natural and should come when it comes bot be forced or manipulated.

  15. The other day I was reading a passage in which the disciples told Christ that they were unable to perform some task or that He had to cut short something or other as they were all too rushed. Christ stared in amazement (my paraphrase I think) and said “Are there not 12 hours in the day?” I found that very funny. I believe He had a dry wit.

    • My favorite is from Matthew 17.24-27, the story of The Temple Tax,

      “When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.””

      I love Jesus’ sarcastic humor, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And then He has Peter fish out a shekel from the mouth of a fish to pay the tax. I laugh every time I read this passage. And it eggs me on to use humor when I teach (although I have yet to replicate the fish thing).

      • One of my favorites is in Paul’s letter to Titus, referring to Epimenides’paradox. Epimenides, from Crete, declares that all Cretans are liars, making even this statement a lie. Do you allow your head to explode in this feedback loop?
        Here’s Paul’s smackdown in Titus 1:12-13.
        “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.”

        • Good one! Thanks for sharing it.

          My all-time favorite is from Galatians 5.12. In reference to the Judaizers who insisted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised Paul writes,

          “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

          Preach it, Paul!

          • Robert F says:

            “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

            I know its Scripture, I know, I know….but that line could just as easily have come out of the mouth of Mark Driscoll. Sometimes Paul said cruel things, joking or not.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I look at that more as exasperation. Paul’s had to deal with Judaizers who insist on circumcising all the Goyim, and after getting hammered with the subject one time too many, he gets a little punchy.

            “They insist on circumcision? Why don’t they go all the way and castrate themselves! Moyl where their Mouth is!”

          • Paul was using a hyperbole to make his case, which is to say, if removal of the foreskin makes you “holy” then think what amputation of the entire member will do for you!

            And by the way, the context leads me to conclude that Paul was not referring to castration, i.e., removal of the testes, but to the excision of the penis.

            And I suppose that since it’s a literature construct and not a medical procedure there is humor in this, which I believe is what Paul intended to make his point with regards the Judaizers’ silly argument.

        • There’s something comic about the way Mark tells his version of the gospel, with the disciples constantly not getting it. Also, the “log in the eye” is a amusing word picture.

          In the OT, I find Jacob’s many exploits and misadventures to be funny.

  16. j shott says:

    I suspect that if Jesus was angry and sad, is it not unreasonable to presume he shared asana laugh or downright guffaw in years walking the dusty roads with his disciples?

  17. Patricia says:

    My pastor is an accomplished communicator and uses humor effectively. He will often intersperse it to relieve tension. The only thing I object to is when his humor becomes self-deprecating. We are told to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought – as we are ALL part of one Body; and yet we are also told to love others as we love ourselves . . . I think there is a fine line between not taking one’s self too seriously that can easily be crossed into the territory of self-put downs that is in my opinion, inappropriate in or out of the pulpit.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > easily be crossed into the territory of self-put downs that is in my opinion, inappropriate in or out of the pulpit.

      One thing often focused on helping people improve their teaching / presentation style is to steer people away from self-deprecation. It is a very potent way to loose your audience, and it doesn’t accomplish much. Honesty is one thing, self-deprecation is another. Self-deprecation can make the audience ask “then why am I spending my time listening to you?” and it can also easily cross into, at least appearing to, make lite of one’s failings or errors – which if you don’t know your audience very intimately is dangerous ground.

      • Robert F says:

        All true.

        And yet self-deprecation in the pulpit, and elsewhere, is preferable to other-deprecation. Humor about oneself can be evidence of grace in one’s life; jokes directed at others can easily turn cruel and destructive, and sap the some of the grace right out of their lives.

        Let’s all remember how cruel humor can be, how vicious it can be, and how what seems playful and good-natured to us may seem otherwise to others, especially those who have been deeply wounded by life. And there may be many of these wounded out there listening to your sermons; gentleness, including in humor, is what speaks to these people.

  18. dumb ox says:

    Humor? Yes. The pastor or guest speaker performing a stand-up act? Please, no!

    Can we make a distinction between humor or and joking?

    Humor is a perfectly acceptable form of literature and speech. Shakespeare knew the art of humor.

    Revivalism is such a roller-coaster of emotion, with the pastor following up a joke with hell-fire preaching/motivational speaking. Yuck. Too many bad memories to recount.

  19. dumb ox says:

    GK Chesterton understood the use of humor. So did CS Lewis. I think George MacDonald did as well, considering he encouraged Lewis Carroll to write “Alice in Wonderland”.

  20. Christiane says:

    there are things in sacred Scripture that make me smile

    . . . like Balaam’s talking donkey . . .

    and the creative way that was found to bring a sick man to be healed by Our Lord
    by lowering him down through the roof

    . . . and the little short tax collector who climbed a tree in order to see Our Lord . . .

    all so very human (well, maybe not the donkey, I suppose)

    • Did you know that Balaam had the stretchiest skin in the Bible?

      It says that he “tied his ass to a tree and walked twenty miles.”

      Actually it doesn’t say that. I just checked. The story is in numbers 22.

  21. I knew Paul Zahl back when he was in Birmingham, AL. His use of humor was not clownish or outlandish. Nor did he tend to use “cute” or overly sweet tales. In fact, he was a master storyteller without telling “apocryphal” tales.

  22. Had to share this pulpit moment.

    Our pastor (previous church) is giving the announcements, and is talking about a church pool party. He concludes by stating that “thongs are optional”, and then sits down. The worship team plays the next song. After the song is finished the Pastor goes up to the pulpit and says. “My wife informs me that the word that I was supposed to use was flip flops.” He then sits back while the congregation in practically rolling on the floor with laughter.

  23. Speaking of jokes, here’s some material for Lent. Note: this joke can be abbreviated for short attention spans.

    An Irishman moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry , walks into the pub
    and promptly orders three beers. The bartender raises his eyebrows,
    but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone.

    An hour later, the man has finished the three beers and orders three more.
    This happens yet again. The next evening the man again orders and drinks three beers at a time, several times.

    Soon the entire town is whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers.

    Finally, a week later, the bartender broaches the subject on behalf of the town.
    “I don’t mean to pry, but folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?”

    “Tis odd, isn’t it?” the man replies. “You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America ,
    and the other to Australia . We promised each other that we would always order
    an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond.”

    The bartender and the whole town were pleased with this answer,
    and soon the “Man Who Orders Three Beers” became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet,
    even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink.

    Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart.
    This continues for the rest of the evening. He orders only two beers.

    The word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers.

    The next day, the bartender says to the man, “Folks around here, me first of all,
    want to offer condolences to you for the death of one of your brothers. You know-the two beers and all.”

    The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, “You’ll be happy to hear that both my two brothers
    are alive and well. It’s just that I, me-self, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”

  24. And one on aging and the changes it brings:

    Did you hear the one about the elderly man out fishing when a frog on shore calls out, “Kiss me, I’m a beautiful princess.” He rows over and puts the frog in the boat. The frog keeps up with the same line ceaselessly but he doesn’t kiss it. He brings it home, puts it on the table and starts watching television. The thing won’t quit so finally he looks over and says, “Honey, at this point in the game I’m good with a talking frog.”

  25. Christiane says:

    when thinking of humor in the pulpit, I suppose the classic prize must go to the Reverend Wm. Spooner.

    imagine being in a congregation and hearing a pastor who got his words all mixed up by accident . . . examples?
    take a look:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10194552/Spoonerisms-remembering-William-Spooner.html