Is it any wonder that so many people find religious settings stultifying? “The lack of humour and irritability into which we in the contemporary Church and contemporary theology have so often slipped is perhaps one of the most serious objections which can be brought against present-day Christianity,” wrote Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German Catholic theologian, in his book An Introduction to Christian Faith . I’ll say: some Catholic priests make you wonder how they can say that they “celebrate” the Mass when they never crack a smile.
It’s not just a Catholic problem. The Rev. Martin Marty, the distinguished Protestant theologian, author of many books and over 5,000 scholarly articles, told me that certain aspects of the Protestant tradition have always struck him as “grim.” In a recent interview Marty said, “Hilaritas is not characteristic of the Protestant ethos.”
Professor Marty saw that as ironic since Martin Luther, about whom Marty has written extensively, often stressed the value of “play” in his writings. He was also fond of the occasional witticism. In one of the sayings later collected in Luther’s Table Talk, one of his friends recounts Luther’s amusing way of preparing to deliver a particular homily. “Tomorrow I have to lecture on the drunkenness of Noah,” said the great man, “so I should drink enough this evening to be able to talk about that wickedness as one who knows by experience.”
Ironically, Professor Marty said that his whole career could be attributed to a sense of humor. While studying at Concordia Seminary in Missouri, he and his friends playfully concocted a fictional scholar named Franz Bibfeldt, whose fake name and spurious accomplishments they attempted to place in as many academic settings as they could--student newspapers, the school’s library card catalogue, and so on.
In response to these shenanigans, the dean called him into his office for a scolding. He told Marty that someone with such frivolity could never be a good Protestant scholar, and sent him to work with a pastor. But at that church the pastor told the young man that all his assistants studied for their doctorates. So that’s what Marty did. “So my whole professional life was thanks to a prank!” he told me.
Today you can find on the Internet references to the work of the fictional professor, including a book penned by Marty and a friend with the wonderfully serious title of The Unrelieved Paradox: Studies in the Theology of Franz Bibfeldt. Among the fanciful articles are “Franz Bibfeldt and the Future of Political Theology.”
“And I’m still accused of not being serious enough!” said one of the country’s greatest scholars of religion. “I have a real taste for humor.”
Professor Marty, who is also the author of Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America, surmised that the American Protestant tradition’s emphasis on seriousness may relate to the belief that what you do need to “add up” to something. Of course, he said, there are many Protestants who are lighthearted, humorous and joyful. But overall he detects a certain grimness in certain parts of the Protestant DNA. “After all,” he told me, “we talk about the Protestant work ethic, not the Protestant play ethic.”
Charles Hambrick-Stowe, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield, Connecticut, agreed, suggesting that this seriousness may be ingrained in aspects of the American Protestant tradition. “Perhaps a great deal of this comes from our Puritan background,” he said. “After all, Cotton Mather talked about the dangers of humor and noted that nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus smiled. But the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” Hambrick-Stowe laughingly recalled H.L. Mencken’s acid definition of Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Pastor Hambrick-Stowe has a range of experience in a variety of Protestant traditions. He has taught both at the Lancaster Theological Seminary, a U.C.C. institution in Pennsylvania, as well as in the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Hambrick-Stowe has also taught church history at the Baptist-run Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He is an excellent person to address the topic of humor in American Protestantism.
He agreed with Professor Marty in the overemphasis on what he called the “grim, dour and rigid” brand of some Protestant traditions. “Too many thou-shalt-nots,” he said.
“Then why do I know so many joyful Protestants?” I asked him. In response he pointed to an interesting historical development that helped to usher in a more joyful form of American Protestantism.
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century, he said, many Protestant denominations began to realize that the center of people’s lives was moving away from the church. This led to a growing awareness of the need to link the life of the local church with the everyday “social” life of the congregation.
“This is when you had churches building social halls, gymnasiums, church parlors and even bowling alleys where all sorts of groups could meet,” he said. “Pianos started to appear in social halls, and not just for the singing of religious songs. You had a greater emphasis on fellowship and youth groups.” As a result, says Hambrick-Stowe, what was injected into American Protestant culture was both “fellowship and fun.”
Even with these relatively recent developments, and even if many priests and ministers admit the need for joy, many religious institutions-Catholic, Protestant, Jewish-often seem to find little room for a smile, for a joke, for laughter or worse, for the occasional measure of silliness. But God, I would suggest, may think otherwise.
Why do I believe this? Because God relentlessly introduces into even the most serious of situations--whether we like it or not--joy, humor and laughter. This happens mainly through our own very human mistakes, which reveals to us our very human limitations. Everyone has a favorite story about a snafu, a slipup or a stupid thing they did or said in the midst of their ministry that prompted gales of unexpected laughter.
God brings joy, humor and laughter into churches through our humanity, on a regular basis, which is something about which we should, as St. Paul said, “Rejoice always.”
This essay is excerpted from Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by James Martin, S.J. (HarperOne).