'No Laughing Matter!'
- Adventists and Laughter
“Laughter is a necessary accomplice to truth-telling.”
- Giles Fraser, Christianity With Attitude, p. 152 (Norwich: Canterbury, Press 2007)
St Paul’s Cathedral and ‘Occupy’
Anglican priest and social commentator, Giles Fraser, resigned from his lofty position as Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in autumn 2011 in an attempt to affirm an important truth about social justice. He stepped down in disgust over the Cathedral’s reaction to the ‘Occupy London’ encampment which pitched literally on the porch of the great church. The Cathedral authorities wanted to evict the protesters, by force if necessary. Fraser was with the protesters, feeling that the church could not ignore the greed and the vested interests of the financial sector of the City of London right on the Cathedral’s doorstep. It caused a great furore about the wider church’s attitude to the widening gulf between rich and poor.
He might believe that ‘Laughter is a necessary accomplice to truth-telling’ but he was not laughing then. His resignation was a serious and controversial step to take.
I once heard someone say – I can’t quite remember who – something very similar: ‘Laughter is inimical to fascism’. And much the same might be said about any fundamentalism or dogmatism. When any person or group of persons is making large claims of a political, religious or moral nature they need to be tested. Satire, caricature and other forms of humour have long played their part in that process. The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris demonstrates the point in a terrible way. On 7 January 2015 at about 11.30 two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, broke into the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and gunned down 11 staff. The brothers were members of an Islamic fundamentalist group offended by its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Dogmatism is threatened by laughter. So, according to Fraser’s test, one rough and ready test of whether Adventists are telling the truth about the world and about God would be how much we are able to laugh, especially at ourselves. But we Adventists are serious people. We care about serious matters and some may think that any levity is out of place. After all, the pages of the Bible do not ring to the echo of laughter. We run the risk of being good Puritans who are not happy if they think that someone is enjoying themselves.
Taking Ourselves Seriously
It is no laughing matter to believe, as Adventists do, that things will not continue as they are and will come to an end in fairly dire circumstances. It is no laughing matter to believe that you bear some responsibility to get the word out that this is so; no laughing matter to believe that there is going to be a weighing of responsibilities for the mess – a ‘judgement’ to use its theological name; no laughing matter that your founding fathers and mothers probably did not laugh very much, and might wear a frown of disapproval at any frivolity.
We Adventists have often been the butt of jokes. There were certainly people laughing at Adventists on the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1844 after the failed prophecy of the return of Jesus the day before. But the Adventists were not laughing. There was much earnestness, disappointment, recrimination, soul-searching - but not much laughter. It is difficult to raise a laugh when all of your fondest hopes have just been destroyed. Cynicism was a more likely response and many Adventists did go their own disappointed ways afterwards.
Freedom to laugh
Does Adventism give me the freedom, even the encouragement to laugh at myself? Does it encourage me to laugh at my own religious practice? There is plenty of scope for comedy in the idea of waiting for the end of the world, in Sabbath-keeping, in adult baptism by immersion, in foot-washing at Holy Communion. Some of these rituals can go badly wrong – water in the wrong place!
So one test of the health of Adventism is how much laughter is going on in the churches. I certainly have enjoyed many a good laugh in Adventist company. But that is not quite the point. The point is whether laughter is somehow an aid in coming to the truth – laughter at extravagant theological claims, at administrative foolishness, at our own self-importance. This sort of humour can easily degenerate into cynicism but that is destructive of the community of faith. It is a fine balance to strike.
There is good reason to believe that Jesus knew the value of humour in puncturing religious pretentiousness. The story of the Good Samaritan may well be a good example of the Englishman-Irishman-Scotsman variety. Christians have turned it into a very serious Christian teaching rather missing the humour. So too the ‘blind leading the blind’ and ‘the camel through the eye of a needle’ - they very likely caused some hilarity among those in the Jesus crowd who were happy to see the pompous Pharisees get their cumuppance.
We Adventists like to think of ourselves as ‘people of the Word’. And there’s not a whole lot of laughing going on in the Bible. ‘Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom’, so says James in his epistle (4.9 NIV). But this vies with ‘a merry heart doeth good like a medicine’ (Prov 17.22 KJV) for supremacy. If in doubt we Adventists vote with James on this for fear of irreverence.
Laughter and Joy
Laughter is compelled. ‘It makes me laugh’ we say. Giles Fraser is right - the cause of truth is served by irony, by self-deprecation, by understatement which makes you laugh. And what is more, laughter is a close cousin of joy, and joy is at the very heart of the matter for the Christian – the joy of resurrection. The danger facing serious people like Adventists is that we allow our duty to suffocate our joy.
Joy is a profound and complex response to life and to the God of life. I like being in the arrivals hall of an airport and watching the joy of passengers and their waiting family and friends. Little children rushing wildly into the arms of a returning parent, the embrace of lovers reunited, the joyful relief of families together again after long separations. There is much laughter and animated talk.
But joy has another side and it is compatible with pain and distress. We can perhaps know joy at the bedside of an elderly relative who has just died and been relieved of their suffering. We can know some painful joy at seeing a child, carefully nurtured for all those years, leaving home for the first time to make their way in the world. I well remember the first times when our children disappeared through departures. It is no accident that the Bible when talking about the coming of God uses the metaphor of child-birth.
Laughter and crying, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, tragedy and comedy can sometimes all get terribly mixed up. Sometimes we do not know whether to laugh or cry. Sometimes we are not sure which of the two we are doing. And it does not matter because both may alert us to important things going on deep within. It is the same in the public sphere. Laughing is healthy. Healthy satire may serve the cause of truth but it may give offence and be regarded as blasphemy or slander. Rowan Williams was right when he said: ‘Nobody has the right not to be offended’. (George Orwell Lecture – 2015).
So you can see that laughter is a pretty serious business. Time then for an Adventist joke. St Peter was showing a group of tourists around heaven when he came to a high wall. He motioned to them to be quiet: “Sshh! This is the enclosure for Seventh-day Adventists and they think they are the only ones here!”
I think I can hear Giles Fraser laughing. Me too!