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A Voice in the Wilderness
The role of laughter in the life of the church

The moderatorial address, given in the Highland Tolbooth Church, to theological students under the oversight of the presbytery of Edinburgh,

22nd February 1978.

It is just possible that one or two may know that the most recent, significant exploration of the place of humour and laughter and its social effects has appeared of all places in the Soviet Union, less surprisingly in Leningrad, [1] The study considers these qualities of life as they appeared in the various ethnic groups which existed in Russia before Peter the Great. Like some apparently exclusively academic books, which were published in Germany during the Third Reich, e.g. von Martin's Burckhardt und Nietzsche, [2] its discoveries have a contemporary message. The authors, Likhachev and Panchenko, in 'Smeknouoy Mir' Drevney Rusi take the discussion much further than Johan Huizinga did, in Homo Ludens, [3] where laughter and humour are seen basically as assisting the development of civilisation.

Guided by Likhachev's and Panchenko's approach, I would like to consider laughter and its effectiveness in the life of the parish ministry and within the church generally. The Russians' position is far removed from the attitudes of such authors as F. D. How, Clerical Humour of Olden Time [4] or John Aye, Humour among the Clergy, [5] both of whom tend to make one agree with the coothie kirk cronies in their conviction, after an induction social, that there was now a competitor to the antics of the village idiot in the person of the new parish minister.

Yet, before taking up consideration of laughter in the life of the church, it has to be acknowledged that there has had to be a long and continual struggle against the dull, devout, doleful face and the exertions to this end are by no means yet unnecessary. Francis of Assisi, in Mirror of Perfection, [6] felt it imperative to enjoin his friends to 'strive ever to be joyful; for it beseemeth not the servant of God to show sadness and a dismal face before his brethren and any other man'.

It was put even more forcibly by the Dominican, Jordan of Saxony, as recorded by Gerard de Fracheto, who said to the novices, after they had been signalled to be still by one of the older friars, 'Laugh to your hear's content, my dearest children, and do not stop on that man's account. You have my full permission, and it is only right that you should laugh after breaking the devil's thraldom, and bursting the shackles in which he held you fast these many years past. Laugh on then and be as merry as you please'. [7]

The present situation in the church can be described in the very thoughtful words of H. A. Gomperts, in Jagen om te leven: 'Man laughs like a being who has not indulged in it very much. The terrible thing about laughing people, when for one reason or another we do not know why they are laughing and so cannot join in with them, is the depth of sickness and seriousness from which they seem to rise up like drowning men making despairing attempts to come to the surface, but over whose heads the waves will inevitably close again. A being whose features suddenly relax, a smile breaking out on the face of a "serious man'' - it is difficult to imagine a clearer symptom of sickness. In this gasping and stamping search for a bit of happiness one discerns the sick animal, the burdened creature, dragging the sins and cares of the world about on his shoulders. There are other ways of laughing, explosions of euphoria and bliss: children can laugh like that, but it is rare in adults. You have to deal with them far more circumspectly than with children, who can laugh at any time. You have to prepare the adults, the serious ones; you must carefully indicate to them beforehand that perhaps there will be some laughing, that there is "something to laugh about'. [8]

George MacDonald diagnosed the source of the inner sickness when he wrote that 'it is the heart that is not yet sure of God that is afraid to laugh in his presence'.

There are, of course, other reasons for the rarity of laughter in ecclesiastical circles which have exerted continuous, subconscious influences on the ways in which people behave in the contexts of Christian living. The bleak and inhospitable environment in which the average Scot has had to live from earliest times shapes his attitude to fundamental questions as David Masson has observed in his Essays: 'Quietism; mysticism; that soft, meditative disposition which takes things for granted in the co-ordination established by mere life and usage, pouring into the confusion this externally given, the rich oil of an abounding inner joy, interpenetrating all and harmonising all - these are, for the most part alien to the Scotchman. No, his walk, as a thinker, is not by the meadows and the wheat fields, and the green lanes, and the ivy clad parish churches, where all is gentle and antique and fertile, but by the bleak sea shore which part the certain from the limitless, where there is doubt in the sea-mews' shriek, and where it is well if, in the advancing tide, he can find a footing on a rock'. [9]

To this has to be added the earlier, strong, life-long influence of the Bible which contains only two references to laughter which are not related to derision, sorrow or foolishness.

However, it must not be forgotten what W. R. Inge wrote almost sixty years ago, '"Joy" as a moral quality is a Christian invention, as a study of the usage of Chara in Greek will show'. [10] This has not been the experience of the Church of Scotland at large. It has to be recognised that dourness is a Scottish characteristic which is reflected in personal relations, attitudes to employers or employees, politics and a host of others. But in the Church, we have not been satisfied with mere dourness, we have added to dourness, dullness and drabness as the three marks of the true kirk; hardly in the tradition of Luther, as shown by Soderblom in Humor och melankoli, [11] or of Knox as illustrated particularly by David Murison when writing on 'Knox the Writer'. [12] The Jeremiahic personal testimony of the pious is still, 'I did not sit in the company of the merrymakers nor did I rejoice'. [13] The would-be bourgeois' determined attitude is epitomised in the words of an earl of Chesterfield, 'In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal or so illbred as audible laughter', [14] while the pseudo-intellectual can confidently assert 'the laughter of the fools' is as 'the crackling of thorns under a pot'. [15] I can only speak about developments in the last thirty years. During this time, additional influences, other than the personal, seem to have been hard at work: the carping censoriousness of the extreme biblicist, the sad cynicism of the social gospeller and the prim proceduralism of the mundane small-time church politician and administrator. These - and there are hordes of them - have all added to the down-dragging weight of the silent anti-laughter ecclesiastical multitude.

What can be done? Many have given up the situation as hopeless and gone to laugh elsewhere. To leave the Church in this terrible condition seems often to be the only possibility left.

Kornelis Miskotte, that Dutch preacher who, in the dark days of enemy occupation in Holland, was called by his Church to a special ministry to intellectuals estranged from the Church, when commenting on the Book of Jonah, says, in When the Gods are Silent, 'if a congregation has no conception of spiritual humour, if it has no sense of irony and has quite generally failed to discover the secret of laughter, it is perhaps better to let this material he; for here the laughter never lets up. It is the laughter of an outrageously strange judgement and an outrageously strange grace, and also a laughter over the psychological impossibilities which nevertheless dreadfully reveal the soul of the pious - in their shrewdness and in their silliness, in their conceit and in their credulity'. [16]

What a description, what a diagnosis, what a fate!

What then can be said? I doubt if it could be put better than in the words of Dr. A. L. Drummond, one who could laugh although denied a place and a role in the church of his fathers which his industrious intellect merited, in The Churches pictured by "Punch" claims that 'Every person ... would be the better for surveying the ecclesiastical scene through the window of humour. He would see controversy in better proportions. He would find officialism, professionalism and hypocrisy deflated. He would experience a relaxation of life's tensions, and discover that kindly character is often nearer the spirit of Christ than conventional creed', [17]

So to laughter!

The most popular source of mild laughter is the verbal caricature; the exaggerations of the idiosyncrasies of the individual, the subtle insinuation that recalls a character or situation to mind. This is the middle way that is so often taken between sarcasm, irony and satire and the tomfoolery and buffoonery of the clown. Yet it is these two extremes that raise the laughter and the temperature. Such humour, like the efforts of the theatrical impersonator, is not important because his real-life characters are subtly flattered. The same is true of any tendency which might, in some brave moments appear in the church. Such antics raise little more than a smirk because the mild verbal cartoon produces no more than a genteel breeze of slightly suppressed sniggers and, as it only concerns itself with marginal issues, all is soon forgotten and nether is affected or changed. This has been the fate of American writings such as C. M. Smith, How to be a Bishop without being Religious. [18] and J. Colbertson and P. Bard, Games Christians Play: An Irreverent Guide to Religion without Tears. [19] Yet, God help us, not even such polite satire has been attempted on this side of the Atlantic.

Satire and irony are the sources of powerful laughter which moves us from the mildly satirical of the middle ages, as depicted in Paul Lehmann, Die Parodie im Mittelalter, [20] to the robustness of truthfulness, strong, coarse, recognisable features and vivid colouring of the satire of epistolae obscurorum vivorum. Such a book had an immediate effect. The rabelaisian belly-laughs produce a widely defused and powerful appetite for more. The raucous guffaws could not be silenced even when the pope forbade the book. The presses poured out the comical stern stuff as O. Schade, Satiren und Pasquille aus der Reformationszeit [21] and our own Scottish Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation..[22]

On the other hand, the playing of the fool has always had a significant role in Christian thought long before Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly. The full exposing of the wordy wisdom of the wise of this world has, of course, a New Testament basis and is paralleled in Russia by the Fool-in-Christ, who is a burlesque buffoon whose grotesque humour conceives of an imagined and different world - The anti-mirror counter-world.

However, care must be taken to differentiate the fool with a mission from the fool who prostitutes buffoonery for his own ends. The man who has lost his nerve. It can be seen in the distracted one who finds 'a sort of occupation in imitating real despair - he laughs at fame, he laughs at recognition, he laughs at love and finally he laughs at himself - he makes a fool of everything on earth. But then he does not know what to do more and finds consolation in empty blasphemy; and besides the sensation it is so pleasant to think oneself unhappy, when one is only empty and bored' - the words of Alfred de Musset quoted, significantly, by T. G. Masaryk. [23]

Thus, the laughter of the satirist or the fool can be seen as having a powerful potential role in the reform of the Church. It can wrench the Church from convention, it can puncture all pomposity, it can create the insecure emptiness which can be exposed in the ecclesiastics' Lilliputians field of vision, it can render them disconsolate as they fumble for fig-leaves when their decorative ecclesiastical lingerie is blown away by gusts of laughter. It is because of this that laughter can be seen as power. Power to reveal, power to redeem, power to reform and power to unite.

Power to Reveal

Probably the greatest problem to be faced by any individual is to acknowledge the fact of the perpetual danger of introspection, self-concern and all kinds of self-defence mechanisms. Such people are incapable of ever understanding the possibilities within laughter because the selfconscious to not laugh, and yet, any serious attempt to lay bare real situations requires that each one must be able to transcend himself. It is from such a position of detachment that one is then able to approach the search for reality and on occasions laugh at it. As Norman St. John Stevas said in a recent television programme 'a sense of humour is a sense of proportion'. Getting things into perspective is necessary before one attempts to discover what is truly being revealed within one's experience.

In short, laughter challenges preconceived notions and prepares the eye for the truth. By creating detachment, it puts things into perspective, discloses contradictions and ambivalences in persons and situations and, reinforcing the power of transcendence, makes it possible to discover the most promising direction in which to go.

The Power to Redeem

While it is easier to take the way of John Dryden - 'I have but laughed at some men's follies when I could have declaimed against their vices', [24] it is necessary to take seriously the debate which has continued since the time of Jean Jaques Rousseau who maintained that comedy had never bettered the world [25] and continued by Victor de Laprade [26] and Bergson [27] who took the opposite view. It is certainly demonstrable that one need not go the whole way with Aristotle that to laugh at someone may, in fact, be to vilify or degrade him, [28] nevertheless it is obvious that it is quite necessary to make a man aware of the situation in which he finds himself. True redemptive derision is degradation, tempered, qualified, and toned down by a contradictory force of concern and unless this opposing force retains a measure of its effectiveness, as against the force of hate, true laughter disappears and redemption is rendered impossible.

The Power to Reform

Reformation is only possible when man realises that he is always uncertain of his final goals although he may not always be aware of it. As Welsford has said in The Fool, 'clownage is less frivolous than the deification of humanity'. [29] It is also necessary to make man aware through laughter of his powerlessness in almost any situation. In the words of P. L. Berger, 'power is the final delusion, while laughter reveals the truth'. [30] It is only when the laughter has subsided and the true position revealed that reformation is possible.

The Power to Unite

Sadness, isolation, insecurity, loneliness and uncertainty are often the characteristics of churchmen. They are like individual hens climbing a ladder and all that they believe they are receiving is what is descending upon them from the fowls further up. This is the environment in which the strong self-confident sounds of laughter have to enter. For laughter has the great quality of being infectious. It seems to create an inner magnetism within each individual which draws one to another. While still being aware of many of their short-comings and problems, the uniting power of laughter draws the weaker to the weak and something like a miracle occurs. This is the cementing power which binds individuals into a group which thus has a common insight and understanding of the strength of exposing things as they truly are.

The laughter of the individual can spark off a cacophony of laughter which can be the sound which wells up from the belly but the laughter of a happy, carefree, secure Christian soul rises from the heart and after failing to get the Fathers and Brethren to see points which have seemed to me obvious to all but the most blindly short-sighted. On such occasions the only thing which has saved me from succumbing to utter despair has been the God-given ability to see the farcical side of the whole proceedings. Any humour in my writing, therefore, does not spring from a misplaced sense of levity but indicates feelings which run far too deep to be adequately expressed'. [32]

As we find redemption through laughter, we must always recognise that, as Addison reminds us, it is the human attribute of laughter which marks us off from all other of God's creatures [33] and we must never cease being grateful for this great and gracious faculty which is capable of playing such a positive and redemptive role within the Church.

It is with this in mind that we must take the long view - the eschatological view propounded by none other than W. S. Gilbert who wrote for the three little girls from school, "Life is a joke that's just begun'. [34]


1. 'Smeknovoy Mir'Drevney Rusi. Leningrad. 1976.

2. e.g. A. von Martin, Burckhardt und Nietzsche. Berlin. 1941.

3. Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play Elements in Culture.

4. London. 1908.

5. London. 1931.

6. Mirror of Perfection. Chap. 96.

7. Gerard de Fracheto, Vitae Fratrum Ordinis Praedieatorum. ed. B. M. Reichert. Rome, 1896. 144.

8. H. A. Gomperts, Jagen om te leven. 270f.

9. D. Masson, Essays.

10. W. R. Inge, Ouspoken Essays. London. 1920. 226.

11. N. Soderblom, Humor och melankoli. Stockholm. 1919.

12. cf. e.g., D. D. Murison, 'Knox the Writer' in John Knox A Quarter-centenary Reappraisal. ed. D. Shaw. Edinburgh. 1975. 47-48.

13. Jeremiah. xc. 17. (R.S.V.).

14. P. D. Stanhope, Advice to his Son. Rules for Conversation, Graces, Laughter.

15. Ecclesiastes. vii. 6.

16. Kornelis H. Miskotte, When the Gods are Silent. London. 1967. 422.

17. A. L. Drummond, The Churches Pictured by 'Punch'. London. 1947. 11.

18. New York. 1965.

19. New York. 1967.

20. Munich. 1922.

21. Hanover. 1863. 2nd ed. 3 vols: cf. H. Schofeld, 'Die kirchliche Satire und Religiose Weltanschauung in Brandt's Narrenschiff und Erasmus' 'Lob der Narrheit' mModernLanguageNotes. 1892. vii. 139-149.

22. Edinburgh. 1891. 2 vols. Satire, however, has ancient roots in the Church: cf. e.g., D. S. Wiesen, St. Jerome as a Satirist. Itheca. 1964.

23. Alfred de Musset, La Confession d'un Enfant de Siecle. quoted by T. G. Masaryk, Modern Man and Religion. London. 1938. 226-227.

24. Preface to Absalom and Achitophel.

25. Lettre a Monsieur d'alembert.

26. Questions d'art et de morale. Paris. 1861.

27. H. Bergson, 'Laughter' in Comedy, ed. W. Sypher. New York. 1956.

28. Nhcomachean Ethics, iv. 8,9.

29. E. Welsford, The Fool. New York. 327.

30. P. L. Berger, A Rumour of Angels. Harmandsworth. 1971. 91.

31. A letter of Horace Walpole to the Countess of Upper Ossory. 16 August. 1776.

32. D. Allan Easton, 'Now's the Day' A Challenge to the Church of Scotland. Edinburgh. 1946. 130-131.

33. cf. J. Addison, The Spectator. No. 494.

34. W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, II

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