Would Jesus Do Standup?
Written by J. Bennett Guess
February - March 2006
March 1, 2006

'Humor is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer,' the late Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, a prominent UCC theologian, once wrote.

Thanks in part to the Stillspeaking Initiative, the UCC is rediscovering its 'whimsy' and touting itself as 'religion with relevance.' Our once-furrowed brows have given way to 'bouncer' TV commercials and pithy print ads - 'If you think getting up on Sunday mornings is hard, try rising from the dead.'

But the church's newest television commercial, scheduled to debut in late March, will beg the question all the more: Is it okay with God if we lighten up?

More than 50 years ago, when the Rev. Fred Craddock started preaching in his native eastern Tennessee, his saintly mother offered some serious advice.

"Humor is beneath the dignity of the pulpit," she told him.

So Craddock - the now-legendary Disciples of Christ preacher who is regarded as much for use of wit as for his choice of words - says he tried earnestly, at least initially, to heed his mother's somber advice.

"I just wore my camel's hair and leather girdle," Craddock quips, conjuring up the biblical image of the never-too-funny John the Baptist. "I was always serious."

But Craddock, regarded even by childhood friends as one blessed with a good sense of humor, believes he wasn't being true to his comedic nature. So, in time, he started to lighten up. And along the way, he not only took advantage of humor in his sermons, he also began to study, research and teach about the artful use of humor in preaching.

"The organic changes within the body in response to humor and tragedy are the same," Craddock says. "The serious and the humorous, there's no wall between them."

That's why, Craddock says, when one either laughs or tears up, these emotional responses have much more in common than many realize, because the serious and the comedic aren't that far removed.

"Humor is a twist or disjuncture of the serious," Craddock told United Church News. "There's no humor unless you're dealing with something important. Even a dirty joke is about something important."

The dog walking down the church aisle, the wasp flying in and landing on the preacher's nose, or even the finding of a fl aw in a priceless piece of fabric - what makes something "funny," Craddock says, is that it shouldn't be.

Saint Ignatius walks into a bar

Craddock, the now-retired distinguished professor of preaching and New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, recalls how, once during a lecture, he made an off-handed quip about Ignatius of Antioch, the martyred first-century saint. It was something silly that garnered chuckles from most in the class, but one rather-stuffy graduate student was offended by the laughter. He thought Craddock was making fun of the ancient patriarch.

"Just the mention of it - 'Ignatius of Antioch' - it's already funny," Craddock muses. But the theology student didn't think so.

"There are some who are afraid that their religion isn't working if they're laughing," he says. "They're afraid it's not dignified, as if humor and faith were a contradiction."

Craddock, as one might suspect, believes just the opposite.

"Humor is a sign of freedom," he says. "From God's sight of it, it's a sign of grace . because, when you think of it, it's kind of funny that we're doing what we're doing - speaking intelligently about God, as if any of us were qualified to do so."

Laughter, he believes, is an indicator that we can recognize what is significant and important in life, "but we don't feel as if we have to somehow be protectors of it, that we have to be God."

Pastors, he thinks, should attempt to "sit on their own shoulders" and take a look around at what their calling asks of them. "Here you are," he says, "trying to preach, for goodness sake."

Craddock says that some scholars have conjectured that Jesus taught with humor, as evidenced by his use of exaggerated speech - "the speck in your neighbor's eye, the log in your own eye" or "a camel passing through the eye of a needle." But, while interesting, Craddock really doesn't put much stock in those suppositions.

What's important to Craddock, he says, is not unearthing Jesus' funny streak, but realizing that Jesus wasn't boring.

"All the usual qualities of normality were with him, but still he stood out," Craddock says.

The UCC's newest, 'whimsical' ad

While UCC leaders are still short on specifics about the content of the church's newest television commercial - expected to make its national debut in late March - they have acknowledged that it uses humor to get its point across - quite a departure from the traditional use of "sentimentality" employed by most churches on TV.

General Minister and President John H. Thomas describes the new ad as "whimsical," but says it still conveys the church's consistent mantra: "extravagant welcome."

"The ad is a modern parable," says Ron Buford, coordinator of the Stillspeaking Initiative. "It's like good preaching. It comes alive, and people become engaged in the story - and they remember the point of it."

Ted Pulton, chief marketing officer at Gotham Inc., the UCC's New York-based advertising firm, says the ad is rich with humor, but that approach only serves to strengthen, not weaken, the message.

"Here at Gotham, when people [see the new UCC ad], they do have an immediate, humorous response," Pulton says, "but then they go on to talk about how it's no less able to penetrate the intended message of alienation."

When it comes to advertising, Pulton says, humor not only gets the "stickiness" of the message to stay with people, but humor also provokes a willingness in people to pass the message along - like a good joke that people yearn to share with friends or co-workers.

Just think: "Aflac!" or "I just saved a whole bunch of money on my car insurance."

"It's very easy to create advertising that people expect." Pulton says. "Traditionally, religious ads produce a feel-good feeling that lasts for the 30 seconds that it's running. So the place to start is to remember the purpose of advertising, which is to persuade and convey a message, to get people's attention and then be memorable."

An invitation to joy

With any serious subject, such as religion, the tendency is to make it heavy, Buford says. But non-churchgoers are looking for an experience of church that doesn't weigh them down, but lifts them up. Therefore, a church's willingness to embrace "levity," he says, speaks to that often-unspoken spiritual need.

"At its core, this is a branding campaign, and clearly we are a Christian church and that's supreme for us," Buford says. "But everywhere I go in the UCC, I find this general sense of friendliness, of lightness, of humor, that many people [outside the UCC] just don't expect to find in a church. And when they do find it, it's a joy."

The Rev. Robert Chase, the UCC's director of communications, says a great example of a memorable, light-yet-serious approach to religion was Thomas' highly-visible "unequivocal welcome" of SpongeBob SquarePants last year. Thomas' pastoral invitation came in response to James Dobson's harsh criticism of the popular cartoon character for appearing in a children's video promoting tolerance.

A snapshot photo of SpongeBob's "visit" with Thomas in his Cleveland office spread like wildfire through the internet and, soon, national news programs publicized the stunt as the lighthearted antithesis to Dobson's heavy-handed attack. UCC folk, meanwhile, soaked up the silliness of it all.

"The response was overwhelming," recalls Chase. "Our web site had more traffic than during the [bouncer] ad controversy, perhaps demonstrating how we all need a bit of whimsy in our lives.

"John's statement was both pastoral and prophetic, shattering the perception that for church people, the rib God borrowed from Adam was his funny bone," Chase says.

Pulton believes humor not only helps defuse serious situations, but also prepares us to receive more-serious messages.

"The heart of the UCC's message [alienation] is one that strikes a nerve," Pulton says, "and the metaphors we use, both in the 'bouncer' ad and in the newest ad - absurd as they are - act as metaphors, as doorways, that diffuse the seriousness while penetrating the message."

The Rev. David Schoen, who leads the UCC's Evangelism Ministry in Cleveland, says too many people associate evangelism with frightening experiences - "trying to scare people into faith" - but evangelism should be an invitation to joy.

"People are dying to laugh," Schoen says. "There's not enough honest laughter in our lives, and evangelism suffers from a lack of laughter."

Thankfully, he says, the whole Stillspeaking Initiative has awakened the church to creative engagement with mainstream culture, including the wit and wisdom it can offer.

"Conservative churches have historically used the tools of culture without embracing it, while progressive Christians have embraced culture without using its tools," Schoen says. "I think we have to embrace culture by using its tools, including humor."

Craddock, too, agrees that the UCC's best moment to converse with popular culture is now. "This is an extraordinary time for the UCC," he says. "I think you're on the front of the stage right now."

God is still laughing,

The Rev. F. Christian Anderson, pastor of Heidelberg UCC in York, Pa., has published his own testament to the power of laughter - UCC style.

Touted as the kind of book that Rodney Dangerfield and Karl Barth would have written together, "God is Still Laughing, The Revised Heidelberg Catechism Joke Book" pokes fun at just about everything UCC:

Q: What should a UCC candidate for ordination answer when asked: "Are you willing to go to hell for the glory of God?"

A: Go even farther with your devotion: "This whole Association 'can go to hell' for the glory of God."

The Rev. Gabriel Fackre, now-retired professor of theology at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, says he "almost split his hernia stitches" chuckling at the book's final pages.

"We smile at the pompous fool who slips on a banana peel," Fackre wrote in the book's forward. "And God 'sits in the heaven and laughs' [Psalm 2:4] at the proud who pretend to be more than they are."

Too often, Fackre acknowledges, UCC pastors are "remembered only for their grim reformist ways and our furrowed brows." But laughing, he says, can lead us into holy places. The "ultimate human quandaries" can take us through laughter to faith.

Quoting the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr, Fackre writes: "There is laughter in the vestibule of the temple, the echo of laughter in the temple itself, but only faith and prayer . in the holy of holies."

Learn more @

"God is Still Laughing, The Revised Heidelberg Catechism Joke Book" is available from the Rev. F. Christian Anderson for $8 each (or $1 million in Canada - "I only need one sale"), plus $1 shipping and handling. Contact Anderson at 717/846-9146 or fcba@suscom.net.

A funny thing happened on my way to the pulpit

Funny-man Fred Craddock, dubbed by Newsweek as one of the nation's 12 best living preachers, offers a few observations and tips on humor:

When you see the flaws in life, it's funny.

"Things will happen," Craddock says. "If the congregation feels free, you can laugh about it."

Manufactured humor will be dead.

If you work too hard on it, it'll fall flat, Craddock believes. Personal stories work best.

What makes it funny is that it's serious.

All weighty topics have funny dimensions, because humor is the contradiction between the gravity and the levity. "The fact that 'Mary had a little lamb' and brought it to the school yard is funny, because school is supposed to a place that's serious," Craddock says.

Humor is more than telling jokes.

"I never recommend a joke," says Craddock, "because many jokes are not funny and it's easy to be cruel with jokes. Besides, a joke is its own unified material. It has its own beginning, middle and end, and it's hard to make the transition in and out of a joke [within a sermon]."

Humor is a means, not an end.

"I don't invest too much in my humor," Craddock insists, saying he doesn't critique the success of his sermons based on whether or not people laughed at his stories. source: interview with Craddock

 

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org