Far be it from me to critique Mark Dever, I adore the man and am throughly appreciative of 9 Marks. I know that they have come under criticism lately for going woke. And frankly while I may have disagreed with some of their early in COVID thinking and I think that Thabiti Anyabwile has gone overboard a couple of times. I tend to see them righting the ship and scooping Thabiti out of the drink in a show of loyalty that is admirable.* Dever is a deep thinker and does not fall easily into error much less refuse to admit where wrong. So I have a lot of admiration for the man and his ministry. Therefore what I have to write is more of a suggestion of materials to assimilate on a topic where the simple lack of knowledge has led Dever to some conclusions that I would, respectfully disagree with.
I am an avid listener of Pastors Talk. Of the podcasts I am subscribed to I think only DeYoung’s Life Books and Everything comes close to my enjoyment. And sadly, my guy Wilson’s Plodcast just can’t hold a candle to the quality of content and edifying pleasure of listening to Pastors Talk. So it was with great excitement I sat down to turn my ear to the episode on humor.
In the past (And they do reference this in the episode) Dever has been wary of humor. And when Os Guinness was on he admitted that Guinness’ book Fools Talk had challenged him on the subject. Dever is specifically concerned about the use of humor in the pulpit. Even more specifically if a pastors style is “a comedic routine.” Dever very carefully and graciously does not even elude to Driscoll much less name him, but he is the obvious poster boy for that kind of preaching. And in some areas I would be in total agreement, though I do want to tease that out in a bit.
Dever also is quite reserved about humor (at least as displayed in the episode) in general. Perhaps for his anecdotes you really just had to be there. But what he points to a helpful or acceptable instances of humor were mildly amusing but not really hysterical. And I think this, perhaps, colors his view on the subject. We all bring our presuppositions, personalities, and preferences to the table, and there is a strong possibility that I have a predilection for a broader field of humor.
That said there are two main things I would put forward for Dever’s consideration to be included in his thinking. As it pertains to two theological point he made about humor. Then I’ll revisit humor in the pulpit with my thinking. And since Mark Dever doesn’t know me from Adam, and obviously has better things to do with his time than to go down this rabbit hole, I’m publishing it here for anyone else who is interested. This is not even an open letter, I am certainly not critiquing, I am mostly thinking out loud as a result of Dever setting my brain gears into motion on a subject I happen to be interested in and know something about.
Lastly, a lot of this was helped by my fellow comedy nerd/friend Amanda so full credit to her in helping me form my thoughts and directing me to additional resources I had not previously discovered. Oh and Syme, he came in and added more at the end. Basically this one was a group effort.
Theology of Humor
Dever makes two points in discussing humor in the Bible that I would submit a little broader reading would adjust his position on.
1. He asserts that he can not think of a time Jesus ever told a joke proper. He will concede some sarcasm and humorous juxtaposition in parables, but Dever sees no jokes.
2. Dever understands that while Psalms says God sits in the heavens and laughs (Ps. 2:4), Dever understands that to be a mocking laugh (true enough). But he struggles with the idea of God laughing due to Impassibility, that God can not be surprised and laughter comes from being surprised.
First, I would direct attention to Elton Trueblood’s book The Humor of Christ. Especially if the question is, “Did Jesus ever joke?” Trueblood’s book is, in my estimation, required reading on understanding the question and considering his answers. From the introduction:
“There are numerous passages . . . which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked. . . . Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding” – Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ
And a few pages later:
“Christ laughed, and . . . He expected others to laugh. . . . A misguided piety has made us fear that acceptance of His obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious. Religion, we think, is serious business, and serious business is incompatible with banter” – Ibid (Emphasis Added)
Though the book is out of print it can still be occasionally acquired at a reasonable price, and is short enough to read in an afternoon.
Second, the Impassibility of God is a sticky one simply because the doctrine takes some explaining. Dever, for his discussion, limits it to God can not be surprised, he is all knowing. Dever understands laughter to operate on surprise (“laughter turns on the sudden apprehension of what one had not apprehended.”). And in one sense Dever is absolutely correct. There is a real problem with impassibility and omniscience if laughter is triggered by surprise alone. Fortunately, it is not. Surprise is the most commonly understood trigger of laughter but it is actually only one of seven to nine, depending on who is compiling the list and how they are defining things. The triggers for laughter are: Surprise, Superiority, Embarrassment, Release, Incongruity, Recognition, Ambivalence, Configurational, and Coincidence. There is some overlap between these, for example you can laugh at an embarrassed person and also be laughing because you feel superior. For a concise explanation here is a simple website: https://www.thegag.club/comedianknowledgebase/9-laughter-Triggers
So I would suggest that God is capable of laughter and we are imitating him, we are participating in our being made in his image when we laugh, particularly at the things that God himself would laugh at. And since I can not help myself but to reference Lewis, at the creation of Narnia Aslan says:
“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be so grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” – C.S. Lewis, The Magicians Nephew
Though Dever seemed to dismiss the mocking laughter of God in Psalm 2:4 what he actually pointed to is a trigger of laughter. He is not surprised at the machinations of the evil kings, but he finds it humorous that they think they can throw God off. He knows how the story ends and he is superior, he sees the incongruity of their actions to reality, and thus he laughs.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to recommend watching the great Irish comedian Dara O’Briain. He is one of the comedians I love to watch because he loves jokes. In his show’s there will be moments when he makes a joke, it lands, it kills, he knows it and he knew it would. And he laughs, he laughs with the audience but for a different reason. He laughs as the creator who knows the story with all of its twists and turns and he delights in the pleasure of its success.
Dever aligns with Martyn Lloyd Jones when it comes to humor in preaching. Though Dever is much more complementary of Spurgeon than Lloyd Jones (In Preaching and Preachers) who thought that Spurgeon was yucking it up. The understanding being that because the message of the preacher is so weighty, that eternity hangs in the balance, japery is completely out of place. And I agree, to a point. Earlier I wrote how Dever alluded to Driscoll, and if there is not a cautionary tale there then there are no others. However, I can not bring myself to entirely condemn what Driscoll did, that Dever sees as “routines.” I fully take Dever’s point that if you become known as the funny preacher you will write sermons to be funny and train your church to come for the comedy and not for the gospel. But I suppose my struggle is in the flattening out of the idea. I wonder why, depending on the text, both can’t be an option. Dever admits that more joyful texts require a tone of levity.
So I agree that if all a pastor does is attempt to write comedy he has failed to rightly handle the Word of God. But if a pastor is gifted, and the congregation is edified, then a sermon with humor can be a good thing.
The trick is, if the pastor is capable. Guys with Driscoll’s comedic ability are incredibly rare and those without should not even try. Perhaps a better example would be Matt Chandler. Arguably of a similar stream, and also has received criticism from Dever. But again, there is a natural talent that can not be replicated. And even Lloyd Jones suggests that natural ability is better than a pastor trying to be funny.
Secondly the key is balance, the text determines if the sermon can include humor. Driscoll got a lot of pushback from his humorous sermons because they broke the norm. There were long swaths where he would preach with no humor whatsoever, because the text did not allow it.
I am thrilled that Pastors Talk touched on the subject of humor. It needs much more attention. As I have previously written we have a deficit of reformed people who know how to write and wield humor effectively. Mark Dever is a guy I want to hear from on this issue a lot. I would love to see him develop it in his careful, intelligent style.
9 Marks has been doing Pastors Talk spin offs lately so maybe we can get a reformed Comedians Talk.
*I would suggest there is a world of difference between Anyabwile and say… Jemar Tisby, who is just straight up sinfully racist and bitter.