WIT AND HUMOR IN PREACHING


No, this isn’t about being a stand-up comedian in the pulpit – it is a short essay on how ridicule cannot only be proper in preaching at times – but downright necessary.
As well as the cautions that ought to go with it.

Shedd2.jpg

By the way – this pic of Dr. Shedd is thanks to the efforts of “AHuman”.

Building off of the Spurgeon mongraph I linked to on the PyroManiac site below – here are some provocative words from my absolute favorite of the systematic theologians – W. G. T. Shedd.

The maxim that “ridicule is the test of truth” is attributed to the Earl of Shaftesbury. These particular words are not to be found in his writings, but a sentiment resembling them can be. It is the maxim of the sceptic [sic]. Voltaire proceeded upon it, when he subjected the doctrines of Christianity to a wit that has never been excelled for point and brilliancy. The infidel, generally, whatever be the grade of his knowledge and culture, betakes himself to ridicule as an easy and ready method of attacking sacred things. What little influence Thomas Paine has exerted, is due to his coarse and racy derision; and Theodore Parker will be remembered chiefly for his vigorous scoffing at the truths which for ages have been enshrined in the reverence and affection of Christendom. But the maxim has never been accepted as correct. If an opponent has nothing but ridicule to offer against a system, he will fail in overthrowing it, because the human intellect demands reasons and reasoning as the ground of its decisions. The wages of a joke is a laugh, and of a great joke a horse-laugh; but the human understanding craves arguments. Men may enjoy the keenness and ingenuity of the witticism, but will not allow their opinions to be determined by it, unless they are shallow-pates and triflers themselves; for it is immediately perceived that there is nothing that cannot be ridiculed. Even the august and awful being of God may be converted into a subject of derision, provided, there be no reverence in man to deter him from blasphemy. Even the sad experiences of human life; sickness, suffering, and death itself; may have a ridiculous aspect put upon them, provided there be no decency and no shame to prevent.

Conceding, then, the falsity of the maxim in this form of statement, how stands the case with the converse? May we say that “ridicule is the test of error?” Error, unquestionably, has a side that is intrinsically contemptible. This is one of the points of difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. There is nothing really and truly despicable, and so worthy of scorn and derision, in either the good, the true, or the beautiful. But in their contraries there is nothing that is not deserving of ridicule and contempt. Hence, to subject error to wit is to subject it to a legitimate test. This is by no means the only test. The chief dependence in this instance, also, must be placed upon logic. Error must be reasoned out of existence. Men demand arguments when they are asked to give up opinions which are dear to their self-love and corruption of heart. Still, after the strong and cogent reasons have been presented, it is right and proper to pour in upon the exploded falsehood the flame of sarcasm, and burn it up as under a compound blow-pipe. The Scriptures themselves, though sparing in their use of this quality, do nevertheless employ it. There is no moral scorn more contemptuous and withering than that which fills the ridicule which Elijah, under the divine afflatus, poured out upon the priests of Baal, unless it be that which Isaiah expends on the manufacturers of idols.

But the maxim that “ridicule is the test of error” needs to be cautiously used; and it is to press this point that all our previous remarks have been made. Wit is good only in connection with logic. [Emphasis mine] Alone, and by itself, it is like faith without works. For all purposes of conviction, “it is dead, being alone.” When, therefore, the writer or speaker neglects instruction and argumentation, and overflows with light and laughable matter, he will accomplish little in actually confirming the good principles, or eradicating the evil principles of his readers or hearers. Leviathan is not so tamed. Here is the defect in much of the attack which the newspaper nowadays makes upon crime. We have been struck and saddened by the tenor of this species of writing. The crime, instead of being discussed and condemned with seriousness and earnestness as offence against both human and divine law, and against the best interests of society, is merely held up to ridicule. It is not defended, of course; but the impression that is made is that the criminal was a simpleton, a fellow without brain enough to keep himself out of trouble. If anyone will look over the files and read what has been published in the journals of this city [New York] respecting the late notorious assassination, he will understand our meaning. There is a strange and mournful absence of high-minded reasoning and solemn denunciation.

The pulpit is not altogether free from the same charge. A certain class of preachers rely more upon wit and ridicule than upon reason and argument. Their audiences expect to be amused, and should they be disappointed in their expectations for any considerable length of time, would fall off. Hence, preachers of this order work the vein of mirth and ridicule. It is a dangerous trade; as dangerous as that of Shakspeare’s [sic] gatherer of samphire. For no just, true, and complete view of truth is given by this method; and even the view given of error is oftentimes unfair, and always inadequate and feeble. Men cannot be laughed or ridiculed out of sin, if for no other reason than that laughter is only a movement of the diaphragm. Bodily exercise profiteth little.

October – 1893

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