Curing Sadventism, Part 2: What Happened to All the Donkey Jokes?

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Curing Sadventism, Part 2: What Happened to All the Donkey Jokes?

Despite the negative views of early Adventists, numerous scholars have demonstrated abundant satire, parody, and humor within the canon of Scripture. Eugene Fisher suggests that one cannot “comprehend Hebrew genius” without a sense of humor. He writes:

A witty and sophisticated use of language is displayed by the author that would be highly prized by the original readers. The joke, in a sense, is on us. … By thrusting onto the text our own Western passion for neatness of category and solemnity of presentation of doctrine, we miss the wisdom as well as the wit of the Biblical text.[1]

Fisher points out clever puns in most of the popular narratives from Hebrew Scripture, including Adam’s creation, the confusion of the languages at Babel, and Samson’s impossible riddle of the lion.

Will Kynes further observes that everything in Jonah “is turned upside down,” that Job 7:17-18 is an anti-Psalm parodying the words of Psalm 8:5, and that Joel 3:10 parodies Isaiah 2:4—not to disrespect other prophetic voices, but to emphasize fresh truths and experience.[2]

Within New Testament writing the spirit of Hebrew humor continues with the Jewish Jesus. Not only does the Son of Man frequently use hyperbole and simile (as in Matthew 19:24), but during one incident where religious leaders ask Jesus the merits of paying taxes, He makes a move that may have produced more than a few smiles. When Jesus

asks the Pharisees to produce a coin, they do so, even though a strictly pious Jew would never carry a coin bearing Caesar’s image with an inscription proclaiming Caesar to be king and God. These presumed righteous citizens are thus carrying around coins that break two commandments! The behavior of the Pharisees is incriminating, embarrassing, and amusing, to say the least.[3]

Whether it’s the great reversals in the Sermon on the Mount or the pointed parables caricaturing the religious institution (Mathew 21:33-46), Jesus did not always fit the description of “meek and lowly”—and neither did His followers.

Michael D. Thomas proposes that Luke’s Acts narrative contains elements of carnival. Carnival, according to Thomas, “seeks to humiliate the religious and political world by turning it ‘upside-down.’” He notes that

many of the…techniques of carnival emerge in Luke’s story of the Christian conflict with certain Jewish leaders and with authority figures of the Roman Empire and that these methods produce a satiric tone, carnival-style “travesty,” and “toppling” in portions of the narrative

Therefore, God, through these ordinary, otherwise powerless men, initiates the process of systematically turning authorities on their heads and carnivalizing or mocking certain structures of authority (“These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” [17:6 KJV]).[4]

Specifically, Thomas connects this topsy-turvy atmosphere with the derisive laughter of God at the nations in Psalm 2, which is partially quoted by the assembly of believers in Acts 4:25-26 and later by the apostle Paul in Acts 13:33.

Countless other examples of humor, satire, and parody within Scripture stand in opposition to the idea that laughter is theologically and spiritually reprehensible. Moreover, these examples begin to make a case that humor is a theological necessity. Christians throughout history have also appropriated humor to create theological change—most notably, perhaps, Martin Luther.

Reformation and Raillery

From their earliest days till now, Adventists have revered Martin Luther as a hero of the Protestant Reformation and a source of inspiration for modern spiritual reformers. Ellen White described Luther as “raised up by God for a special work” (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4, p. 117) and “foremost among those who were called to lead the church from the darkness of popery into the light of a purer faith” (The Great Controversy, p. 120).

In 2012 General Conference President Ted Wilson called on Adventists to carry on Luther’s work, stating during a speech in Zambia, “The Reformation did not end with Luther … it must continue with us.”

One problem for staunch Adventists determined to pick up Luther’s mantle is the fact that the great reformer presented himself, and his work, as that of a theological court jester.[5]

Eric W. Gritsch highlights how Luther frequently “neutralized the devil with witty scatological language”[6]—employing flatulence that causes Satan to flee as well as personifying himself as a laxative to make the devil’s “bowels and anus too tight for him.”[7]

Luther’s foul language also employed itself against the pope in works such as Theses Against the Whole School of Satan and all the Gates of Hell and Against the Papacy, an Institution of the Devil. Within these reforming theological works Luther called the pope “Hellish Father,” “dearest little ass-pope,” and a “little donkey dancing on ice, scared of falling and breaking wind.” Though Adventists are self-professed heirs to the Reformation, Adventist literature is surprisingly scant on its scatological satire and donkey allusions.

In 1542 Luther produced a work entitled New Pamphlet from the Rhine that satirized the importance of relics by promoting an imaginary exhibition of items such as “three flames from the burning bush on Mount Sinai,” “two feathers and an egg from the Holy Spirit,” “one half of the archangel Gabriel’s wing,” and “a whole pound of the wind that roared by Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb.”[8]

Luther’s humor and satire moved beyond words into images when he commissioned a series of woodcuts from Lucas Cranach featuring defecation, flatulence, and caricatures—all directed at shaming the papacy, monastic orders, and the institutional church. Luther, unlike most Adventists, saw satire as a potent catalyst for theological change.

Adventist Humor?

Ironically, despite their prolific protestations against humor, Adventists do have examples of satire and humor within their history.

One of the earliest instances comes from the pen of James White during the contentious time when the idea of ecclesiastical organization created dissension among former Millerites who had left their denominations. In the minds of many, to organize would be to embrace “Babylon.”[9]

In 1859, arguing for church organization in an article saturated with sarcasm, James penned:

We are aware that these suggestions will not meet the minds of all. Bro. Overcautious will be frightened, and will be ready to warn his brethren to be careful and not venture out too far; while Bro. Confusion will cry out, ‘O this looks just like Babylon! Following the fallen church!’ Bro. Do-little will say, ‘The cause is the Lord’s, and we had better leave it in his hands, he will take care of it.’ ‘Amen,’ says Love-this-world, Slothful, Selfish, and Stingy.[10]

James continued to lambaste his opponents who believed that “all that was necessary to run a train of cars was to use the brake well.”[11] The church went on to organize a few years later.

In 1899, breakfast-cereal inventor John H. Kellogg, then a member of the Adventist Church, gave a presentation at the General Conference on the subject of health—a key value within Adventist theology and culture. In front of an audience containing church officials he recounted:

Some time ago I was invited to speak at a great banquet. They brought on corpses of every description, —dead hens, dead cows, dead pigs, —and spread them all along the table. [Laughter.]

Right across the table from me was sitting a man whom I noticed was eating every corpse that came. He buried them right in his own stomach, and I thought to myself, “Just think of that man, making a cemetery of himself.” [Laughter.][12]

Humorous exchanges in official church settings weren’t isolated. In 1913, while debating the name of the North American Division, then known as the North American Division Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, W.W. Prescott spoke to the delegates:

I would like to make a final appeal in behalf of the name of this division. This long name, to be used constantly in so many ways, in writing and in printing and in speaking, to call it “The North American Division Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” seems almost discouraging. (Laughter.)

Because they [The European Division] did not want such a long name attached to it, I think we should do the same thing, and call this “The American Division Conference,” and thus save a great deal of time and breath and ink. I therefore move that the word “north” be struck out.[13]

While this may not have been as contentious an issue as the modern debate over women’s ordination, it was still a spiritual gathering talking about the mission of the church—where humor, apparently, wasn’t unwelcome.

Ellen White’s Not-So-Serious Side

Ellen White, a prophetic authority within Adventism, also possessed a robust sense of humor—despite writing against jokes and laughter. The recently published Ellen G. White Encyclopedia contains an entire entry on her humor, making the following point:

Although Ellen White condemned needless levity or joking, she also opposed a smileless, joyless, humorless Christian lifestyle. Many Christians consider it unthinkable that Christ ever laughed, grinned, chuckled, or smiled—partly because of a misguided piety that views humor as intrinsically profane, incompatible with the sacred Word of God (p. 886).

The entry goes on to note her condemnation of “frivolous levity and joking” but also her support for “cheerful,” “sunny religion” (Ms. 1, 1867). It adds that she did not “say it is a sin to laugh on any occasion” (Ms. 11, 1868).

Other writings reveal Ellen White’s use of hyperbole for humorous and instructive effect, as when, in an unpublished letter dated 1893, she dealt with Brother Pismal and his penchant for judging people’s lack of perfection. She wrote:

According to the light which God has given me…but no; should you be permitted to enter the abodes of bliss with your present traits of character, you would think you could see how even the heavenly beings might make changes for the better.[14]

Ellen White’s sharp pen throughout her career has likely led to the caricature that she was humorless—but the reality is quite the contrary.

Adventist historians frequently cite the time her son, W.C. White, fell asleep on the platform while she preached in St. Helena, California. She noticed her audience fighting the urge to laugh, and, following their gaze, she turned to find her grown son snoozing. Using humor in the sacred assembly, she said:

When Willie was a baby I had no babysitter; so I had a Battle Creek carpenter make me a cradle on rocker-arms, just exactly the width of the pulpit in the [Battle Creek] Tabernacle. I would then place Willie in the cradle before the worship service began; and while I was preaching, I would use my right foot to rock the cradle, to keep him asleep.…So don’t blame Willie; blame me. I was the one who taught him to sleep in church…on Sabbath![15]

This lighthearted response, which caused the congregation to laugh, clashes with her typical exhortations against levity in the pulpit.

Even in dealing with the serious subject of dress reform, Ellen White used humor to produce change. She wrote, “Sisters when about their work should not put on clothing which would make them look like images to frighten the crows from the corn” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 464). She counseled her granddaughters not to dress like some whose apparel “looks as if it flew and lit upon their person” (Child Guidance, p. 415).

The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia includes personal stories of White sanctioning pillow fights once a week in her house and using phrases like “sightseeing by moonlight” to describe the seasickness of a fellow traveler while crossing the English Channel (p. 888). George Knight’s Walking with Ellen White dedicates an entire section to her humor—including the time she laughed so hard she fell off the rock she sat on (p. 20).

Moving into the twentieth century, Ministry magazine published not only humor-wary pieces but several pro-laughter works. In 1939 one author, writing on the subject of preaching, said, “It is a false notion that frowns are more religious than laughter. The old idea that Jesus was often seen to weep but never to laugh has been proved spurious.”[16] In 1971, a missionary wrote, “There is so much to learn when you first go to the mission field. You must adapt and forego some of your long-cherished ideas. Above all, you must have a sense of humor.”[17] And in a recent op-ed piece entitled “Laughter from the Lectern,” editor Willie Hucks exhorted, “Teaching theology can be done with the appropriate utilization of humor. There is biblical precedent for this methodology; the Scriptures are full of humor, or certainly what might border on the humorous.”[18]

However much it may offend the sensibilities of some Adventists, contemporary humorists within the Adventist Church appear to have a precedent for creating satirical and humorous content within their theological dialogue.

The Dilemma of Humor

Surveying the humor within Adventist history, theology, and literature produces an obvious tension. On the one hand, numerous sources make it unequivocally clear that “vain and trifling conversation, idle words, jesting and joking, will readily open a way for the Spirit of the truth to vanish from us.”[19] Yet examples even from early Adventist writings suggest that “laughter is one of the very privileges of reason, being confined to the human species.”[20]

In some ways, the process of trying to uncover an Adventist theology of humor feels like a cruel joke. But a few considerations emerge that can help the Seventh-day Adventist Church develop its sense of humor, even if it is self-deprecating at times, without desacralizing or desecrating the truths Adventists hold dear.

Part 3 will turn to these considerations. It will also pose a question: What if satire, laughter, parody, and even the dreaded joke not only fit squarely within Scripture and the eschatological pathos of Adventism, but also act as a reforming tool to curb the effects of institutionalism?

Read Part 3: The Punch Line

______

Notes:

[1] Eugene J. Fisher, “Divine Comedy: Humor in the Bible,” Religious Education, 72, no. 6 (1977), 573-74.

[2] Will Kynes, “Beat Your Parodies into Swords,” Biblical Interpretation, vol. 19 (2011), 276-310.

[3] Doris Donnelly, “Divine Folly: Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor,” Theology Today, 48, no. 4 (January 1992), 385-398.

[4] Michael D. Thomas, “The World Turned Upside-Down: Carnivalesque and Satirical Elements in Acts,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 31, no. 4 (Winter 2004), 453-465.

[5] To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, 55 vols (Philadelphia and St Louis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-1986) 44, 12.

[6] Eric W. Gritsch, “Martin Luther’s Humor,” Word & World, 32, no. 2 (Spring 2012).

[7] Letter to Philip Melanchthon (June 20, 1530).

[8] Martin Luther, “New Pamphlet from the Rhine,” 1520.

[9] James White, “Gospel Order,” Review and Herald (December 6, 1853), 173.

[10] James White, “Yearly Meetings,” Review and Herald (June 9, 1859), 20-23.

[11] Ibid, 24.

[12] John Harvey Kellogg, “23rd Meeting,” GC Daily Bulletin, vol. 8 (March 1, 1899).

[13] W.W. Prescott, GC Daily Bulletin, 7, no. 10 (May 27, 1913).

[14] Ellen White to Brother Pismal, P-48 (Jan 15, 1893).

[15] Coon, Roger W., “Ellen G. White: The Person—I: The Human Interest Story,” and “II: The Wit and Wisdom of the Prophet.” GSEM534 lecture outline, Andrews University, March 30, 31, 1995.

[16] Howard J. Capman, “The Delivery of the Sermon,” Ministry Magazine, 12, no. 1 (January 1939).

[17] Molly Rankin, “This is Life!,” Ministry Magazine, 44, no. 12 (December 1971).

[18] Willie Hucks II, “Laughter from the Lectern,” Ministry Magazine, 78, vol. 3 (March 2006).

[19] Bro. Sperry, “Letter from Bro. Sperry,” Review and Herald, 8, no. 16 (August 5, 1856).

[20] James White, “The Christian Comforter,” Review and Herald, 28, no. 5 (January 2, 1866).

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Seth Pierce pastors the Puyallup SDA Church in Washington State and is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication.