Curing Sadventism, Part 3: The Punch Line

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Curing Sadventism, Part 3: The Punch Line

In an essay published in 1967 Walter Wagoner pondered America’s “folksy and largely uncritical denominationalism” whose Christianity reflected a “less than maturity in matters satire.” Acknowledging that religious satire must “run an extraordinarily delicate course,” he considers it essential for handling the “idolatries of the godly”—which can unintentionally form spiritual identities. His essay is worth quoting at length:

The moralistic ethos and the pietistic seriousness of American Protestantism is not a congenial theological home. The majority of satirists, and this is very important, if not churchmen, are religious men, concerned for removing the abuses done in the name of God or Christ. The American satirist is regarded too often as a vigilante against God or Christ. This will change, as the improvements in theological education of our clergy continue; but it is a slow change.…

American Christianity has had no religious establishment, no state church, no overt combination of church officialdom and political oligarchy.…Nor have we had a tradition of anti-clericalism.

Lacking both an establishment and a related anti-clerical tradition, the American religious satirist has a more difficult time of it in separating his institutional and personal criticism, in the public mind, from criticism of God. The psychological strategy of the American religious satirist is much more difficult than in many other lands, where establishment and anti-clericalism provide more “objective” means of distinguishing a satire on definite human weaknesses from an attack on religion in general.

Alluding to Luther, Wagoner says: “There is a constant need for a theologian court-jester in the wings.” Satire and humor within an ecclesiastical setting give believers “a reassuring sign that institutionalized religion, insofar as it harbors or heeds the satirist, may not be beyond recall.” He calls the practice of religious satire a “bittersweet grace” that “ministers sanity.”[1]

Redemptively Subverting the Establishment

Seventh-day Adventism not only has its origin in America but is relatively young among its denominational cousins. However, with more than 18 million adherents worldwide and a significant organizational structure, the Adventist Church may have finally become “the establishment” in some of the ways early detractors of church organization feared.

In 1989 Bull and Lockhart published Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream. They observed:

Adventists can be born in Adventist hospitals, go to Adventist schools, graduate from Adventist colleges, and receive further training in Adventist universities. They can read Adventist literature, buy Adventist music, listen to Adventist radio programs, and watch Adventist television productions. They can work in Adventist institutions, and, because Adventists tend to cluster around their institutions or administrative centers, they can even live in an Adventist community. When they are ill they can be treated in Adventist hospitals, and when they are old, they can live out their days in Adventist retirement centers. Adventism is an alternative social system that can meet the needs of its members from the cradle to the grave.[2]

Adventism has grown not only as a denomination but as a subculture with quirks and eccentricities—and there exists a chance that those enmeshed in the alternate social system aren’t aware of anything but their own narrative.

In 2007 Adventist historian George Knight also noted the institutionalism the church wrestles with by drawing an analogy with IBM:

All bureaucracies tend to become top-heavy. That is just as true of IBM as it is of Adventism. But when it comes to reform IBM had one major advantage—middle management did not sit on its governing boards. … It will be much more difficult for Adventism unless people are willing to put heavenly mission before possible loss of earthly status.[3]

Later Knight explicitly spoke of “a very real danger of Seventh-day Adventism gaining its self-image from its institutions rather than from its stated mission.”[4]

This challenge of institutionalism is why the church needs to embrace its satirists.

The structure of Adventism has moved beyond anything the founders of the denomination envisioned. While the structure allows for enhanced spiritual, educational, and medical ministry, it also allows for some bad habits. Adventists have their own vernacular, traditions, and celebrity culture, not all of which, as Knight points out, help the mission of the church.

When satirists skewer celebrity evangelists (Doug and Dancing with the Stars), lampoon the polarizing viewpoints in the women’s ordination debate (Andrews University’s new female-only Master of Prophecy degree) or mock Last Generation Theology proponents for their lack of perfection and failure to “live up the light they have,” they are providing a “ministry of sanity” to the church.

One pro-satire Adventist, posting in response to many of the negative comments his fellow church members offer, says:

Why stick around and make fun? Well, it’s like this: Adventism is a CULTURE. If you don’t believe it, examine what it means to be a culture. And then explore what it’s like to move out of one culture and into another. We who identify with the culture but don’t feel nearly so attached to the importance of the rules enjoy a little humor at the expense of those who are too serious. If it shakes your faith, maybe examine your faith?[5]

The point is well taken—many Adventists cannot separate their culture from their doctrines. Theological conservatism or liberalism becomes enmeshed with social conservatism or liberalism in the minds of many adherents.

Biblical Literalism and Humor

Adventist satirists themselves see another issue affecting the faithful’s inability to recognize—much less appreciate—humor, satire, and parody. Barely Adventist gives the following surmising as to why Adventists have a hard time discerning satire:

We are a people that don’t want to fudge the truth so we often like to take things at face value. We believe in interpreting much (although definitely not all) of scripture literally so it seems that we have a harder time than most discovering layered meaning…. Especially if you have to get past humorous fake news to access it![6]

This reasoning makes sense, given GC President Ted Wilson’s inaugural sermon at the 2010 General Conference Session, where, in a reaction to higher criticism, he passionately admonished tens of thousands in attendance to “stand firm for God’s Word as it is literally read and understood. … Cling to your Bible, as it reads.”[7]

More effort needs to be taken in Adventist evangelism not only to exegete various passages upholding Adventist doctrine, but to explain the variety of genres in which those passages occur. A better understanding of the literary context of the inspired text may help earnest Adventists reflect more deeply on what they read instead of immediately running with a shallow interpretation.

Highlighting Inconsistencies

Akin to the tendency toward literal interpretation are Adventists’ tight theological package and their view of themselves as the remnant church.[8] Historically, Adventism’s primary method of evangelism has been a multiweek prophecy series, culminating in a call to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In October 2014, President Wilson gave an address exhorting his audience to take “a unified stand for the distinctive, biblical beliefs of the Adventist Church, regardless of whether the teachings might be derided as unpopular or politically incorrect.”

Humor theorists note that a key feature of their subject is its creation due to incongruity—something that doesn’t match expectation.[9] Within the name Seventh-day Adventist is built an expectation of the parousia—and a confident eschatological framework. Adventists expect their theology and their church to function accordingly, so it can be shocking when an astute humorist accurately parodies or satirizes institution and subculture. Combined with official speeches telling the faithful to “stay away from anything that will undermine our message or cloud our distinctive beliefs,” the incongruities demonstrated by humor may feel threatening to those with an idealistic view of their church and belief system.

However, as previously stated, this is why humor and satire is needed. Humor keeps Adventists alert to areas where they may be failing to meet their ideals and, if used correctly, prevents them from operating their mission on autopilot. It is paramount to note that the preamble to Adventism’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs states:

Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference Session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.

Adventist theology anticipates incongruities between expression of belief and actual belief. Humorists expose those incongruities and prompt us to address them.

Humor in Community

The increasing popularity of religious humorists should increase the interest of theologians for another reason. Humor cannot exist without community. In order for a joke to create laughter, those subjected to the humor must understand the geography, vernacular, and subculture. Only Adventists can fully appreciate the video produced by Hospital Church promoting the “Adventist Alert” app that warns “Badventists” tempted to order pepperoni pizza that a fellow Adventist is near who might judge their dietary choice.

When a significant portion of a denominational community begins to “share” or “like” religious satire, it serves as a potential cue for religious scholars to step in and dialogue before the humor begins to express not only incongruity but frustration. If the church ignores or demonizes its religious humorists, it may find Adventists picking up Luther’s scatological tones in order to capture the attention of the church they love.

On the positive side, not all humorists attempt to point out incongruities. Some simply create inside jokes that can draw a community closer together.

God Has the Last Laugh

Adventists pride themselves on an apocalyptic identity. “We Have This Hope” is a common Adventist hymn sung around the world—especially at official church gatherings such as Annual Council and General Conference sessions. Of all the denominations on earth, Adventists should appreciate a robust sense of humor—because it too is apocalyptic:

Whether in righteous judgment, putting self-deifying mortals in their proper place (Ps. 2) or in crushing our despair at the foot of the cross, God always gets the last laugh. Gospel-grounded hope is the foundation of Christian laughter. This laughter springs from belief in God’s ability to bring radical reversals of fortune within this badly fallen world.[10]

Because Adventists firmly believe that Christ will return and free the earth from death, pain, and sickness (Rev. 21:4), they should be able to laugh freely. If not, and in light of aforementioned comments citing the nearness of Christ’s return as a reason to avoid humor and laughter, perhaps Adventists have either forgotten the hope they profess to have or fallen into a pattern of teaching the apocalypse in such a way as to emphasize last plagues rather than the parousia.

Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, said, “Humor is proof that everything is going to be all right with God nevertheless.”[11] Adventist theology proclaims that all will be right with God in the end. Laughter via satire, parody, caricature, or any other means reminds us of that—it’s an expression of hope, but it’s also a sharp tool that can help us focus on that hope if we are careful in our understanding of it.

How to Cure Sadventism

While Adventists past and even present condemn the use of humor for the purpose of character assassination,[12] they have used it to create organizational and theological change—as did their Protestant Reformation role model, Martin Luther. Even though it may feel unsanctified, there are indications that intensely sarcastic/satirical language is well within the tradition of theological dialogue when church institutions cannot hear the voices of those they profess to serve. As a people dedicated to adhering to the Bible, the church must qualify its calls for literal interpretation by acknowledging the variety of literary genres that augment the richness of Scripture. To do otherwise creates off-color applications that are anything but funny.

While numerous scholarly sources exist on religious humor outside of the Adventist tradition, very few, if any, exist within. More specific research needs to be done into the historical context surrounding the anti-humor works of denominational pioneers. For example, shortly after the Great Disappointment, as well as after the 1888 GC Session, when Adventist believers experienced cruel humor and mockery, we find some of the severest censures regarding humor. Perhaps the authors opposing “comico-pious” attitudes hadn’t quite healed or forgiven their opponents yet, and it plays out in their writings. To continue to publish vague articles casually qualifying anti-humor sentiments as only referring to an unidentified style will not help refine a theology of humor.

Additionally, the tendency to dismiss humor designed to only elicit a laugh from the audience further showcases an ignorance of humor’s importance. Laughter occurs only in community, and the act of producing a laugh, for a laugh’s sake, can create a rapport, a “he/she is one of us” feeling that enables the speaker to present potentially difficult subject matter. Could humor pave the way for a hard-hitting message on the mark of the beast or the state of the dead? It’s worth exploring.

Big Enough to Laugh

Mercifully, the church does have a sense of humor, even if it cannot describe it, even if not everyone gets it, and even if the church itself is the butt of its application. In an exclusive interview with Barely Adventist, the largest satirical website within the church, the creators of the site were asked whether church officials have expressed concern about what they do. “Not really,” they responded. “The church officials that have reached out have tended to be very supportive, offering ideas and various forms of support.” Barely Adventist reported that the positive comments they receive are “too many to count” and that they have “heard from people across the Adventist spectrum and beyond.”[13]

Only once has the website taken down one of their satirical pieces. The article dealt with a large, prominent singing evangelist family within the church—the Melashenkos. Barely Adventist recounted:

It [the article] was about the Melashenko family forming a traveling circus. We took it down when we learned that their patriarch had recently passed. What happened next surprised us: Actual Melashenko family members were disappointed we had taken down the post and persuaded us to republish. That meant a lot![14]

These stories, featuring Adventist leaders delighted at their own parodies and caricatures, need to be told so the general Adventist membership can be let in on the joke.

Natural Church Development is a tool widely used by Adventist congregations to measure their overall health. NCD’s founder, Christian Schwartz, lectures all over the world to a variety of denominations on the subject of church health. In his book The 3 Colors of Love, he recounts a story about a lecture given to a gathering of pastors who asked him to describe the key to healthy, vibrant churches. He responded:

In growing churches there is measurably more laughter than in non-growing ones. This is one of the most provable church growth principles I know.[15]

Hopefully the Adventist Church is big enough to laugh at itself so it can continue to grow.

______

Notes:

[1] Walter D. Wagoner, “Bittersweet Grace: Religious Satire,” Theology Today, 24, no. 1 (April 1967), 49-51.

[2] Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 114.

[3] George Knight, If I Were the Devil: Contemporary Challenges Facing Adventism (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2007), 104.

[4] Ibid, 247.

[5] Wayne March (post in comments section of http://barelyadventist.com/amazing-fact-doug-batchelor-to-join-dancing-with-the-star/, March 18, 2014, 6:50 pm).

[6] Barely Adventist, emailed to Seth Pierce, March 25, 2015.

[7] Ted Wilson, “Go Forward!” (lecture, Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA, July 3, 2010).

[8] Baptismal Vow #13

[9] John S Morreall, “Is This Place Stuffy Or Is It Just Me?” Word & World, 32, No. 2 (Spring 2012).

[10] Erik Thoennes, “Laughing Through Tears: The Redemptive Role of Humor in a Fallen World,” Presbyterion, 33, no. 2 (Fall 2007), 72-83.

[11] Robert L. Short, The Parables of Peanuts (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 151.

[12] Barely Adventist, emailed to Seth Pierce, March 25, 2015.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Christian Schwarz, The 3 Colors of Love: The Art of Giving and Receiving Justice, Truth, and Grace (St. Charles, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 2004).

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