My esteemed blogging associate Wendy Alsup recently published a post on sarcastic pastors. Conspicuously against her usual approach to language in blogging she made a point of discussing smart-ass pastors. She made a case for why a smart-ass remark to prove one's own wit and brilliance is unbecoming a pastor.
A handful of people, it would seem mainly a dude here or there, trundled out "sarcasm is in the Bible". That the pastor today is not really a prophet like Elisha or Elijah should be too self-evident for anyone who actually reads the Bible to receive the dignity of a response in itself but pastors and their fans within evangelical Protestantism have been making the mistaken conflation of "prophet" with "pastor when the Torah indicates that it was the priests who instructed for, oh, generations now.
Sarcasm and mockery to combat idolators and false teaching is one thing, but the role of a pastor is more that of a shepherd most of the time and when sarcasm works on sheep someone can blog about that.
Today I'm going to present a brief case for why we'd do well to have less humor from the pulpit of any kind, regardless of sarcasm. While today's young, restless preacher type (even those in middle-age) like to pepper sermons with jokes and personal anecdotes it's striking that this sort of method is not what we see in sermons by men ranging from John Donne to David Martyn Lloyd-Jones to Charles Spurgeon. These guys managed to get from point A to point B in a sermon without telling oceans of jokes about themselves; using cultural commentary on things like whether or not Marlowe's Faust was a good adaptation of the folk tale; or making other snappy pop culture references. Not that these points would never ever get a mention, just that the kind of humor and personal anecdote that is virtually a requirement in any contemporary sermon seems absent from the sermons of preachers past by comparison.
When we boil down humor to its most essential essence there are two categories of humor, laughing with and laughing at. With this in mind it is not a big surprise that many a mature pastor erred on the side of omitting humor from an explication of a biblical text. After all, if you're laughing with someone who are you laughing with? If you're laughing at someone what place does that have in a sermon where the aim is to teach people the Scriptures? If the pastor or priests employs humor in a way that draws attention to the self then how does that draw attention to the Scriptures or God? It makes the pastor look and sound funny ... if the humor works.
Conversely, a pastor who employs humor so that we are invited to laugh at others has employed the pulpit and the responsibilities associated with it as a not entirely tacit endorsement of the pastor's opportunity to belittle someone by laughing at them. This, too, would seem full of the potential for imprudence to someone who gives the matter a bit of thought.
Let's try a little game. Take a sermon and remove all the personal anecdotes about the pastor's history or observational humor or cultural references out of the sermon. What do you have? How much of the remaining sermon is an exposition and explanation of a biblical text? Let's make a distinction here between an "applicatory section" of a sermon in which there is ethical or doctrinal instruction you can make use of later in the week on the one hand and a discourse on culture in general or an other group that may or may not be in the flock. Boil all that stuff away and what are you left with? In the last ten years I've had a realization that when I did that with some sermons that as little as a third of a sermon a pastor preached was 1) an exposition on a biblical text or 2) even a biblical text itself. Maybe two thirds of a sermon that was about an hour long involved a bunch of rambling self-referential commentary on things that had pretty little to do with a biblical text. Sometimes what ostensibly had something to do with the text turned out, with a little independent exegetical study, to have had nothing to do with the text at all.
For those who will insist against all this that humor from the pulpit is justified because the Bible has sarcasm put the shoe on the other foot and consider the Golden Rule. If you want someone to point out that you're defending a self-aggrandizing misuse of biblical texts as a pretext to show off how funny you are now rather than explicate the word of God then that tells us what we need to know about you and your fitness for ministry. :) Preachers are not prophets like OT prophets such as Elijah or Elisha. In fact evangelicals and particularly cessationists can fundamentally misrepresent the nature of prophetic office. In Deuteronomy we see the prophet was consulted when the local tribal chiefs and priests had already consulted case law and didn't manage to field the situation at hand. Prophets in the minds of self-congratulatory men are full-time preacher dudes who teach the Bible. They weren't. There were professional prophets, of course, but they were themselves the subject of some mockery by biblical authors. Amos did not consider himself a prophet or the son of a prophet and while some prophets did a lot let's not ignore the possibility that some of these guys had boring day jobs that were boring enough that we weren't told what they were in much detail. Someone from the priestly set would have been a priest, maybe. But rambling about how preachers like to imagine they're prophets is a subject for some other post. In the interest of niceness we'll try not to have any humor at their expense.