There are a lot of parallels between ministers and artists (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Two books that have given me great insight on how I minister are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. The former is a book of guidance to aspiring writers while the latter is a memoir of the actor’s stand up career. Ministry is an art and it is a performance in the sense that it is an action often done before other people. So I find that I have a lot to learn from writers, musicians, actors, and comedians. Which brings us to…
It just doesn’t take a lot to do dirty jokes.
That was a comment EA made after we saw the Mainstage review at The Second City. On the whole, we enjoyed the show but there were several sketches that got really crass. Those sketches got huge responses from much of the crowd because sex jokes are one of the lowest common denominators in comedy. It’s roughly on the same level as poop jokes (which, so as not to be a hypocrite, I do laugh at semi-regularly). And EA was right. It doesn’t take a lot to go dirty with a joke. It’s a cheap laugh.
Now I’m not saying all sex jokes are cheap. It’s possible to say something of value about sex through a joke. Comedy often has a way to make us think while we are laughing. So I’m not drawing a Puritanical, how-far-is-too-far line in the sand. I’m just saying the majority of sex jokes are easy; they get a huge reaction for something that is of basically no substance. But comedians go to that well because it gets that very response. And these actors were talented enough that they did not need to do that (interestingly, it was often the crowd that pushed them that way).
I feel like more than we’d like of what is said in our churches is the equivalent of a sex joke. Not in the way that things that we say are inappropriate (though you could argue that from a certain perspective). But we say stuff that seems cutting edge that really is of little substance. People eat fluff Christianity (and fluff Christianity doesn’t have to be happy, smiley Jesus, folks like angry Jesus too) like candy and so we often go to that well because it nets a great response. It doesn’t take a lot to do the lowest common denominator of spirituality and piety.
We typically take the path that is easy. It sounds very spiritual and it mentions Jesus, but it doesn’t challenge us and doesn’t challenge those listening to us. Yet because it gets a big reaction, it begins to carry greater weight. It gets passed along like a dirty joke and it evokes its intended reaction. And what I’m talking about here is the slogans, the easy formulas that we perpetuate that do not hold up to a lot of scrutiny. I’m sure I am guilty of this as much anyone else.
For example, a prominent pastor recently tweeted, “God’s Will is in God’s Word. Stop listening for a voice. Start looking for a verse.” Scripture is definitely a vitally important guide for our lives. But people seeking God’s will are looking for guidance that comes from more than just a verse. Don’t get me wrong, there are verses that will certainly help. But life is often more complicated than a simple verse holding all the keys to what one is supposed to do in a given situation. You have to study Scripture, talk to Christians, think and pray about what you read. Look for a verse, yes. But don’t let that be the only step.
Besides some verse answers could be problematic. Let’s say a man finds out that his new bride is not a virgin like she said. If said man doesn’t know what to do and starts looking for a verse and finds Deuteronomy 22:13-21…well, I don’t consider that stoning her to death is an act within God’s will. Simplistic example? Yes. But it was also simplistic advice.
I guess what I’m saying is that in the same way that sex jokes often cheapen something that is far more complicated and beautiful, our sermons, our tweets, our Facebook statuses, and blogs can do the same. Jesus did not go for the easy path that garnered the biggest applause. He challenged, confused, and sometimes even angered folks (he told some funny stories too).
I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but as we waited for the L at Sedgwick I thought about how I don’t want to tell the equivalent of a sex joke in my ministry. I don’t want to take the easy route that gets the best response.