The laughing lecturer

Laughter is a funny thing.

It is a good communication tool; it relieves pressure and relaxes the listener. C.H. Spurgeon once explained to his students how he used humour in the pulpit to get his point across. He said that if you try to force open a live oyster or clam you may well not succeed. What you need to do is tickle the edge of the shell and when it opens, you stick the knife in. Humour relaxes the mind to accept the truth

But someone might say that humour is inappropriate to theology. Theology is a serious matter and so it excludes laughter. But there is nothing more serious than humour. Theology needs laughter because laughter is a sign of theology’s humanity. Only humans laugh. Dictators and fanatics have no sense of humour because they have lost much of their humanity and regard themselves to be God-like. Laughter was banned from medieval monasticism, quite logically, because many monks drew a dichotomy between being human and being spiritual.

And, of course, Jesus laughed. Can you imagine how the crowd in Judea fell about laughing when Jesus described the Pharisees carefully removing gnats from their wine and swallowing whole camels without noticing? And do you imagine that there was not a smile on the face of our Lord when he said it? As Sherwood Elliot Wirt says, to deny laughter to Jesus is to be theologically unsound because you cannot have a person who is fully human without laughter.[1]

Bernard Ramm writing of Karl Barth, entitles one of his chapters “The Laughing Barth”. He writes, “Humour in theology serves the function of reminding every theologian that he or she is a human being performing a very human task”.[2] There is a fundamental distinction between theology and the Word of God. I will not laugh at the Word of God. It is divine and perfect. But my definition of the infallibility of Scripture will not be infallible. The way in which I talk about the divinity of Christ will not be divine. For all the help of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of knowing what others have done before me, I create theology as a human being and so open it up to that characteristic human response, laughter.

To be frank, some of our divisions and furious theological contests are laughable. One of the best things you can say to some theological lecturers these days is “loosen up”, “be real”, “smile a little more”, “you’re only human.” You students will thank you for it.


[1] Sherwood Eliot Wirt, “The Heresy of the Serious” in Christianity Today, April 8th 1981, pp43f.

[2] Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, Cambridge, Harper and Row, 1983, p194.

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    • Cristian
    • February 12th, 2011

    Graham Cheesman has been such a blessing at Belfast Bible College!! From his wise insight, Graham teaches us once again about the simple, yet profound, things in life, such as laughter. Jesus used simple, real things like this as well to illustrate the serious, lifechanging truths of the Gospel.
    Any wise theological educator will get even wiser if they listen to Graham’s advice and learn from his wide experience.

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