The power of humor in writing/speaking

WittenburgDoor

March 2003

Al Speegle recently interviewed me for The Wittenburg Door about using humor to share the Good News. Al has a wild and crazy sense of humor, so it was great fun. Here’s what he wrote . . .

Jim is an author, speaker, husband, dad, and self-described “threat to society.” What makes him so dangerous is his felonious faith and sinister sense of humor.

Help me understand this? You’re an ordained minister from a very conservative denomination who writes a syndicated column for secular newspapers on such topics as “Three Secrets to XXX-ceptional Sex” and “Why Are Guys Such Boobs About Breasts?” And you write books about—S-E-X?

That does sound a bit schizophrenic doesn’t it? I probably ought to get some therapy. But I justify it by my mission statement that reads “To communicate the Gospel of Christ in as creative and effective manner as possible with as many people as possible.” So, I’m passionate about taking the Word to the world. And humor—as
always—is one language that everyone can understand.

What about humor makes it “effective” in reaching people with the Gospel?

First, humor breaks down barriers between people. If you can share a laugh with someone, you’ve connected with that person. The defenses come down, and there’s a desire to continue the dialog. And secondly, humor is “laughing gas.” You’re not going to stay in the dentist’s chair and allow him or her to drill away on a root canal unless you’re hopped up with plenty of anesthetic. So humor is the laughing gas that allows us to drill away at the abscessed areas of another person’s life.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer claimed laughter is—and I quote—the “sudden perception of incongruity” between our ideals and our behavior. You can get away with so much more using humor than you can with preaching. That’s why G. K. Chesterton wrote, “I am all in favor of laughing. Laughing has something in common with the ancient words of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves.”

The big question, does God have a sense of humor?

Definitely! Elton Trueblood wrote a wonderful book called The Humor of Christ. Jesus was a 1st century stand-up comedian.

???

Really! “Hyperbole” or intentional exaggeration was the hip humor in that time. So, Jesus would have had them rolling on the hillsides with his comments about looking for a “speck of sawdust in a brother’s eye” while having a “plank” in our own. And I can just imagine the multitudes roaring when he told the Pharisees they would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Or how ’bout camels squeezing through the “eye of a needle?” Or putting a lamp—an open flame—under a bed—a flat, flammable mat at the time. Unfortunately, a literal translation of Christ’s words doesn’t capture the cultural comedy that’s really there.

Hmmm, that’s why all your books, your newspaper columns, and website are all filled with humor?

Exactly. I heard someone at a youth worker’s convention—way back during the Polyester Age—say, “It’s a sin to make the gospel boring.” I’ve always instinctively known that humor was powerful method to share the Gospel. The speakers I remember most—and who had the greatest impact on my life—were sort of stand-up theologians.

So, that’s always been my approach in my writing. But it wasn’t until I was taking a grad class on communications at a secular university that I discovered that this is not only good theology. It’s terrific psychology as well. One study showed how humor could increase retention of information in a statistics class. Now there’s a real sleeper of a class. Students in the class where the prof used humor, scored significantly higher than students in the class where the prof simply presented the same information, but with no humor. So, if I’m going to be “effective,” I’m going to use all the tools available, and humor is a heavy duty, high-voltage power tool. Arrrgh! Arrrgh! Arrrgh!

You wrote a chapter about humor in Susan Titus Osborn’s A Complete Guide to Writing for Publication. You said “It’s hard to laugh when you feel like a deflated whoopie cushion. The writer of Ecclesiastes claims there’s a ‘time to weep and a time to laugh.’ But sometimes, it’s awfully hard for us to tell the difference.” Can you write humor on any subject?

I would say there is absolutely nothing funny about physical or sexual abuse, but I think most “touchy” subjects can be handled with care and caution. I was asked by Tyndale House to write a book for teens about death. I’d signed the contract and cashed the advance when my editor called to say, “Oh, yeah, Jim make sure you use a lot of
humor. We don’t want it to be too depressing.” A book about death! And the publisher wanted it to be funny?! That was a challenge, but I think I pulled it off since it won a “Campus Life Book of the Year” award.”

Okay, so how exactly did you do it?

For instance in an early chapter about how many teens die each year—now there’s a cheery subject—I started out by telling some of the really stupid things I did as a teen that should have gotten me killed, like trying to make home-made rocket fuel. Then I made the segue by writing, “It’s a wonder I’m alive to write this book, and it’s a wonder you’re alive to read it.” In another chapter on overcoming denial about death, I listed all sorts of really dumb euphemisms for death and then noted how important it is to acknowledge that the loved one has died.

So you write humorous books on some really serious subjects?

Hey, is this where I get to shamelessly promote my work? My latest books—an excerpts from them—are on my website. [Since this interview, I’ve published Writing with Banana Peels that I used in my “Writing Humor” class at Taylor University.]

You write a lot about sex. What is that all about?!

Well, there’s a lot of sexual misinformation out there on the information superhighway, not to mention all the porn. So, I’ve posted some of my more—shall we say “honest”?—articles on sexuality on my site. There’s nothing that says “This is a Christian site” but you won’t find me or anyone else naked on the site either. Hopefully, just some sane perspectives on sex that are biblically sound.

Can you give an example? Something The Door can print.

Sure. For instance I have a page called The Top Ten Reasons I’m Not Divorcing My Wife” It’s really a case for purity and faithfulness in marriage, but what guy looking for “hot naked teens” is going to click on that subject. I’ve tried to use humor and a bunch of university studies to make a case against adultery and divorce.

So, it’s humor, sex and university studies?

That’s the challenge writing for the secular market. I love it when Billy Graham proclaims, “The Bah-ball sa-ez.” Unfortunately, most in our Post Modern culture don’t accept the Bible as an authority. As an ordained minister, I certainly believe in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. But if I can make a biblically-based case using humor and secular studies, I can communicate the Bible’s truth without an immediate turnoff. I sometimes think of myself as a sheep in wolves clothing. Not that I’m going to write anything vulgar, but I am going to attempt to take biblical truth over into the world marketplace.

Like in your newspaper column, Jim Shorts, you wrote an article just after a Federal court in California decision to remove “under God” from “The Pledge of Allegiance.” You feared it would be reworded for a broader acceptance to “I pledge allegiance to my own personal values and beliefs, and to the relative nature to which one can individually experience reality, a pluralistic society under a higher power of one’s own choice, tolerant with personal freedom checked and balanced with concern for political correctness.” Then you suggested a better pledge. “One shorter, non-controversial, and would solve most of society’s problems if we all pledged our allegiance to it. “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” You didn’t cite the verse, but is this an example how you squeeze a Biblical truth in?

Exactly. In a Campus Life magazine review of my first book on sex, the reviewer wrote it was “Biblical without being preachy.” I like that. A writer friend, Holly Miller, says that we need to serve the “Living Water” at a temperature our audience can tolerate. She’s not saying we dilute the message. It’s still 100 percent, unadulterated Living Water. But there’s the danger of dumping boiling water over someone’s head like the hell-fire and brimstone preachers of the last century. And, there’s a greater danger, in our attempt to be accepted, that we’re serving up Kool-Aid that has none of the saving power of the Living Water. I think of my newspaper column as sprinkling the Living Water throughout my essays over time. I want to create a thirst for the Living Water through my biblically-based perspectives on Saddam Hussein, airline security, Brittany Spears, urban legends, prayer in schools, Viagra, church sex scandals, etcetera. And, another, you can find a lot of those columns on my website.

Do you ever get criticized for using humor to present such a serious message?

Sure, on a regular basis, but I’m reminded of a great quote from author Conrad Hyers. “Humor is not the opposite of seriousness. Humor is the opposite of despair.” If anyone has reason to laugh, it’s a person who’s trusting that God does indeed, work all out for our good. Romans 8:28 is the ultimate “good news/bad news” joke. God takes our tragedies and adds a punch line. My agent is pitching a new book based on that.

You also teach humor and how to present it in the Gospel, too?

Yes, I’ve spoken all over North America and a few places overseas on the writers conference circuit. And I’ve also spoken on sexual issues as well at youth conferences, and on TV and radio. I recently gave a series of talks on “A Biblical Perspective on Human Sexuality” for pastors in southern Africa. That was a challenge and a joy. Plus, I directed the Sandy Cove writers’ conference for eleven years where the theme was “Taking the Word to the World.”

Any final bits of advice for using humor to present the Gospel.

Well, visit my website. I’ve mentioned that, right? But seriously, study the great writers of humor and the Gospel. My favorite authors are Dave Barry and Thomas a Kempis, who wrote Imitation of Christ. There’s that schizophrenia again! But both are absolutely brilliant writers and thinkers. And when you can combine the wonderful wit of a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist and the spiritual insights of a revered 15th century monk, you’ve got something that will meet both the need for laughter and the need for an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

Thank thee, thank thee, thou hast been a wonderful interviewee.

You’re welcome! I’m here all week.

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