When I was a student at Regent College, I once impersonated J. I. Packer in a chapel service. I pretended he was C-3PO from Star Wars. He laughed, I laughed, people laughed. We laughed, I’d like to think, because the impression fit the man: Both J. I. and C-3PO are tall, lanky creatures, all joints and sockets. They’re both British, über-rational, uncommonly smart beings possessed of photographic memories that lead them on occasion to boast of this particular ability. They’re also both catch-you-by-surprise funny.
As Packer’s teaching assistant for three years, I had the privilege of watching him up close. The point of comparing him to C-3PO was not to stress Packer’s ostensibly robotic appearance or preoccupation with etiquette but rather to highlight certain quirky details of Packer’s wonderfully idiosyncratic self. It was, if you will, an act of testimony. To bear witness to Packer in this context was to bear witness to the grace of God in his life, quirks and all.
This moment of witness also reflected an oft-forgotten aspect of Christian worship: the call to joy, levity, and humor.
“Seriousness is not a virtue,” G. K. Chesterton states in his marvelous book Orthodoxy. “It would be a heresy,” he continues, “but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
If Chesterton is right, that a certain form of seriousness is a vice rather than a virtue, then it is a vice for everybody—one that tempts both the plumber and the prime minister, the homemaker and the priest, the academic and the artist. It is a vice that especially tempts folks who belong to my own tribe of liturgical scholars. Although C. S. Lewis believed that “joy is the serious business of heaven,” liturgists would have us believe the inverse—that seriousness is the serious business of heaven and of worship, not joy.
Yes, our public worship begins and ends with the Father’s glory and is centered on the work of Christ and the Spirit. Yes, a primary purpose of our liturgical gathering is the praise of God and the sanctification of his people. And, yes, idolatry, superstition, hypocrisy, irreverence, formalism, and all other heretical “isms” are serious matters. But does it follow that corporate worship is fundamentally a deadly serious affair? If Lewis is right about the nature of joy, can’t the church’s liturgy also be a fundamentally joy-filled affair, marked by festivity, laughter, and perhaps even a dash of humor?
Allow me to suggest three theological reasons for why we should treat corporate worship as “playful business”: the grace of God, the future of God, and the comedy of God’s work.
First, a sense of humor is required of the people of God at worship because the grace of God requires it. The world that God made is marked by hyper-abundance. There is more in creation than human beings need or could ever make good use of in multiple lifetimes. Birdsong, tuneful to the human ear, exceeds our need for aural pleasure. The flavors in our foods, from chicken korma to Krispy Kreme doughnuts, go beyond what any individual deserves. In creation, there is wonderful excess—of light and texture, goodness and beauty—and it is all a grace.
There is nothing needful about this divine act. Nothing outside of God’s character compels him to make a world in which not just one kind of apple exists but rather 7,500 cultivars of apple, from Aceymac to York Imperial. As Karl Barth says, it gives God a “sporting joy” to make such a world possible to “its very depths.” It is a world made in grace and for grace. Accordingly, we are freed from an anxious need to feel only “useful” or “productive.” We are freed to revel in creation’s excess. We get to; we don’t just have to.
In the context of our common worship, we get to make our church architecture playful, like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, with its whimsical colors and its fantastical vision of a world renewed by Christ. We get to include puns in our sermons, like Jesus did. We get to shout for joy, like the mountains continually do (Isa. 49:13). We get to laugh in the Spirit; we get to participate in a joyous dance; we get to do so because it is God’s everlasting pleasure to make worship possible.
Second, a sense of humor is required of the Christian at worship because of God’s good future.
“In God’s Home,” Saint Augustine remarks, “there is an everlasting party.” And what is celebrated there, he explains, is not a passing moment or an occasional feast. No, he writes, “the choirs of angels keep eternal festival, for the eternally present face of God is joy never diminished.” Eastern Orthodox Christians understand well how the church’s worship on earth is a simultaneous participation in the worship that takes place in heaven. And because it is heavenly in its orientation, our earthly worship belongs to God’s future.
As the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once imagined it, the Trinity makes the world a kind of “wild party,” full of joyful shouts and shared laughter. “And forever and ever they told old jokes,” Capon writes, “and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.”
Capon readily grants the crassness of the image. But he also argues rightly, I believe, that its crassness tells the truth better than most books of theology and treatises on worship. Put simply: We joyfully laugh now in our praise of God because it’s our way to participate in the joyful laughter that the Host of Heaven enjoys forevermore before the face of God.
Third, a good sense of humor is required in our practices of public worship because comedy, not tragedy, will have the final word in God’s work. In his book, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner says that comedy is at the center of God’s redemptive work in Christ, from birth to resurrection and beyond. “It all happened not of necessity,” he writes, “not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.”
If a fundamental purpose of corporate worship is to proclaim and enact the gospel, then surely, I would like to believe, our practices of proclamation and enactment would somehow point to the astonishing, gratuitous, even hilarious nature of the Good News. Using humor to draw attention to this “gratuitous grace” binds us more deeply to Jesus and humbles us more thoroughly because we have found that grace, not sin, has the last word in our life—preposterously so.
These three invitations are easier said than done, of course. There is an appropriate way to be humorous in worship, but it’s all a matter of context and timing. A sermon that includes a joke is one thing; a jokey sermon is another. Levity of spirit should not be confused with misguided attempts to be “hip,” nor should liturgical festivity ever devolve to liturgical flippancy.
By way of a healthy model, we might look to the idea of play. In play, children revel in the sheer gratuity of life. In play, the universe comes into being as an expression of God’s sheer delight in being. And in play, Christians enter into a fundamental aspect of worship—as an act of wonderment and delight in the “grace that is piled on top of grace,” as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:16.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) once remarked that for children, play is a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity: “On this analogy, the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children.” If Ratzinger is right, then the church at worship does well to rehearse the playful delight of God’s children in the eternal liturgy of heaven. We, like the saints before us, have been raised by force of grace to a life that fills our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts for joy.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts is due out with Eerdmans in 2019 and his book Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life is due out with Thomas Nelson in 2020. He tweets at @wdavidotaylor.