Variations on a theme: Why evangelicals don’t do scholarship, humor or philosophy

These are three different posts on three different topics. These are three posts all saying the same thing.

First, Peter Enns, with “The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use It“:

The real problem isn’t simply a failure on the part of Evangelicals to engage the world of thought. Evangelicals earning higher degrees and publishing their findings in the wider intellectual community isn’t what’s needed.

The real scandal of the Evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to use it.

Calling for Evangelical involvement in public academic discourse is useless if trained Evangelicals are legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

A more basic need is the creation of an Evangelical culture where the exercise of  the Evangelical mind is expected and encouraged.

But, with few exceptions, that culture does not exist. The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions.

Second, Larry Shallenberger for Relevant magazine, asks, “Why Aren’t Christians Funny?

A vintage cartoon illustrating both: A) the sorry state of evangelical humor; and B) the reason why evangelicals are not funny.

Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.

… Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, “To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it’s right down the middle, it’s not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don’t want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile.”

And Jesse James DeConto discusses the intellectual implosion of his alma mater, the evangelical Cedarville University, with “Why My Evangelical College Shouldn’t Do Away With the Philosophy Department“:

Evangelical institutions like Cedarville have always had a rocky relationship with the humanities: Philosophy, literature, the arts — they’re all great as long as they support what we already believe. But if they make us question our assumptions, they’re dangerous. The Culture War has been fomenting at Cedarville since before I was there, and it always seemed the powers-that-be perceived my philosophy professors to be on the wrong side.

Back to Peter Enns:

Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma, though avoiding Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.

An apologetic or defensive culture primarily concerned with preserving “certain theological distinctives” will not just defend its boundaries against anything that might violate them. It will defend those boundaries against anything that might transcend them. The transcendent — the good, the beautiful, the true — becomes the forbidden.

That’s why Cedarville wants to purge its philosophy department. It’s why the evangelical mind is not allowed to be used.

And it’s why a sense of humor will get you reclassified as a “post-evangelical” almost as fast as a hermeneutic of radically inclusive love will.

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  • mud man

    I would really like to call myself an Evangelical … Mark Noll point out that there is a long and distinguished tradition there, and the Bebbington quadrilateral (rightly divided) seems like a good place to set out from … but it’s an uphill slog for sure. As I said recently, if people really believed what they say then we would still have discussion, but we could let go of the rancor. I mean, God is the way he is, nie? (Or is not the way he is not, if you prefer.)

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m so glad I read your blog, Fred. From the article about eliminating the philosophy department,

    Baptists love their doctrinal statements.

    If I weren’t a regular reader, I would have missed the heartwrenching irony.

  • The really weird thing about that cartoon is that there are four steps from “NO DEITY” to “ATHEISM”. I kinda thought those things were synonymous. What distinction did the author of the cartoon think he was making?

  • AnonymousSam

    For that matter, “AGNOSTICISM” is beneath “NO DEITY.” How does that work?

  • Omnicrom

    It’s pretty clearly from a Christian point of view, and not a terribly enlightened one, so the intervening steps are all about fearmongering. Immediately after “No Deity” it has “No Atonement” and then “No Resurrection”, intended to scare Christians into line lest they start to doubt and walk down the stairs towards non-belief.

    I question whether the author knows much about Atheism, the more fundamentalist True Believers rarely do, but whether he knows that “No Deity” means “Atheist” or not the purpose of the comic is not definition but defamation. “Don’t Question lest you be lost to sadness and eternal hellfire!” is the message I’m getting pretty clearly.

  • Gently Feral

    I think the reason “No Deity” is halfway down the flight of stairs is that it means “Denying the Deity of Christ.”  That’s more than one step from denying that there’s any sort of God at all, isn’t it?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I liked that NO ATONEMENT is after NO DEITY.

  • AnonymousSam

    Maybe they’re assuming belief in Jesus is separate from belief in God, so everything at NO DEITY or below is belief in Jesus exclusively? That would allow for atonement to some extent, I suppose.

    It’s hard enough to wrap my mind around this kind of thinking when it’s clear

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I have no idea.

    I can see how the freaking out could work the other way around: you don’t believe in this specific theory of atonement and next thing you know you won’t believe in God!!! But saying that if you don’t believe in God you might end up not believing a particular doctrine about God is just backwards.

  • Maybe by “No Deity” the cartoonist meant “No anthropomorphic deity”?  My great-grandfather was, according to my late grandmother, an impecunious preacher, and one of the reasons he remained impecunious was because he’d say things like, “God is the cohesive force of the universe”.  Congregations at that time all wanted to hear about God as an old man in a robe.

  • There is one kind of humour authoritarians like, and that’s attacks on the Other — laughter as a baring of the teeth.  The problem with such “jokes”, of course, is that they’re not funny, as such; they’re an excuse for the in-group to show its hostility to the out-group.

  • That’s actually just about the most perfect description yet that I’ve seen of the kind of humor often used by white guys on the Internet who self-identify as right-wing and/or Libertarian. The kind of humor they like to use is that teeth-baring tribalistic kind where you either respond “just right” and you’re in like Flynn, or you respond “wrong”, and they all but surround you like sharks to run you off.

  • Hexep

    I think that at this point, we have all collectively put more effort into interpreting this comic than did the artist in producing it.

  • Hexep

    Someone from [unliked group] wants to travel from [home of the unliked group] to [more civilized place], so they call up the airline and ask how long the flight will be. The customer service rep says, ‘can I put you on hold?’ The [outsider] says, ‘how long will I wait?’ The rep says, ‘maybe two minutes?’ The [outsider] says, ‘wow, that’s a fast flight, thanks.’

    Someone from [unliked group] goes to [a more civilized place] to buy a TV. The [outsider] goes to an electronics store and says, ‘do you sell TVs?’ The customer service rep says, ‘yeah, we got tons of ’em, look around.’ The [outsider] asks, ‘but do you have color TVs?’ And the rep says, ‘of course!’ So the [outsider] thinks about it and says, at length, ‘I would like a blue* one.’You could tell the joke about your ordinary, universal idiot, who is not unique to any one place and time, but it’s only effective for those purposes if you pick a group that is at odds with the listener.

    *When I was a child, the color TV was always green – I don’t know why. Nowadays, since a ‘green’ TV could be one that uses very little energy, it’s usually changed to blue.

  • Renee

     I think ShifterCat is talking about a form of humor lower than that.

    There’s a certain kind of “humor” that involves making remarks that are simply not funny; instead they’re a sort of signal for a community. These aren’t always bad. Sometimes someone makes a “nerd” joke of this variety (some extremely lame joking comment the real point of which is just to say, “I’m a nerd!”) and I find myself laughing loudly, not because it was actually funny but because it makes me happy to hear the signal that person just sent, and I wish to respond to that person that, “I’m a nerd too!” These kinds of jokes serve to establish a sense of community, and that’s the only reason they’re told or laughed at.

    But there are malicious versions of this too. Nasty comments about blacks/women/gays/immigrants/liberals/conservatives/welfare recipients/rich people/fat people/vegetarians/what-have-you which aren’t actually funny at all are sometimes told as jokes. But the real purpose of them is just to say, “I hate X people!” and to try to establish a sense of community with other people around that sentiment. Others laugh because they too hate X people and so they feel a happy community-feeling to hear it expressed.

  • Loki100

    Part of the problem for them is that humor, at least in the Western tradition is completely and firmly rooted in mocking the powerful. This goes back thousands and thousands of years, beyond even Rome and Greece. It includes the allowed fools of the court who pretty much alone could mock the king.

    Humor is almost always some form of social critique. It has to be, as the reason punchlines work is because they are surprising. So you have to start up with a situation that is expected, and then end in an incongruous, unexpected way. The best way to start out a joke, obviously, is reality, so you will almost always be commenting on that reality in some way. There are plenty of talking ducks and horses, but almost every joke starts off from some very real place.

    That’s why humor tends to criticize the way the world is, and the powerful people who run it. If ideologically you are in favor of the world the way it is, and the people who run it, you’re left making jokes about the most vulnerable populations in that world. Which isn’t making jokes really, it is just insulting and belittling people. That’s why the people that conservatives always claim are making jokes, such as Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter, never actually seem to actually make jokes.

    It also means you can’t be self-deprecating, because the entire point is to not criticize society. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can make fun of feminism all day and all night, but conservative comics can’t make fun of conservatism. When you can’t mock society and the people in charge of it, you can’t mock conservatism. So they just become unfunny jerks.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Mr. Allain has a worthy goal, but he seems a bit in the dark.

    Christianity is already wide open to judgement. It opened itself to judgement when “Go out and convert” became one of it’s goals. It opened itself to judgement again when the “Moral Majority” became a thing and certain Christians decided it was a good idea to start legislating their beliefs. Creationism is another good reason to pull out one’s judgement. 

    Hell, the fact that it’s a belief system in general SHOULD open it to personal study and judgement. 

  • I think you’re missing the point. It’s not that Christianity isn’t open to judgement, it’s that evangelicals can’t judge Christianity.

  • Baby_Raptor

    He says both outside and in. 

  • Carstonio

    Excellent point about fearmongering. The cartoon seems like an attempt to keep the faithful from straying.

  • Wednesday

     I find it interesting that “No Ressurection” is specifically listed there, because that’s the same scare tactic that Ken Ham likes to use. If the creation of the Earth didn’t follow _exactly_ the way he says it does, then there was no Fall of the sort he says there was, and without _his_ version of the Fall,  there’s no need for Jesus’s death and resurrection.

    So if you reject Ham’s YEC, then Jesus died for nothing and there’s no ressurection, no salvation for you or anyone.

  • Fusina

    Humor is a problem for evangelicals–I ran into it in (and this did surprise me at the time) an Episcopal young adults group. We were discussing the important traits of a spouse, and my number one, most important, the deal breaker, won’t marry if this isn’t there, was a sense of humor. I was gently corrected, in that a believing spouse was most important so far as these people were concerned, well before a sense of humor. I stuck to my guns, and yes, my spouse does have a sense of humor. It has kept us together in spite of our differences of opinions, and being two people who have their own ideas of what one should do in various situations. 

    He was not a believer when we met, having been driven from the Catholic church by humorless members, and I did not push him to become a christian, just requested that in cases  where I wanted to discuss it, I would like his honest opinions about it without him looking at me like I’d lost my mind, and shared a book I’d read by one of my fave theologians (Hunting the Divine Fox, Robert Farrar Capon) who also has a good sense of humor. I highly recc his books for anyone who is looking for a theology book in which the writer wanders about upending rocks and turning the usual understanding of biblical texts upside down to see what would shake out.

    For those wondering, the church is one that became a member of ACNA and I no longer attend there. We moved out of the area and eventually found a church that both prizes humor and is exceedingly liberal.

  • Timothy Conard

    i think just reading it required more mental effort than was put into producing it…

  • OrcHard

    Christian Humor: It’s like regular humor, except with a lot more flop sweat and awkward silences.

  • Eamon Knight

    I also think the NO DEITY step refers to the Deity of Christ (makes sense being between Virgin Birth and Atonement). And it’s actually not a bad summary of the progress of Modernist theology (and for that matter, my own). It seems less intended as funny than as cautionary. Of course, unlike the artist, I don’t see anything *wrong* with walking down those particular stairs ;-).

    Re Cedarville: About 20 years back, some group there reported carbon-dating dinosaur bones to some young-earth acceptable age. This is not a school from which I would expect to see intellectual rigor.

  • Tricksterson

    I’m thinking that the latter half of the stairway, in fact maybe everything in between CHRISTIANITY and ATHEISM was just thrown in at random because to whoever did it they’re all basically different terms for the same thing.

  • Tricksterson

    So how come there’s so much Jewish humor?  I don’t mean just humor by Jews but humor by Jews about their culture and religion that is genuinely funny.

  • Carstonio

    Maybe the fear involved in the avoidance of humor is less about losing faith and more about ending up in hell.

  • *winces*

    Yeah, there’s ways to make the data fit the theory if you contort yourself into a pretzel and invoke peculiar circumstances to explain your results, but in general, invoking such ad-hoc on-the-fly corrections is looked on somewhat askance, especially by people who know how radioactive decay works and understand the issues with 14C dating.

  • Hexep

    Nahhh, that kind of shading is extremely laborious.

  • hidden_urchin

    I think that at this point, we have all collectively put more effort into interpreting this comic than did the artist in producing it.

    Yes, well, we’re particularly skilled at that around here.  Our talent comes out in full force on Fridays.  :-)

  • Yeah it’s definitely a peculiar scale of disbelief they’re working with!

  • hidden_urchin

    … and one of the reasone he remained impecunious was because he’d say things like, “God is the cohesive force of the universe.”

    It’s too bad he was born so early.  Had he lived in the latter half of the 20th century and rewritten his sermons with space battles and laser swords, using the Hero’s Journey to tie it together, then they would have been a huge hit.  What isn’t improved by space battles?

  •  > What isn’t improved by space battles?


  • walden

    Veggie Tales is pretty funny.

  • I have a friend who became something of a fundamentalist somewhere in the last decade or so.  Not sure when or how that happened, but she has managed to keep at least some of her sense of humor.

    Earlier today she posted a status on Facebook that consisted of a context-free listing of chapter and verse:

    [Friend]:  Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:37 

    And then a follow-up comment:

    [Friend]:  Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:30, 31, 33, 34

    Without actually looking up those verses, and because I’m a smartass and  it was the first thing that popped into my mind, I posted this comment:

    Jon Maki:  Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2, #290-294

    Because she has retained her sense of humor, she was able to appreciate my smartassery.

    It then occurred to me that I should start going to professional sporting events and/or WBC protests and hold up a sign listing those issues of LoSH…

  • Gotchaye

     I don’t think this really works, at least not anymore.  Maybe at one point conservatives were self-consciously pro- the already powerful, but they’re not now.  They’ve deluded themselves into thinking that the groups they don’t like are also powerful.  Yes, their persecution complex is dumb, but they do feel oppressed by atheists and women and ethnic minorities and gay people (and liberals generally, of course).  They think that the status quo is basically socialism.  They hate the status quo, as they understand it.  And some of their targets are well-chosen – most conservative political cartoonists direct most of their mockery at the most powerful person in the world.

    Obviously one can and ought to disagree with them, and probably conservative jokes won’t be funny to liberals (of course, liberal jokes aren’t very funny to conservatives) but if this is the psychology that makes humor possible then they should be able to produce it.

  • Angie Vandemerwe

    When one worships a “God” of one’s own image, then agnosticism/atheism is invalidating to a person’s own ‘image”. “God” is all about oneself and what one wants to accomplish in this world. This is why Marx said that “religion was the opiate of the people”. People pacify themselves with their “imaginations” of “God”. What is hard to see or admit is that one’s imaginations of “God” is turned into affirming certain cultural values identified as “God’s agenda/will”. The cult is the justifying frame for certain values.

    Evangelicals like to “convert” others into their image of “God”. Is that something “good”? That depends, I suppose on whether you agree that evangelicals have the “right agenda”. The “right agenda” is really about political ideology/philosophy. America’s “culture wars” demonstrate that evangelicalism isn’t the answer to our problems, but only exasperates them, because people so convinced believe they do “God”s bidding!! And evangelicals are divided about what that is and what it means!

  • Original Lee

     I think most of the Veggie Tales humor comes from inserting anachronisms, and the general visual humor of having talking vegetables with virtual hands bouncing around.  For instance, in “Josh and the Big Wall,” the guards on the wall at Jericho have French accents a la “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and drop slushies on the Israelites’ heads.  The actual story is still taken pretty seriously, IIRC.

  • Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. 

    I have always equated humor not with weakness, but with armor.  If you can be self-deprecating, if you can laugh at your own foibles and continue on despite them, it is a sign of strength.  It means that a person has nothing to hide, and nothing to fear.  What flaws they have they are aware of, thankyouverymuch, and have grown comfortable enough with to joke about them.  They can no longer be exploited because someone else has beat them to the punch and made peace with it.  

    As a wise man once said, “Man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.”

  • Mark Z.

    They’re all cargo-culting Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, where he argues that Christians must believe that resurrection of the dead is at least possible, because otherwise there was no resurrection of Christ and we’re all wasting our time here.

    What they miss (as they usually do with Paul’s letters) is that this argument isn’t aimed at establishing the truth of Christianity. It’s addressed to Christians who are trying to figure out the implications of their own theology.

  • The kind of jokes you’re talking about are gentle enough that [group x] can, and often have, told them about themselves as a kind of self-deprecation.  Eg. in Canada, “Newfie” jokes got started by Newfoundlanders.

    The sort I meant is, as Renee says, a lot nastier.

  • I think that the reason there’s a lot of Jewish humour is twofold:  first of all, they have a long-standing tradition of vigorous debate, and second, they’ve been the underdogs for centuries.

  • Heh.  Yeah, he passed away before the first screening of Star Wars.

    A friend did tell me that his modern Unitarian church would have loved such sermons.

  • Maybe at one point conservatives were self-consciously pro- the already powerful, but they’re not now.  They’ve deluded themselves into thinking that the groups they don’t like are also powerful.  Yes, their persecution complex is dumb, but they do feeloppressed by atheists and women and ethnic minorities and gay people (and liberals generally, of course).  They think that the status quo is basically socialism.  They hate the status quo, as they understand it.

    Yes and no.  They’ll switch from “we’re an oppressed minority” to “we’re the majority, so what we say should go” according to convenience.

  • P J Evans

    They’ll switch from “we’re an oppressed minority” to “we’re the majority, so what we say should go” according to convenience.

    Both of which are wrong: in one case, because they’re not oppresssed, and in the other because they’re only a majority at the local level.

  • Hexep

    After a certain point, though, it horks around to the wholly other direction. To quote Orwell:

    The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

  • Mark Z.

    They’ll switch from “we’re an oppressed minority” to “we’re the majority, so what we say should go” according to convenience.

    As anyone who’s been around here for more than a year or so should know, this behavior is not limited to conservatives.

  • EllieMurasaki

    [citation needed]

  • vsm

    Besides, it’s not like liberals are powerless in the United States. They’re fairly well represented in areas such as the media, entertainment, higher education and so on, not to mention the politics in solidly blue states. In this cases, the status quo is indeed liberal (or at least Democratic, if you want to make that distinction), which is a wonderful thing, but it is also quite mockable.

    Jokes about politically correct language are a good example. Non-discriminatory language is a liberal project, I believe, and one that would not be possible without a certain degree of power. Telling others to change something as personal as the way they speak is not a small thing. This is why mocking the project can be funny: the comedian can present themself as a lone voice of reason against a vaguely defined group of absurd characters telling you to change. Of course, in this case liberals are not quite powerful enough to achieve hegemony, but it doesn’t matter in comedy. It’s enough that an attempt to use power was involved.