Curing Sadventism, Part 1: Don’t Laugh

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Curing Sadventism, Part 1: Don’t Laugh

Pastor Doug Batchelor, president of Amazing Facts, is one of Seventh-day Adventism’s most popular televangelists. He emphasizes end-time prophecy and champions conservative views on issues such as jewelry and women’s ordination, to the delight of his 75,000-plus Facebook followers.

On March 18, 2014, those faithful followers’ world slid off its axis when they beheld an announcement creeping across their newsfeeds: “Amazing Fact: Doug Batchelor to Join Dancing with the Stars.” When incredulous believers clicked on the link, an article informed them:

Doug Batchelor’s organization Amazing Facts has stated in a press release that Batchelor will be joining this year’s season of “Dancing With the Stars.” The move is being described by Pastor Batchelor as a way to “take television outreach to an amazing new level.…I think this may be the new frontier of outreach.”

The reactions of people who commented on the article ranged from outrage to bemusement and even loss of faith.

“Not happy about this move,” wrote Diana Mooney. “Stepping into the Devil’s playground is not a good way to gain a following.”[1] George Morumbwa offered a different perspective, proclaiming faith in Doug’s judgment and saying it reminded him of “Christ’s character traits and how He mingled with sinners.”

However, the vast majority of comments reflected the morose view of Pedro M. Comia, who called for special prayer and expressed fear that thousands of souls would be endangered—including his own. “Pastor Doug,” he wrote, “please don’t help Satan to fail my faith in Jesus.”

Many readers obviously failed to realize that the entire article was a joke. But instead of providing an anodyne, the explanation that Barely Adventist, the publisher of the piece, is a satirical website only exacerbated the angst of some Adventists. Lawrence McDonald wrote, “The Holy Spirit never works with deceit,” and asked those at Barely Adventist to stop “in the name of Jesus.” Preston Beach labeled satire as “completely unchristian” because it “ridicules a person or idea” in order to “exert pressure for change” which “borders upon the Satanic.”

While the majority of Batchelor’s Facebook community felt pity for those using humor to persecute their beloved celebrity pastor, others viewed satire as “wasting our time” in light of God’s impending judgment. Darren Nicholls, chagrined at how many of the faithful took the piece seriously, asked, “You think in a dying world with 3 angels message to preach and 7 plagues about to drop its time for joke?”

Abigail Titus provided perhaps the pithiest post that condensed the fury of flummoxed believers around the world: “Humor is not a means of furthering Christ’s kingdom.”

The swell of trenchant comments eventually elicited an official response from Doug Batchelor on his Facebook page:

Recently, a website posted a fictitious story that I would be participating on the television show Dancing With the Stars. If true, that certainly would be an amazing fact! Of course this is just someone’s idea of a joke. For one thing, anyone who knows me knows I can’t even Hokey Pokey.

Batchelor linked to a video where he shared “the other reasons I don’t dance,” but offered one caveat: “When I get to heaven and see the ‘bright and morning Star’ I will probably leap and dance like David. Until then you have nothing to fear.” He concluded the post with a reference to Matthew 5:11-12, where Jesus tells His followers to rejoice when people persecute and say “evil things” about you.

A Groundswell of Humor

Seventh-day Adventist administration seems to agree with some members’ anti-humor sentiments. During its 2014 annual council meetings, the executive committee of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (NAD) “unanimously adopted” a four-point statement encouraging “civil discourse.” Point number three states:

We resolve to avoid the use of sarcasm, cartoons, anecdotes, parody or any other form of insinuation to diminish the reputation or personhood of others.

With women’s ordination on the docket for the General Conference Session in 2015, NAD President Dan R. Jackson, along with many other delegates, “expressed concern about the tone of the debate that has been raging at various levels of the Seventh-day Adventist world church.” Jackson exhorted those present in the meeting to “discuss issues with the understanding and compassion modeled by Christ,” according to an NAD NewsPoints report.

T-shirt from sdacaricatures siteThe statement specifically naming satire, parody, and “any other form of insinuation” as essentially opposed to the methods of Jesus is a response to more than a lone article about a dancing Doug Batchelor. In the past three years a number of Adventist humorists have launched successful online platforms. Sites such as Barely Adventist, TheHaystack.tv, and Adventist Caricaturist have thousands of followers due to their prolific, ebullient postings.

Humorous pieces such as the report of R&B singer Brian McKnight becoming president of Adventism’s historically black Oakwood University, bobblehead versions of leading anti-women’s ordination proponents in response to their theology of male headship, and a depiction of General Conference President Ted Wilson arm-wrestling with Rosie the Riveter continue—undeterred by official church statements. These stories continue to flummox many Adventists who have not been exposed to satirical writing within their faith tradition.

Humor (or Lack Thereof) in Adventist History

Historically, Adventists have viewed anyone with a jocose nature with suspicion—at least in print. While many factors contributed to church pioneers’ anti-humor sentiments, perhaps the most significant had to do with the ridicule that many future Adventists faced just before and after William Miller’s failed prediction of the parousia.

Writing in 1842, two years before Christ’s predicted return, one Millerite stated:

Why, in the name of truth, do not these men come out, take the Bible—and teach us a more excellent way? Why beg the question—why taunt—ridicule and resort to satire, if our error is so flagrant?

Why oppose us so bitterly, at the same time acknowledging that they know little of the subject?!… Among the “rulers,” who have of late opposed the doctrine of the Second Advent, is Dr. Brownlee of N. Y. The following, which we find in the New York Tribune, uses up that satirical D. D., so completely, and shows the weakness of strength so perfectly, that we have thought it would be interesting to our readers.[2]

From the beginning, due to persecution, some viewed the use of satire as indicating a weakness in knowledge of truth.

Post-disappointment Adventists vituperated humor and laughter with original poetry. Laura Hutchins, writing in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, quipped:

Oh why wish for laughter? The wise man hath said,
That laughter is folly, yea, laughter is mad.
Oh how can the Christian choose folly and mirth,
While God hath a work for his people on earth?
How reckless to jest, and the moment let slip,
When thou shouldst speak words that are holy and fit.[3]

Apparently laughter and God’s work do not mix.

Even Adventists willing to acknowledge the presence of satire within the Scriptures placed caveats on it:

How very pure the language used by the Saviour. He very rarely used satire, and when he did, how very free from harshness….Let us by diligent study of the purest, loftiest, holiest speaker, even of the meek and lowly Jesus, learn to use sound speech which cannot be condemned.[4]

Meek and lowly Jesus, according to this early Adventist, never used abrasive language within His scant satire.

Comedy in the Pulpit Elicits Frowns

Perhaps the most scathing anti-humor piece, written shortly after the official formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, appeared in the July 5 edition of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Penned by James White, the second General Conference president, the article, entitled “An Enemy Hath Done This,” excoriated the use of humor with the sacred:

And besides all this, there is a numerous class of the community who can only visit places of amusement; and to secure the attendance of these, as well as to gratify our own carnal inclination, we must convert the Church into a sort of play-house.…There must be something to excite their risibilities, and fill their mouths with laughter…

The responsive “amen” of the devout worshiper is no longer looked for or desired among us. Nor is there much in our pulpit exercises to call it forth. Much less do we tolerate the old-fashioned Methodist shouting in our congregations.…But while we shrink from these pious demonstrations…we can well endure the bursts of carnal laughter, and rounds of clamorous cheering, excited by our comical, pantomimic, merrymaking exibitions, and might not be greatly disturbed in our feelings, were the scenes of the declining apostolic Church to return.…We exceedingly loathe this religious buffoonery—this charlatanism of the pulpit—this holy fun—so much in vogue among the ministry of our day, and we would now and forever bear our protest against it.

“’Tis pitiful
To court a grin,
When you should woo a soul;
To break a jest, when pity should inspire
Pathetic exhortation.”

We are deeply pained with such shameful prostitution of the sacred desk.[5]

The vehemence with which James wrote can perhaps be attributed to the great personal sacrifice he and his wife made to keep the church going, in contrast with some other Adventists who, like those outside the Millerite camp, went about life as usual—without a sense of the imminent return of Christ.

“Holy Solemnity” Versus “Vain Laughter”

Ellen White, sharp on the heels of her husband, penned numerous anti-humor sentiments throughout her career. Dwelling on the nature of the incarnation and its implications, she wrote:

Follow him [Jesus] along through his life and ministry. He was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. These professed Christians would be ashamed of the meek and lowly Saviour who wore a plain, seamless coat, and had not where to lay his head. His spotless, self-denying life would condemn them; his holy solemnity would be a painful restraint upon their lightness and vain laughter…. They would be among the first to try to catch him in his words, and raise the cry, Crucify him! Crucify him![6]

Elsewhere Ellen White suggested that “trifling conversation, jesting, and joking” grieve guardian angels[7] and that “lightness, joking, and trifling” display a lack of “simplicity” and “often wound the cause of God.”[8]

She cautioned preachers that the “spirit of jesting and joking, of lightness and trifling is a stumbling block to sinners.”[9] Years later she commented about a particular minister’s personality that possessed an “unfavorable” influence, explaining that “the cause of God is in no need of unconverted, jolly ministers” and that “one man with a light and jovial disposition will do more in leavening the churches with the same spirit than ten good men can do to remove the impression.”[10]

The 1888 General Conference (GC) session in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one of the most noted and controversial moments in Adventist history. Law and grace, prophetic interpretations, young blood and old guard, collided to produce what many writers pejoratively labeled “the spirit of Minneapolis.”

Reflecting on the meetings in 1888, Ellen White wrote to one delegate, I. D. Van Horn:

I was led from room to room occupied by our brethren at that meeting [the 1888 GC Session at Minneapolis], and heard that of which every one will one day be terribly ashamed…the ungodly jest, the satire, the sarcasm, the wit; the Lord God of heaven was displeased with you, and with every one who shared in the merriment, and in the hard, unimpressible spirit. An influence was exerted that was Satanic. Some souls will be lost in consequence.[11]

In a reply to White’s letter, Van Horn expressed shame over his involvement with the “merriment,” “satire,” “sarcasm,” and “wit” that many enjoyed during what should have been a time of serious theological dialogue.[12]

Shortly after this letter exchange, Ellen White reiterated her previous position about mixing humor and holiness. Writing of Jesus, she said that He

never mingled cheap symbols and figures with his divine instruction, or sought to pander to curiosity or to gratify the class that will listen simply to be amused. He did not bring sacred truth down the level of the common, and the comical illustrations that some ministers of the gospel use were never uttered by his divine lips. Christ did not employ illustrations that would create amusement and excite laughter.[13]

A Victim of Sarcasm Talks Back

Others picked up on this line of thought during the 1890s. E. J. Waggoner, a key personality at the 1888 meetings and a significant, if controversial, young theologian in the Adventist faith, felt the ridicule keenly. Many of his post-1888 pieces specifically targeted laughter as detrimental to spirituality.

In April 1897, Waggoner produced a piece entitled “Something About Laughing” in which he cited Psalm 126 to indicate that while not all laughter is condemned, it is shallow at best:

There lies before me a report of a recent gathering on an important occasion, when several ministers addressed the assembly. One of them, in speaking about “Consecrated Intellect,” said that there was nothing he dreaded so much as the witty and ingenious preacher who bristled with nice little stories, made his audience laugh once or twice in every sermon, and sent them away with the delightful feeling that they had been to an entertainment instead of listening to the solemn voice of God.

Any earnest speaker would rather be encouraged by bright, eager, earnest attention, and a half unconscious smile that indicates the reception of a new idea, than by laughter.…Too much laughter indicates absence of thought.[14]

Not only are storytelling, ingenuity, and laughter inappropriate in the sharing of the gospel, but laughter indicates a lack of mental activity.

Waggoner’s growing antipathy toward humor can be seen in a back-page piece in which he wrote about a gathering of ministers:

Thickly sprinkled through the stenographic reports appear the words, “laughter,” “loud laughter,” “prolonged laughter,” “applause,” “cheers,” etc., besides occasional mention of hisses or groans. It seems as though the spirit of these ministerial gatherings is far removed from that of Paul, who said, “Woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel.” We have in the Bible quite full reports of several addresses by Christ, Peter, Paul, and others of their time, but not a single funny thing appears, nor was there any laughter on the part of those who listened.[15]

For Waggoner, still smarting from Minneapolis, the presence of laughter indicated a lack of piety. The result was a view of Scripture and the lives of Jesus and the apostles completely devoid of humor.

Straight-faced Delivery

Even through the twentieth century, Ministry magazine (an Adventist publication for pastors) ran pieces exhorting pastors to avoid the comical.[16] There are so many anti-humor pieces within Adventist literature that “Thou shalt not make people laugh” could almost be formulated into one of the church’s fundamental beliefs. No wonder the colloquialism “Sadventist” has found a place among the general membership.[17]

But is humor really antithetical to holiness? Can satire and Scripture coexist? Is Adventist theology an inherently lachrymose endeavor, and must Adventists present the good news with an expression befitting the delivery of bad news?

Part 2 will explore humor in the Bible, during the Protestant Reformation, and within Adventist history to assess whether there might be valid precedent for Adventists to laugh—even at themselves.

______

Notes:

[1] All quotes in the next few paragraphs are from the comments section at http://barelyadventist.com/amazing-fact-doug-batchelor-to-join-dancing-with-the-star/

[2] “Dr. Brownlee, D. D.,” The Signs of the Times, and Expositor of Prophecy, 4, no. 10 (November 30, 1842), emphasis supplied.

[3] Laura C. Hutchins, “Be Sober and Watch Unto Prayer,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 13, no. 10 (July 22, 1858).

[4] J. Clark, “Sound Speech,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 11, no. 20 (April 1, 1858).

[5] James White, “An Enemy Hath Done This,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 24, no. 6 (July 5, 1864).

[6] Ellen White, “To the Brethren and Sisters,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (June 10, 1852), emphasis supplied.

[7] Ellen White, “To the Saints Scattered Abroad,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (February 17, 1853).

[8] Ellen White, “Testimony for the Church,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (January 6, 1863).

[9] Ellen White, “The Transforming Grace of God,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (June 10, 1884).

[10] Ellen White, Letter 15, 1890.

[11] Ellen White to Elder I. D. Van Horn, Letter 61 (January 20, 1893).

[12] Elder I. D. Van Horn to Ellen White (March 9, 1893).

[13] Ellen White, “Christ, the Teacher of Righteousness,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (August 6, 1895), emphasis supplied.

[14] E. J. Waggoner, “Something About Laughing,” The Present Truth, vol. 13 (April 7, 1897).

[15] E. J. Waggoner, “Back Page,” The Present Truth, vol. 15 (October 19, 1899).

[16] Thomas A. Davis, “Humor in the Pulpit,” Ministry Magazine, 29, no. 5 (May 1956), 17.

[17] Sadventist.blogspot.com, ragamuffinchild.wordpress.com, and elsewhere.

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Seth Pierce pastors the Puyallup SDA Church in Washington State and is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication.