I was baptized at the age of nine by a pastor named Ham, and people found this hilarious. “An Adventist pastor named Ham!” they’d cry, wiping the tears from their eyes. “Your baptism probably isn’t even legitimate!” “A better name would be Pastor Stripple!” Even now, in an age with a great many more sources of humor—thanks especially to the Internet—the name kills.
Nowhere else in Christendom can you get quite as much mileage out of Levitical law or meat substitutes. Or, for that matter, persecution. Anywhere outside of Adventism, make a crack about the cave you will one day inhabit, or your eventual but certain death in the electric chair, and you’ll get a nervous stare.
Our jokes never get threadbare, either. When I lived in England and my children were small, our church offered a selection of hot drinks after the service. These included both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. Every single week offered a variation on the same riff:
“No, I need the stimulating effects of the caffeine, thanks. If you could throw in a pinch of black pepper, that would be awesome.”
Here the server would pull an exaggerated face, wag a finger, and say, “Ooo-ooh”—and then go ahead and pour the coffee. No one actually stood in judgment—they were offering the coffee, after all—but everyone felt compelled to 1) note that we were breaking ranks, and 2) make a joke of it.
What does this say about Adventists? Perhaps merely that we’re the kind of people who care very much about doing the right things, that we realize we lack consensus in some cases as to what those things are and exactly how important to make them, and that in spite of our differences we do agree to coexist as a somewhat messy and often incoherent community of sorts. That in spite of our hardline rhetoric, we really do understand that people are where they’re at—and that some of them are young mothers who never get quite enough sleep. And I love that about being a Seventh-day Adventist.
In spite of a great mass of apparent evidence to the contrary—including the occasional church member who has gravely cautioned my husband against undue “levity” in his sermons and everyday conversation (and he’s British, so what do they expect?)—I find Adventists to be a largely humorous and self-deprecating lot. I love those t-shirts that show the classic sanctuary diagram with a caption reading “Any questions?” or the ones that say “I Heart Haystacks.” How many jokes have I heard about bicycles or black pepper or watches or measuring the length of skirts? Our unique history and subculture are—let’s face it—pretty funny.
Humor always contains an element of biting truth, and the biting truth behind our humor is the recognition that we are people earnestly trying to live a life of devotion in an imperfect and messed-up world. Within the context of our deeply flawed and inconsistent selves. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry. And we’d be of no use to anyone. By joking, we bring ourselves down to earth.
Some people find making fun of faith to be sacrilegious and assume that those who engage in it are less than committed believers, but as a long-standing practitioner of levity often accused of cynicism, I can assure you that this is anything but the case. Humor demonstrates love and acceptance. You mock that which is important to you, that which you love enough and trust enough that you know your jabs can do it no lasting damage.
Among my fondest childhood memories is caroling during the Christmas season with a multigenerational group from church—spreading good cheer on porches all over the city and soliciting donations for our community services projects. What a goofy mess we were! Few of us could sing, and, as my parents often noted, those who sang the worst also sang the loudest. But we all muddled in together as best we could, sang our hearts out, giggled and tripped each other, leapt over fire hydrants, and snickered off the rude rebuffs of people who called us cult members. We had a clear view of the constellation Orion, all six stanzas of Silent Night committed to memory, a good and noble purpose, a collection tin heavy with quarters, a fistful of leaflets about the Sabbath, and each other. Back at the church community hall, we sipped steaming cups of full strength Postum, and the laughter continued well into the night.