by Stephen Ferguson  |  12 November 2019  |

As a long-time reader of and more recent contributor to Adventist Today, I am regularly struck by how often someone raises the following sort of puritanical objection against an article they don’t like:

“I feel saddened to think that some of us easily make puns out of spiritual matters. Salvation issues are grave matters.”[1]

To avoid any doubt, the above comment was not made about an article I wrote.[2] Nevertheless, I felt a little outrage when I read it, given people have said much the same about me. I can’t talk about other wonderful contributors, but I’ve had people say I am not being serious, threaten to cancel their subscriptions, call me an apostate, and I have received full-blown hate mail. I admit, however, I am not yet in the major league of being labeled a Jesuit.

Alas, for some of us such reactions tend to follow our church work, amateurish as my own may be. On average, every sermon I give results in about one to two complaints. I think the record is seven. I once had a heckler disrupt the divine service for five to ten minutes in front of several hundred horrified congregants, as he delivered an impromptu rebuttal against my claim that a good Adventist should support the building of mosques, on the grounds of religious liberty.

In print, I’ve compared Jesus to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, devoted an article to suggesting left-handedness was a sin (tip: it wasn’t about being left-handed), contended Adventists make terrible monks, asked if Adventists are like Hasidic Jews, used Star Trek as a metaphor for death and resurrection, compared Ellen White’s prophecy to the mental programming of Westworld robots, questioned if Desmond Ford was really the Dark Lord of Adventism (hint: he wasn’t), submitted Christianity is internally Marxist, and once asked if the 2015 General Conference Session vote against women’s ordination will result in the mass circumcision of SDA pastors. I am especially proud of possibly writing Adventist Today’s first-ever piece specifically dedicated to the topic of anal sex.

A close non-Adventist friend of mine calls me the would-be Milo Yiannopoulos of Adventism. While I don’t think the opinions and lifestyle choices of Milo and I align all too much (I would suspect we are almost exact opposites), I admit I am Milo-like in that I sometimes enjoy spicing things up through provocation.

That all sounds incredibly pompous. Let me just make clear: I am not a good guy. I once asked if I would thrive in the dystopian theocracy portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale.

What I can boast about, though, and I am sure I can speak for other readers and contributors, is what I love about Adventist Today and my own South Pacific Division Adventist Record (no mere mouthpiece there): its boards and editors are brave enough to allow these discussions even to occur.

But in all seriousness, are such agitating antics biblical? The punchline of this article is “yes,” because mocking provocation, albeit in its proper context, goes to the very heart of Christ’s mission and message.

Was Jesus meek and mild?

For us supposed criminals of spiritual levity, the shocking truth is Jesus Christ probably had more in common with contemporary provocateurs than with many of today’s more serious religious leaders. Jesus said He came not for peace but with a sword (Matt. 10:34).

I think with the passage of time we have become so inured to His words that they have lost their original punch. We no longer have a sense of just how offensive Jesus could be to His own audience, what with saying:

  • old men need to be born again, in a culture where seniority of age demanded utmost respect (John 3:1-21);
  • that people are blessed when they are poor or persecuted, at a time where misfortune was considered a punishment of God (Matt. 5:10-12);
  • that His disciples eat His flesh and drink His blood, which was so abhorrent to Jewish thought with its purity laws that many of His followers left Him there-and-then (John 6:56-66); or
  • when heavily suggesting He pre-existed Abraham, basically called Himself God’s personal and unspeakable holy name, and whereupon was nearly stoned to death by an angry mob for blasphemy (John 8:58)!

Jesus also seemed to utilize a heavy dose of comedic sarcasm and irony. His admonitions about taking planks out of eyes (Matt. 7:3-5) or cutting off limbs (Matt. 5:30) were clearly not meant to be understood literally. They were puns. I suspect even our more grave and serious saints understand this, as I don’t see too many one-eyed, one-handed brethren in the churches I visit.

If Jesus were on earth today, I suspect He might well have helped craft Monty Python’s Life of Brian or become one of the anonymous authors behind BarelyAdventist. I still don’t know who you guys are but love you all the same!

We should therefore ask ourselves whether we might find Jesus more in the satirical stand-up routines of late night comedians, with their funny but serious pleadings to reform society, than we do in some of our churches. Whether Borat and Babylon Bee reflect Christ better than a thousand boring sermons.

What was the Jesus’ method?

So what was Jesus’ method here, if we had to give it a name? To invoke a common classification, was Jesus a troll? If you have never heard or fully understood the term “troll,” it is said to refer to:

“making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument.”[3]

Part of the problem is the term “troll” seems a concept still much in development. It currently lacks an agreed-upon and authoritative meaning. Applying the definition in practical terms becomes incredibly difficult.

Within this context of uncertainty about an appropriate definition, my personal view is that trolling in its truly negative and dangerous sense involves pushing people’s buttons just for amusement. It also usually involves spouting views one does not actually believe in, often hidden behind an anonymous pseudonym, and often in the nature of a personal attack. Trolling in this context basically means bullying.

Nevertheless, if we take a more literal reading of the definition, can trolling ever be positive? Is there a difference between spiritual levity for a grave purpose and spiritual levity just for laughs at someone else’s expense?  I believe there is a huge gulf between these two definitions.  Let’s explore further.

Was Jesus a “good” troll?

Obviously, Jesus existed before the internet (I know it is hard to believe) but one could argue Jesus was an analogous “good” troll. For example, Jesus’ activities were somewhat anonymous, noting what scholars call the “Messianic Secret” motif (Mark 7:36). His attacks could also be aggressive and even personal (Matt. 23:13). And if trolling is about provoking fights, Jesus seemed to be a master at that – He basically got Himself killed doing it.

Jesus’ entire crucifixion is arguably one elaborate trolling of worldly kings, emperors and their coronation ceremonies (Mark 10:37-40). Jesus’ resurrection in turn mocks death itself, breaking its power over humankind, because Christ refused to stay dead (Col. 2:15). In a sense, the Gospel message is one giant trolling effort on a cosmic scale, whereby power is inverted, the first become last (Matt. 20:16), the wise become foolish (1 Cor. 1:18), and we fools for Christ embrace the epitaph of being peculiar people (1 Pet. 2:19).

By the same criteria the apostles were probably trolls too. The best example that comes to mind is Paul’s cutting penis joke, where he sarcastically suggests pro-circumcising opponents go the “whole hog” by castrating themselves (Gal. 5:12).

But Jesus was no bully

Nonetheless, neither Jesus nor His disciples were trolls in the sense of only ever being in it for the kicks. They could be random, ironic, say and do outrageous things, pick fights and invoke explosive responses in their audiences.

However, there was always a deep and serious point. Neither Jesus nor His disciples were ever bullies – they challenged the bullies.

Jesus didn’t use sarcasm or irony to make fun of self-professed sinners. His sharp wit was reserved for those who thought all too much of themselves (Luke 18:9-14). All of us, me included, need to be careful on that one.

Jesus and the apostles didn’t give oxygen to bullies (1 Tim. 1:5-7; Php. 2:14-15), and a good moderating policy will always reflect that fact. A bully should never be given a free platform in the name of a commitment to open discussion.

The power of godly ridicule

So why did Jesus and the apostles utilize such godly ridicule? Why do comedians and provocateurs do it today? Why do writers of Adventist Today sometimes use ironic puns, when some readers think it undermines the seriousness of grave spiritual matters?

Why can’t we all just devote our time to serious matters, like at one Adventist forum I liked to attend, where almost every discussion ended up in a soliloquy on the dangers of women’s pants and cheese. Cottage cheese possibly excepted.

Medieval court jesters understood their role was to mock the king openly, but do so in a clever way, thereby talking truth-to-power. Our modern comedic equivalents are all essentially engaged in this same jester routine. This includes whether they are liberal comedians (e.g., Stephen Colbert, John Oliver or Trevor Noah) or conservative (e.g., Greg Gutfeld or Stephen Crowder). Society probably needs both kinds, to stop either side taking itself too seriously.

Gandhi with his march to collect salt, and Dr King with his walk over the Selma bridge, also appreciated this power of ridiculing shame.[4] So did Ellen White in explaining why God did not wipe Lucifer out the moment he first rebelled.[5]

Even the first Christian martyrs, whom we may not usually consider comedians, essentially mocked Jewish and Roman authorities by going to their deaths in arenas in a dignified manner, with heads held high. They used ridicule, irony, shame and comedy, although it certainly wasn’t “ha-ha” funny matter. In doing so, they would undermine and topple the world’s greatest empire from within.

In all of these cases, there is indeed an intent to provoke an emotional reaction. But that is the point. The great ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in advising a young man what to do with his life, probably summed it up best in counseling: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”[6]

Does that make Jesus a troll or not? To be honest, I think it is hard to say. Jesus certainly was an agitator, and a funny, ironic one at that. But I do think it suggests making a pun doesn’t automatically mean one isn’t taking spiritual matters seriously. Quite the opposite. The one making the “joke” is often taking it most seriously of all.

So, blessed are the cheesemakers….

[1] In fairness, the original complainant ultimately came to a different point of view, when it was further discussed with them. To that end, I have deliberately not disclosed the identity of the commentator.

[2] The comment was actually in response to the article by Loren Seibold, “A Fully-Gendered Hermeneutic – Part 2,” Adventist Today, Dec 22, 2018.

[3] “Trolling,” Urban Dictionary.

[4] “The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation”: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” Stanford University, Feb 6, 1957.

[5] “Not until the death of Christ was the character of Satan clearly revealed to the angels or to the unfallen worlds. The archapostate had so clothed himself with deception that even holy beings had not understood his principles. They had not clearly seen the nature of his rebellion”: Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p.758.

[6] Mariah Burton Nelson, “The Word Was Agitate,” Washington Post, Nov 4, 1988.

Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church. 

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