What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

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True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.

true-detective-posterI watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.

It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows – check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.

The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.

Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.

Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.

And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.

What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.

And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.

The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.

Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:55-58)

 

The structure of hope

Continuing musings on eschatology, this is my artistic 😉 reproduction with slight edits of a diagram on the structure of hope from a chapter by James K A Smith ‘Determined Hope: A Phenomenology of Christian Expectation’ in Volf and Katerberg’s The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity. Eerdmanns, 2004.

This structure could apply to hope for sunny day in Ireland tomorrow (doubtful), to Rory McIlroy’s winning of the US Masters in April (possible – here’s hoping), to Marx’s hope for a utopian society, to Daniel Dennett’s hope for a rational world free of religion, to Christian hope in a new creation.

Hope has a subject (the person who hopes). That person puts their hope in something (the ground of hope) – an act of faith. This hope is put into action, actively hoping for a desired future outcome.

That outcome is good – to hope is to hope that things get better. To expect things to get worse is not hope, it is fear and depression and angst.

There then comes a point when the hope is fulfilled. It reaches its ‘end’ – hence Christian eschatology.

Which raises an interesting question which I hope to come back to – What actually do Christians hope for? If you are a Christian, what are you hoping for regarding the future life beyond death? What is desirable about the new creation to come? What most excites and motivates you in the here and now?