Reduced Laughter: A Review

Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.

A Review by Richard Matcham



Chapter 1 – Introduction

My title:  In Defense of the Comedic

Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc.  The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny.  The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.


Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).


On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4).  Thank God!  I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side.  They are two sides of the same coin.


All this is carried over into our Bible reading.  Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try.   Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims.  Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.


A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19).  Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills.  ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8).  I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!

Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation.  The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work.  Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.


Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11).  I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.

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Importance of Reading

BOOKSI really love books!  In fact, I have had to fight the difference between loving books and actually reading them!  Even writing this on my blog is a kind of confession in the hope that I can love books for the right reason.

As a pastor of a church, an aspiring theologian and a preacher-in-training, I have come to the conclusion that books are the oxygen of Christian ministry.

Even as I write that it feels strange!  Some may reply, “But isn’t Jesus the ‘oxygen’ of Christian ministry?”  To which I would obviously agree, but when those who have loved Jesus over 2000 years of church history are ignored or marginalised “because ‘Jesus’ (?) is always the right answer,” allows us to collapse Christian history and thought into the here, and the me and now, then I have a problem!

Christianity is always a relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son, by the Holy Spirit.  The reason why reading what others have said about this matters, is because I am simply inadequate and unqualified and altogether too temporal on the world-stage (1971 – ?) to possibly offer anything of value or substance….(and this is key)…..without the help of those who have gone before!

Enter Charles Spurgeon.

He was a man who bought books; read books; loved books.  All with the aim of helping him to live in the book – the Bible, the Word of God.

There are not many sermons on the text of 2 Timothy 4:13 – but there should be!

And the reason why Spurgeon loved books was because he understood what the Apostle Paul understood; that if you are going to think Christianly (or ‘God’s thoughts’), you will need to realise that you yourself are not the only or final authority, but that you, we, I, rely on all those who have attempted to do just that.

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments”

bad man spurgeonCharles Spurgeon was a voracious reader!  His genius was not merely in himself as one who trusted the Lord, but one who read from others that he may trust the Lord more faithfully, more joyously, and proclaim more powerfully (he wasn’t called the Prince of Preachers for nothing)!

He wrote,

“Even an apostle must read (i.e 2 Timothy 4:13). . . . [Paul] is inspired, and yet he wants books!  He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books!  He has seen the Lord, and yet he wants books!  He had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books!  He had been caught up into the third heaven, and yet he wants books!  He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!  The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, ‘Give thyself unto reading.'”                                                                                           Sermon 542 ‘Paul – his cloak and his books.’

But let’s not make reading an idol.  A sad man or woman in a lonely and cold study, pressing on to ‘know the Lord’ in pious isolation.  Never!  Reading is an act of communion, devotion, feeding, growth and worship.  It can seem to me that often, my reading of others overflows into my ministry, not as a plagiarist, but as one living and breathing what one reads.

lit-book-reviewA couple of years ago, I read an excellent book on ‘how to read books’. Lit!: A Christian Guide to reading Books by Tony Reinke.  Despite his gargantuan appetite for reading books (and comprehending them), even within a fully functioning, working and normal family life, it was a read to behold!  I marvelled at his ability to read unto-death and then some, and once I got over that, I saw his heart and it affected my heart.  Reading matters!  And reading the right thing matters even more.  It was a read unto-life, and that is a powerful and attractive thing.  Tim Chester of Sheffield ‘The Crowded House’ fame wrote of Lit! “…should you include this book in your list? Yes. Because Lit! will help you read the right books in the right way“, and doing that will fan into flame the gifts of God in you.

Obviously the one who reads theology but despises the people, the church, the world is not reading rightly, nor doing church rightly, nor ministering rightly!  Shame on that person.  Isolationist theology isn’t theology, but a mutation (un)worthy of the X-Men.

Reading is the aid, the bridge, the link with thought and future, ministry and present, that helps us to ‘gird our loins’ or to put on the armour of God.  It helps us to have something to offer when the chips are down and the time is up!  The preacher who does not read even a little here and there will probably bore the congregation to death.  He/she may get away with it for a year or two, but in the end, the recycled content will become a chore to listen to, and that is a tragedy.

Give thyself unto reading.


Don’t Despise Old Books


Of course not all old books are worth reading, but to never read a quality old book is to miss something of incalculable worth.  C. S. Lewis put it like this:

“There is a strange idea aboard that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. . . . . This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy.  Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. . . . It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.

If that is too much for you, you should read at least one old one to every three new ones. . . . We all. . . . need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.

And that means old books. . . . We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century. . . . lies where we have never suspected it. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books.”

C. S. Lewis Introduction to St. Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God.