“The lack of humour and irritability into which we in the contemporary Church and contemporary theology have so often slipped is perhaps one of the most serious objections which can be brought against present-day Christianity,” wrote Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German Catholic theologian, in his book An Introduction to Christian Faith . I’ll say: some Catholic priests make you wonder how they can say that they “celebrate” the Mass when they never crack a smile.
It’s not just a Catholic problem. The Rev. Martin Marty, the distinguished Protestant theologian, author of many books and over 5,000 scholarly articles, told me that certain aspects of the Protestant tradition have always struck him as “grim.” In a recent interview Marty said, “Hilaritas is not characteristic of the Protestant ethos.”
Professor Marty saw that as ironic since Martin Luther, about whom Marty has written extensively, often stressed the value of “play” in his writings. He was also fond of the occasional witticism. In one of the sayings later collected in Luther’s Table Talk, one of his friends recounts Luther’s amusing way of preparing to deliver a particular homily. “Tomorrow I have to lecture on the drunkenness of Noah,” said the great man, “so I should drink enough this evening to be able to talk about that wickedness as one who knows by experience.”
Ironically, Professor Marty said that his whole career could be attributed to a sense of humor. While studying at Concordia Seminary in Missouri, he and his friends playfully concocted a fictional scholar named Franz Bibfeldt, whose fake name and spurious accomplishments they attempted to place in as many academic settings as they could--student newspapers, the school’s library card catalogue, and so on.
In response to these shenanigans, the dean called him into his office for a scolding. He told Marty that someone with such frivolity could never be a good Protestant scholar, and sent him to work with a pastor. But at that church the pastor told the young man that all his assistants studied for their doctorates. So that’s what Marty did. “So my whole professional life was thanks to a prank!” he told me.
Today you can find on the Internet references to the work of the fictional professor, including a book penned by Marty and a friend with the wonderfully serious title of The Unrelieved Paradox: Studies in the Theology of Franz Bibfeldt. Among the fanciful articles are “Franz Bibfeldt and the Future of Political Theology.”
“And I’m still accused of not being serious enough!” said one of the country’s greatest scholars of religion. “I have a real taste for humor.”