Maxwell and Mcuzi of Malawi aren't able to feed their family of five because of environmental degradation - image courtesy of Clive Mear, Red & Green Marketing.

Maxwell and Mcuzi of Malawi aren’t able to feed their family of five because of environmental degradation – image courtesy of Clive Mear, Red & Green Marketing.

I’d tried to explain to my dad that I was only kidding—a common excuse given by children who’ve been caught red-handed—but he was quick to reply, “Son, some things just aren’t funny.” This week, I’ve been reminded anew of the truth of his words.

On Monday, I penned a column entitled, “Is Mark Driscoll this generation’s Pat Robertson?” that referenced some of the more controversial statements of both men. The introduction to the story centered on a recent comment made by Pastor Mark at the Catalyst Conference in Dallas, Texas where he remarked that he drove an SUV because God was going to burn up the Earth anyway.

I was careful not to address the character of either preacher in the article. My assumption is that both men are, for the most part, well meaning even if their words don’t always express the intentions of their hearts. Instead, I hoped to begin what I believe is a much-needed conversation on the prudence of rhetoric.

Apparently, the article did not go unnoticed. I had a lively conversation with the Communications Director at Mars Hills Church and then Pastor Mark posted an article addressing the Catalyst comment.

“I told some jokes,” Driscoll said of his talk. “People knew they were jokes, as the laughter was loud enough to hear with the ears God specially designed in part for listening to jokes.”

Upon reading this, my mind returned to the moment I’d first received word of his comment. I was sitting on a rough-hewn bench in Malawi, talking to a Christian family who are suffering the effects of environmental devastation. The soil will only produce enough food for eight months, and they don’t know how they’ll survive the latter part of this year. I wonder if they’d think the joke was funny.

I thought of the man I’d met in the Appalachian region of the United States whose life has been devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining. I stood on his porch while he sobbed uncontrollably. The coal industry’s practices have polluted their community’s water sources, and they are now experiencing higher-than-normal rates of cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer and increased mortality. I wonder if he’d think the joke was funny.

I think of my 5-year-old nephew who is showing the early signs of asthma. Our city, like many in the United States, is experiencing record high levels of childhood asthma as a likely result of air pollution. I’m certain his parents wouldn’t think the joke was funny.

“Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death,” the book of Proverbs reminds, “is one who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking.’”

Solomon knew something we often fail to comprehend as children and refuse to learn as adults: language can hurt people. And when someone harms others with their rhetoric, claiming they were only joking isn’t all that helpful. After all, some things just aren’t funny.

The lesson here does not seem to be that every one needs to lighten up, but rather that we—all of us, myself included—need to be wise in the words we choose. Speech is one way we love our neighbors and demonstrate our care for the “least of these” who often don’t have the luxury of joking about such things. If we refuse to learn this lesson, we’re likely to lose credibility. For when one chooses to repeatedly make serious issues into laughing matters, the comedian becomes the punch line.

71 Comments

  1. So just to be clear, are you saying that if Driscoll, or anyone else, wanted to drive an SUV, they are responsible for Maxwell not being able to feed his family?

    • Really, that’s what you got out of the article? It is not what I read.
      What I read was as church leaders we need to be gracious and beneficial when we speak. I think that’s the gist of the article. I’m no enviro-fanatic but in Gen. 2:15 “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” God gave Adam a charge to steward the land. As believers we should not be so ignorant as to fail to acknowledge that man can cause harm through our actions to our environment. In a spiritual sense Adam brought death into the world which started the earth on a spiral toward ultimate destruction in the physical. One man’s actions tangibly affected the created order. Why should we not think God would want us expect us to steward His creation. I’m not throwing stones at Pastor Mark or anybody else for what they drive. That’s really not what it’s about. But I do believe we should choose our words carefully and not be ignorant of their potential harm and the harm their message can bring. If we basically “give the finger” to the world with our words “jokes” is that being beneficial?

    • That’s obviously not what Jonathan is saying. But what I’ll say is that, yes, he is responsible for just not giving a shit about the consequences his actions produce. As long as he’s got his (i.e., salvation and what he considers correct theology), the rest can burn.

      This is a general trend with Driscoll. He doesn’t care about the effects of his caustic remarks about effeminate men, violence, gender roles, etc. A lack of environmental concern/stewardship is just the next logical point on the insane chart this guy is plotting.

    • They are contributing to it, yes. Just like someone throwing their candy wrapper out the car window is contributing to litter.

      The problem is clear, the solutions are less obvious, but we have the technology ,and Discoll has the cash btw, to buy more fuel efficient and less polluting vehicles. Don’t give me the he has 5 kids excuse either, he chose to have 5 kids, that doesn’t excuse him to wreck the world with gas guzzling vehicles and clothe them in sweat-shop made clothing just because he thinks it is too expensive to be a responsible global citizen. Any parent that excuses their behaviour due to a large family that can’t afford to be responsible has to really consider exactly who they think they are to clothe their children with cheap clothes made by children in truly poor circumstances. Maybe they need to sell a few of their kids to a factory in Bangledash to support ethics (since they don’t see anything wrong with kids making clothing there). Think about it that way.

  2. a thorough trinitarian understanding that emphasizes relationality to all things would help us understand the connectedness of all creation–from SUV drivers in the USA to those living in drought in India. Augustine’s imago trinitatis is a good example. also, Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.

  3. Yep, when you have to explain a joke it’s a sure sign you weren’t joking very well, if at all. “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’” (Proverbs 26:18-19.) It seems that Mr. Driscoll pulls out the only joking card often. Why do so many people not get his “humor”? Because it’s not humor, it’s something else entirely. Wish I could think of the word for it.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Mr. Driscoll’s apologists have raised the humor defense at my place too: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/mark-driscoll-smacks-down-rebellious-evangelicals/

  4. Does anyone have the complete text or video of the catalyst comments?I have been unable to find them. The original article references a second hand reporting without any reference to the complete comments.

  5. Come on Margaret,
    Getting upset and blogging against a fellow worker in the Kingdom of God by calling him out and thusly putting your ‘followers’ vs his ‘followers’ is exactly the kind of thing that undermines the Gospel.

    Then trying to blog, yet again to defend yourself is worse.
    If you have an issue with Mark, take it up with him first – not the communications director, and not via posting public bloguments. Isn’t the scriptural thing to start by a one-on-one conversation?

    My two cents, take ‘em or leave ‘em.

    TG

    • Follower of Christ

      So do you think that the apostle Paul approached Peter privately to discuss the error of his public comments about circumcision before confronting him publicly?

      Matthew 18 is for private offenses. If Mark had felt that the Matthew 18 process had been incorrectly circumvented, he could have approached Jonathan himself rather than having his communications director do it.

    • “Getting upset and blogging against a fellow worker in the Kingdom of God by calling him out and thusly putting your ‘followers’ vs his ‘followers’ is exactly the kind of thing that undermines the Gospel.”

      No it’s not. Undermining the gospel is preaching things as gospel that are contrary to the gospel.

  6. “For the record, I really like this planet. God did a good job making this planet. We should take good care of this planet until he comes back to make a new earth, like the Bible says he will.

    So at the Driscoll house we recycle a lot; we organize our lives to drive very, very few miles in a vehicle; we buy local organic produce…” – Mark Driscoll

    This all seems a bit petty to me. I think we need to decipher between something being objectionable on its own grounds, and someone objecting because they don’t like it. These are two very different things and I think the latter applies here. Maybe the joke didn’t make you laugh, but just because you find it offensive (enough to write a blog about it) doesn’t mean that he did anything wrong. As he says in his response, he’s actually very careful and caring about the environment. This is the ugly side of blogs – it gives people a new platform to judge from the outside without having all the facts, which itself is not a wise choice of words.

  7. Interesting defense Pete, but Pastors are held to a higher standard than you or me. He represents God’s people on earth to a world full of unbelievers. I did not think Driscoll’s jokes were funny or cute but I am certain that Richard Dawkins loved them.

  8. Jonathan, is it your custom to investigate everyone for the appropriateness of their jokes and weigh in on whether they pass the “Jonathan Merritt seriousness” test, or just Driscoll. I applaud your work in Malawi, but you are far, far too serious, and too obsessed with Driscoll. Let. It. Go. Sir. You will be a far happier person.

    • For the sake of “the world” out there paying attention I’m am grateful when other Christians speak out against any nonsense from whomever, Pat Robertson and Driscoll alike. We must be salt & light out there and sometimes a public response is just that.

    • I’m glad that it is Jonathan’s custom as a journalist/writer to investigate “every one”. There have been many told throughout the history of our shared planet to “let it go”. For my sake, and the sake of others, I’m glad they didn’t.

  9. So let me get this straight. Driving an SUV means that a person supports the devastation of strip mining in the Appalachian mountains? These are some broad brush strokes.

    I think in both Malawi and coal mining areas have a more complicated story than just environmental results from destructive decisions. I believe the scattered personal experiences of Jonathan being used to generalize the evidence for planetary destruction is faulty.

    I find this whole discussion something worth laughing about.

  10. Ronjour Locke

    I usually don’t comment on blogs, but I noticed the proverb quoted, and I’m just wondering, how was Driscoll deceiving others? Isn’t the “madman” in the proverb one who is intentionally deceiving others for “fun”? To tell a joke at a conference doesn’t seem to qualify for this proverb. But that is all I will say, lest I ignore the wisdom of the preceding proverb: “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.”

  11. I think Driscoll’s response highlights my biggest concern with him. I think he is a good man and that he preaches the Gospel. But he seems to show a considerable lack of maturity and wisdom in his speech. And not just on occasion but as a practice. We all have flaws that we battle with so I am more than willing to extend grace to Mark in these situations. But at some point he needs to be honest about his shortcomings in this area.

  12. Thanks, Jonathan Merritt for writing this for it is a great reminder. I think everyone that is commenting about SUVs and the environment is completely missing the point. We, as Christians, not just leaders like Mark need have have wisdom and discernment on the words we use. They have the power to heal or to hurt. To encourage or to tear down.

    My pastor convicted me a few weeks ago when he said “Funny doesn’t make wrong right.” He was talking about entertainment, but it applies here. Joking at the expense of others might be funny, but it doesn’t might it right.

  13. You know, I am not a ‘fan’ of Driscoll. I haven’t read one of his books. But I tell you what – Merritt is riding a very high horse with very weak legs.

    The thrust of this article is right and true; words matter, to a degree. Jokes sometimes are not funny. Christians, particularly well-publicized leaders, need to be careful with their words. I’d be surprised if Driscoll isn’t onboard with that.

    But Merritt’s argument is otherwise an absolute train wreck. First, because his hand-plucked examples of cause and effect relationships are dubious at best. Second, because the notion that Christian leaders should not joke about various topics because someone somewhere in the world is hurting, struggling or in dire straits is not only inane in its scope but also susceptible to extreme legalism.

    If we are really concerned about how Western egotism affects lives in Africa then let’s discuss the ban on DDT and its affect on Malaria. Or how about the effect of nonsensical environmentalist policies on the environment? Where’s the mention of the 500K birds (many endangered species) killed every year in America due to wind farms? Should we not discuss the advserse effect of feel-good Western environmental policies on Africa’s farmers? What of China’s unfettered coal plants? Inconvenient truths, I suppose. Definitely not helpful when making a non sequitur about Driscoll’s choice of vehicle, that’s for sure. It is hard indeed to see the beam in one’s eye when you’re digging so hard at the speck in someone else’s, isn’t it?

    Let’s be clear: If the Law of Merritt is now in effect then all Christians everywhere need to get off the joke train immediately.

    Turn that laughter into mourning, you inconsiderate cretins; someone somewhere is having a rough go of it. Reject all morbid wit, you brutes; someone somewhere just laid a loved one to rest. No jokes about wolves in sheep’s clothing, you arrogant rich; someone somewhere just lost their savings due to corruption in the church or state or financial sector. Stop making light of all the rain, you ungrateful plebes; someone somewhere in the world is experiencing drought. Hear that one about the earthquake that knocked over the Voodoo doll and killed the Priest? Guffaw – think of the children dying in Haiti, you heartless heathen!

    It’s too bad, really, that a nugget of Biblical truth is surrounded by so much fallacious bunk with a side of self-righteous piety. It does make it easier to swallow though, as the ringing endorsements in the comments readily display.

  14. Jonathan,

    Thanks for this article. We do need to be careful with our language and remember there can be consequences we don’t expect to jokes we tell.

    Keep up the good work!

  15. I don’t know Mark and all, but was able to find humor in his comment. I felt Mr. Merritt did himself a disservice by taking that comment and blaming all of the worlds ills on him. Can I follow Merritt around and point out what I think he is doing wrong? How he is hurting the environment? If he doesn’t like or agree with Driscoll(and again, I know nothing of the person) be man enough to stand on that and not take petty shots at him like this.

  16. Very well stated. Stray comments and jokes that reveal one’s lack of understanding of the world and suffering of others isn’t really funny… especially when it’s from someone who holds a significant audience. Thank you for that reminder.

    I work with Leroy, and he was telling me a little about the trip. It sounds like an amazing and thought-provoking experience.

  17. I agree with much of what you said here about being careful to choose words wisely. My only additional thought in response is that often a joke is acceptable in one context but not in another. Being aware of your listeners is part of how we choose our words. I might make a joke to my children about “selling them off to the highest bidder” for misbehaving, but since they know I would never do such a thing and my heart toward them is good, it could be received as humor. However, if I was in a different context where it would be possible someone had experienced a real situation of slavery or abandonment, I would not make such a. Statement. My guess is Mark Driscoll would not have made those statements in the context of the families you referenced in your article. None the less, I agree we all need to carefully consider how we use our words as bloggers, speakers and believers in this world.

  18. What about bad theology? Where is the deception in Driscoll’s “joke?” It’s in his bad theology. There is no suggestion in scripture that the earth will be “burned up.” Rather, it will be renewed. N.T. Wright’s _Surprised by Hope_ demonstrates, through careful scriptural exegesis, that our eschatological hope is not in the destruction of the world, but in it’s renewal. We are going to get our bodies back, and we’re going to get this earth back, purified yes, but not destroyed. Driscoll’s off-the-cuff humor isn’t just bad humor, it’s bad theology, and I think that is a very important thing for a preacher to get right.

  19. Good grief! Do you guys not think that every single one of us in a given day will say something that someone disagrees with or finds adverse to their own opinion? This kind of thing makes me crazy. Christians need to give grace to each other, not sling insults about petty comments. I KNOW-I’m not being very graceful myself, but I hate the current trend of picking apart other Christians’ comments and being all holier than thou about it! PC meets Christianity!

    • Good point, Jane. It’s the whole log in the eye thing. That doesn’t mean that Mr. Driscoll should get a pass, though. He doesn’t do it on any given day. He does it as a matter of course. And he reaches tens of thousands of people a week with his messages. I would hope that also means he welcomes the opportunity to get better at communicating. But instead, he gives the impression, implicitly and by explicit word, that he will brook no dissent.

      Cheers,
      Tim

      • Oh good grief, just because 10,000 people listen to someone it doesn’t mean we all take every word he says as perfect (I don’t). But he has tons of good things to say. I guess you’re so caught up with the few things you don’t like you can’t hear the rest. Go listen to his Nehemiah series and say he has nothing to contribute to the conversation. Seriously…

  20. Rob Stuyverson

    If you have issues with a fellow believer go to him in private and discuss.To make a public forum of criticism is not wise or respectful of the body of Christ.Choose your articles wisely as well.If the Deity of Christ or The Holy Trinity is challenged that is another story.Let us all remember who the enemy is.

    • Oh yeah, no transparency, just do all your nitwit work in private! Mark is clearly out in nitwit land with his comments, and no apologies for criticizing him – perhaps driven by a senior editor, are worth worrying about. Clearly, Rob, you need to move to some place like Iran where criticizing public figures who make fools of themselves with illogical statements can be censored.

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  22. Linking your strong emotions about Malawi with Mark Driscoll looks like a misconnection to me. What – just because God put you there at the same time Mark was making this joke?

    Also, a joke has everything do with the delivery. Was Mark actually making fun of people who have the attitude he described in the joke? You don’t know because you weren’t there. This means you wrote out of ignorance here. This is shameful.

    Matthew 18:15-17 always has some application to disputes among Christians, and I wrote about it here:
    http://www.premodernwisdom.org/bible/grace/how-to-respond-when-a-christian-sins/

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