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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder and the Culture of Humor

Humor is cultural, by which I mean that, generally speaking, there has to be some cultural common ground between two people if they are going to share a laugh.  Now, I'm sure there are some brilliant exceptions.  You could probably drag out some classic, silent Charlie Chaplin footage and show it to me and a tribesman from Papua New Guinea and we would both laugh at it decades after it was shot.  But the overwhelming bulk of humor requires some common ground that is more narrow than simply being human.  Bill Cosby has put millions of people in stitches through his humor about the universal human experiences of growing up and raising children, but you still need to know English to really get it, and language itself is cultural.  And much humor gets a good deal more narrow than that.  There's a part of me that believes (truly or fancifully, I don't know) that Victor Borge is funny to everyone.  Maybe some of his humor is.  But I'm sure that much is not, and I'm certain that most of those parts that are universally funny become exponentially funnier in proportion to one's familiarity with classical music.

Because humor is cultural, that means that the vast majority of humor will be funny to some and not to others.  I remember the first time I saw the sketch of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean going to church.  I was with a group of a few hundred other pastors and their spouses.  I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.  I've seen it a bunch of times, and I still laugh my head off when I watch it.  The room was in a general uproar.  But there was a middle-aged black pastor in the row ahead of me and to my right who had a vague, mild, placid, serious expression on his face the entire time.  I looked at him from time to time wondering how he could be so unmoved by the video and the people laughing all around him.  Maybe his church culture was so different from the one Mr. Bean lampooned that he couldn't relate and it wasn't funny.  Maybe his cultural mores prevented him from laughing because he didn't think that it was appropriate to laugh in the setting where we were.  Or maybe he was just a sourpuss—I don't know.  But I'm guessing there was some cultural gap that I couldn't understand that had to do with why I was laughing and he wasn't.

Humor, as represented by that event, may be one of many illustrations of how culturally diverse the Church is.  And I'm not using "culture" as a euphemism for race, nationality, or ancestry.  America is a culture.  Churchgoing America is a subculture.  White Evangelical Protestant America is an infrasubculture.  Doctrinally Reformed White Evangelical Protestant America is an infra-infrasubculture. And "Young Calvinist" Reformed White Evangelical Protestant America is an infra-infra-infrasubculture.

It is this tiny slice of the human pie that Ted Kluck and Zach Bartels identify themselves with and delightfully skewer in Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder: A Good-Natured Roast.  Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder is an inside joke, and if humor is cultural, then I suspect that the potential for hilarity grows the tighter the circle that understands it gets.  The things that I laugh at the hardest to this day are things that only my wife understands, because they are things that we've experienced together with hardly anyone else.  To us they are gut-busting; to virtually everyone else on the planet they are so unfunny, they are incomprehensible.  This is Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder.  If you're at all familiar with the ways of the tribe, it may be one of the funniest things you read all year; if not, it might as well be a joke in Russian (no, make that Dutch—see, that's a joke that a Reformed person would get).

Now, I'm guessing that most people reading this blog will have difficulty tapping into the exquisite satire of the "Young, Restless, Reformed," "neo-Calvinist," "all 'gospel' all the time" (that last label was mine) movement of the past decade, if in fact you even understand what that jargon means.  But here is a short test to see if you are among the chosen (for those who didn't catch it, another Reformed pun):

1. Do you have a particular affinity to John Piper or R. C. Sproul?  If so, you might be fit for YRR.

2. Do you find appealing Al Mohler, Mark Dever, or C. J. Mahaney?  This book is for you.

3. Do you recognize the names Tim Challies, Justin Taylor, or Greg Gilbert?  For crying out loud, are you telling me YRR isn't on your shelf yet?

4. Do you know anyone who gives you books by one or more of the above personalities multiple times a year?  YRR is the friend who will always listen and never judge you.

5. Do you read the Bible preferably in the English Standard Version (ESV)?  Close enough.  Exclusively?  Yeah, baby.

If none of these apply to you, this book won't make you laugh.  No, wait—buy it anyway for the illustration of Dave Ramsey on page 39.  That's actually worth the price all by itself.

So one more remark of a semi-profound nature that makes my blog the Towering Force for Good that it is.  One of the things that makes Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder so appealing is that it satires a tiny subculture that used to be a teeny-tiny subculture.  In other words, few people are targeted by this, but those few are prone to think that they have become way more notable than they actually are in the grand scheme of over 6 billion people on Earth or even 1 billion professing (even if nominal) Christians.  Satire of the pretentious is delicious; satire of the humble is impossible.  The humility of Ted and Zach is their satire of the pretense around them.  Their work reflects their conviction that while the gospel is eternal, universal, and indescribably important, the incarnation of it among the particular humans they share life with is fleeting, relative, and rather insignificant.  It is a reminder for us all to look carefully in the mirrors that are the Christians who aren't like us to delineate sharply between the word of the Lord that abides forever and ourselves who are grass that are fading away (Isa. 40:6-8).

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