Character and humour

I have to admit, in real life I’m not really very funny. I laugh a lot, but am not very quick with the kind of observations necessary for humour. I admire people with wit.

I think our culture in many ways admires wittiness: the ability to quickly respond in a relevant but unpredictable way that can elicit laughter. Those who can’t do this are often perceived as being less intelligent in general; those who can are gifted with a higher than average charismatic allure.

This prizing of wit can also encourage a culture of cynicism: every statement, every thing, is seen as a potential for humour. Watch a few episodes of Family Guy and you will see what I’m talking about.

In light of all this, I found it fascinating what some older commentators said on the following verse in Ephesians:

Eph 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

Calvin:

4.Neither filthiness. To those three — other three are now added. By filthiness I understand all that is indecent or inconsistent with the modesty of the godly. By foolish talking I understand conversations that are either unprofitably or wickedly foolish; and as it frequently happens that idle talk is concealed under the garb of jesting or wit, he expressly mentions pleasantry, — which is so agreeable as to seem worthy of commendation, — and condemns it as a part of foolish talking The Greek word ?????????? is often used by heathen writers, in a good sense, for that ready and ingenious pleasantry in which able and intelligent men may properly indulge. But as it is exceedingly difficult to be witty without becoming satirical, and as jesting itself carries in it a portion of conceit not at all in keeping with the character of a godly man, Paul very properly dissuades from this practice. (155) Of all the three offenses now mentioned, Paul declares that they are not convenient, or, in other words, that they are inconsistent with Christian duty.

Matthew Henry:

Now these sins must be dreaded and detested in the highest degree: Let it not be once named among you, never in a way of approbation nor without abhorrence, as becometh saints, holy persons, who are separated from the world, and dedicated unto God. The apostle not only cautions against the gross acts of sin, but against what some may be apt to make light of, and think to be excusable. Neither filthiness (Eph_5:4), by which may be understood all wanton and unseemly gestures and behaviour; nor foolish talking, obscene and lewd discourse, or, more generally, such vain discourse as betrays much folly and indiscretion, and is far from edifying the hearers; nor jesting. The Greek word eutrapelia is the same which Aristotle, in his Ethics, makes a virtue: pleasantness of conversation. And there is no doubt an innocent and inoffensive jesting, which we cannot suppose the apostle here forbids. Some understand him of such scurrilous and abusive reflections as tend to expose others and to make them appear ridiculous. This is bad enough: but the context seems to restrain it to such pleasantry of discourse as is filthy and obscene, which he may also design by that corrupt, or putrid and rotten, communication that he speaks of, Eph_4:29. Of these things he says, They are not convenient. Indeed there is more than inconvenience, even a great deal of mischief, in them. They are so far from being profitable that they pollute and poison the hearers. But the meaning is, Those things do not become Christians, and are very unsuitable to their profession and character. Christians are allowed to be cheerful and pleasant; but they must be merry and wise.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown:

jesting — Greek, “eutrapelia”; found nowhere else in the New Testament: implying strictly that versatility which turns about and adapts itself, without regard to principle, to the shifting circumstances of the moment, and to the varying moods of those with whom it may deal. Not scurrile buffoonery, but refined “persiflage” and “badinage,” for which Ephesus was famed [Plautus, A Boastful Soldier, 3.1, 42-52], and which, so far from being censured, was and is thought by the world a pleasant accomplishment. In Col_3:8, “filthy communication” refers to the foulness; “foolish talking,” to the folly; “jesting,” to the false refinement (and trifling witticism [Tittmann]) Of discourse unseasoned with the salt of grace [Trench].

Wesley:

Nor foolish talking – Tittle tattle, talking of nothing, the weather, fashions, meat and drink. Or jesting – The word properly means, wittiness, facetiousness, esteemed by the heathens an half – virtue. But how frequently even this quenches the Spirit, those who are tender of conscience know. Which are not convenient – For a Christian; as neither increasing his faith nor holiness.

Adam Clarke:

Nor jesting – ??????????? Artfully turned discourses or words, from ??, well or easily, and ?????, I turn; words that can be easily turned to other meanings; double entendres; chaste words which, from their connection, and the manner in which they are used, convey an obscene or offensive meaning. It also means jests, puns, witty sayings, and mountebank repartees of all kinds.

Now, no doubt Matthew Henry (the sole commentator above to make this point) is correct that there is such a thing as inoffensive jesting. But the push towards wittiness does seem to have with it a dangerous psychological tendency. Something worth considering in our daily walk, anyway.