When reading Chapter two of A Reformation Reader, I was most struck with Luther’s letter to his wife, Katie. It is one of the shorter things written by Luther that is printed in the book, and yet, the most intriguing to me. It is so interesting to me because of the humor in relation between spouses. Humor adds to every relationship, and it is apparent that Martin Luther used it freely in his relationship with his wife. Martin Luther was not only a great theologian, but a fine humorist. In fact, according to Gritch, “Martin Luther is the only ‘church father’ who incorporated humor into his life and work. He did so by posing as a court jester (an advertised self-image), a quick wit, a facetious wag, and a sit-down comedian with humorous comments in more than five thousand ‘table talks.’” (Gritche, 132)
Why is humor important? According to Humor and Telling God’s Truth, “humor has a legitimate role in speaking God’s truth. We might be willing to argue that if the church is to speak the gospel to today’s culture, it will be required to incorporate humor into its witness” (Jacobson and Jacobson, 107). This is true today, and most certainly applied to Luther’s era as is evidenced by his following.
Humor breaks tension, invites people to share common ground, shocks people and makes them think. Luther used humor in many letters in order to convey meaning and tone to indicate caring, and to show incredible dissonance. Humor relieves the seriousness and fear one might feel in putting forth ideas that seem risky. According to W. E. Gritch,
Eschatological humor created a liberating serenity in Luther. Commenting on the only biblical passage where God laughs (Ps 2:4), Luther told his readers, “Let us laugh at raging Satan and the world (yes, even at sin and our conscience in us).”10 Such humor prevents self-righteous temptation to speculate about the “hidden” God and instead to rely only on the “revealed” God, “the Father of Jesus Christ.” Modern students of humor stress its power to guard against any presumed superiority; it “leads human self-knowledge back again from its imagined height to the right track.” (Gritche, 133)
There are those, even today who believe that humor is not the correct way to approach matters of faith and religion. In the paper on humor by Jacobson & Jacobson, they describe:
one group of Danish Lutherans that was characterized by “strict standards of conduct, such as abstinence from common amusements.”5 More recently, when one of the authors of this essay was invited to give a presentation to a church group about The Lutheran Handbook, a woman took her leave of the presentation with the comment, “I don’t think that humor belongs in church.” (Jacobson and Jacobson, 108)
however, their paper does assert that “humor is an essential part of human nature.” (Jacobson and Jacobson, 109) Being an essential part of human life, even in a time as depressing as the medieval period could be, humor helped Luther to cope with some of the more difficult discussions, as well as allowed him to enjoy all aspects of life.
This humor that Luther uses in theology to belittle Satan, to humanize God, is something that he uses in all avenues of life – including life with Katie. He opens the letter with a teasing greeting, conveying cute affection. He then goes on to inform her that he is behaving badly, but he’s proud to tell her so, in order to show her how life is without her, perhaps to offer comfort that they are not currently in the same location. “Luther tried to take care of finances as the head of a large household (five children, farm animals, student boarders, and many dinner guests) but left Katie with the ‘amazing accounting,’ addressing her with ‘dear lord’ in letters.” (Gritche, 136)
It is a comfort to use humor to confront things that we fear. Many people of that time as well as now have fears, and much of it is attributed to evil, or Satan. Many theologians spout pages and pages of theological reasons and comforts to not fear Satan. Luther has solid backing, but he adds an element of humor to discredit the devil, and empower believers in Christ.
Luther used a humorous analogy to describe the clever temptation: “as soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity.”22 Living only by the law means to fall for the devil, whom Luther came to know quite well in his monastic spiritual struggles. So one should say:
Mr. Devil, do not rage so. Just take it easy! For there is One who is called Christ. In Him I believe. He has abrogated the Law, damned sin, abolished death, and destroyed hell. And He is your devil, you devil, because he has captured and conquered you. (Gritche, 133-134)
Luther is not all humorous – serious business is discussed when appropriate in this letter to Katie – some of his dealings with local pastors and the fact that a young girl was saved – but to bring it to light he states that the devil would not be happy with that, as if we care about how the devil might feel. He also evades humor in order to show genuine love and caring for not only Katie, but the children and the boarders. His tone is also serious when discussing the gift he has sent to them, and business matters related to their operation.
Luther also uses humor as a means of chiding – rather than speaking harsh words to his wife who hasn’t written to him even though the children have, he makes a joke about it being the will of God, and that he hopes the will of God convinces her to write to him.
If humor is really a sign of intelligence (Jacobson and Jacobson, 110), we have not only Luther’s amazing theological writings in the Concord and everywhere else, we have his use of humor in correspondence to his wife, friends, and even enemies to help us see what a smart man he was. Perhaps having a sense of humor is not only indicative of intelligence, but helps to develop and maintain intelligence.
Martin Luther was not only a fine theologian, but a humorist. Luther’s use of humor in his writings helps make him relatable today. Modern theologians, people of faith, and even people in general can appreciate Martin Luther’s sense of humor, and can relate to his ideas and works in a way that can be difficult for other writers of his time. The Lutheran Church is blessed to have a church father with not only sound theological doctrine, but such a fine sense of humor to show that humans are indeed to whom God’s world belongs.