Why you gotta be so mean?

I’ve got that ear-worm of a Talyor Swift song stuck in my head…


I’ve started researching what I hope becomes my next full length book. It’s based on the idea that the role of “pastor” can and should be thought of primarily as a “court jester.” I’m working with the title Jester/Pastor. We’ll see if it flies.

Part of what intrigues me about the Jester is the granting of the license. Jesters, also called “fools,” typically fell into one of two categories: the “natural fool” and the “licensed fool.”

Natural fools were those who’s very person amused others. From what I can glean in my limited research, these were people who had some sort of cognitive, communicative, or physical difference that set them apart from the typical population. A lack of awareness granted society permission to get a laugh at their expense.

On the other hand, there were Licensed Fools. These were performers who were trained, called, and granted permission to not only amused the court and the populace, but were also welcomed into a ruler’s inner circle. They often became an advisor of sorts. Licensed Fools were granted permission to say things that others might be thinking. Because of this freedom, Fools developed an ability to couch hard truths in humor, to soften the blow a bit, to allow those being critiqued to save a bit of face. Because of the trust engendered between a ruler and their fool, this was a delicate dance and the Fool needed to know the temperament of the ruler in order to be successful. Say too little and you’re not fulfilling your duty. Say too much and you’ve forgotten your place. And there were dire consequences for forgetting your place…

This reality is called the “Limit to the License,” and every Fool did well to remember it.

I want to suggest that pastors are like Licensed Fools. We have the privilege of being welcomed into people’s lives and we get to say things to them that others are not allowed to. But there is a limit to this license because we are not the ruler.

The limit to our license is found in the recognition that when people are on the spiritual path there are certain things they can hear and certain things they cannot. That is not their problem; a fish does not know it is in water. We must be very careful when we speak publicly. We might go too far. Like the Fool at court, we may amuse those watching, but if the Ruler cannot hear our critique then it is useless and could, potentially, be life/career threatening.

Recently, a prominent pastor has been offering what many believe to be a good and accurate critique of the Spiritual But Not Religious. In truth, I think I’m prone to agree with the theology and ecclesiology behind the argument, but I fear that this pastor has bumped up against the “Limit to the License.” In trying to offer a clarifying word, I believe that meanness has been the result. There are claims at humor, but it feels too much like when someone cuts you down and then cries, “KIDDING!” I’m not buying it. The damage has been done.

I am particularly sensitive to this because it is a tendency of mine as well. Ask anyone with whom I’ve ever argued and they will tell you that I can be a real asshole. I mean, seriously: a Class-A, #1 Asshole. I was trained as a writer and actor, was a state champion debater, raised in a religious world that prized apologetics, a personality that makes me think I’m the most original person on the planet, and have a lot of psychological baggage to work out. If you go toe to toe with me, you may win, but you’ll get beat up pretty badly. I can make you question your very sense of self worth. It’s ugly. But it’s not okay, and I’ve spent my adult life trying to reckon with it. The need especially became clear when I became a “Licensed Fool.”

So, fellow Fools, we have been called to embody something more honorable. We fail – Lord, we fail! – but we have to learn to admit it, make restitution if need be, and resolve to do it differently next time. We should live our lives in such a way that we are never asked, “Why you gotta be so mean?”

12 thoughts on “Why you gotta be so mean?

  1. I’m doing a sermon series on humor for lent. Think you can hurry this book up at all?

    Several replies:

    #1 not sure about the title. I like the idea of a play on words between Jester/Pastor, but I think it could be cleverer.

    #2 I don’t think the Lillian Daniel situation fits under the limit of the license description. It is more that she is teasing people she hasn’t been given license to tease at all. Going beyond her jurisdiction as it were.

    #3 On the limit of the license concept, I hope you don’t make it a focus of the book. I hear far more about what Pastors are not allowed to say then what they are. I’d rather most of the book be an encouragement to greater tomfoolery (because we’ve been given the license) with a single chapter on the limit of the license, then vice versa.

    #4 Are you aware there is a genre of medieval painting depicting Jesus as the fool? Surely some rich fodder for you there. I’d also look into the tarot and the archetype of the trickster in mythology (if you’re not already).

    #5 Also, why not pull from contemporary stand-up comedy? As I think I’ve already heard you say on FB before there are some comedians out there who deliver truth on an incredible level. Jon Stewart, Louis CK, Colbert, Carlin, Chris Rock etc…

    Okay enough annoying advice giving. Sounds like a cool concept.

    • Hey, I’ll willingly take advice from someone who’s a part of a collective named for tomfoolery!

      1) Yep – I’d want something more clever as well, and yet, not too obscure. I’ll probably open source it.

      2) I think that’s one aspect of the Limit, but I’ve not done enough research yet to know.

      3) Totally – the chapter on Limit will be the cautionary tale towards the end.

      4) I am slightly aware of it. I only have one book, but if you’ve got links handy, send them to me.

      5) Beatrice Otto, the Grande Dame of Fools, suggests that cartoonists and Comedians are “place holders” for the role of Fool. She thinks that the Court Jester motif will have a resurgence. I’ll certainly take cues from those amazing Comics, but I want to see if she’s right. I suspect that what Comics have to offer may be primarily applicable to the perfomative aspects. Not sure yet.

  2. You really hit it… the role of jesters, and how pastors can get the truths across in the same way. We (AG in Mesa AZ) have a pastor who fills that bill!

  3. Scattershot responses:

    On the name thing, there’s an archetype called The Holy Fool. I think Jesus in many ways was an embodiment of that, and there are some others in history. In any case, “Holy Fools” might be an option for the book name.

    Also, I want to “huzzah” much of what Aric wrote. ESPECIALLY the part about Lillian not having the licence to tease the people she’s targeted. I think one of the aspects that her approach highlights – and in my opinion is The Single Essential aspect of being The Fool, is that the Fool is meant to speak truth to power. You have to be a boundary-dweller to be a Fool. You have to either have one foot in the the Mystery and one in the Natural (like a Natural Fool) or you have one foot on the outside of the power circle and one foot inside, (a Licensed Fool). Either way, the idea is to tell the Ones in Power things that no one else will tell them (as you wrote above). The Fool tells the Ruler truths about what it is like to be the Ruled. But Ms. Daniel is using her teasing to tell the Ruled that they ought to stop whining, shut up and let the Ruler rule them. She’s speaking FOR the Power, not TO the Power. That’s where I think she’s wrong.

    And honestly, even though I know you personally don’t emulate the Pastor-as-Authority-Figure approach, the fact remains, most of The Church still tends to roll that way. I hope that’s something you wrestle with as you explore the pastor-as-fool paradigm in your writing.

    Next, my own take on something Aric touched on – It is obviously true in practical terms that a Fool who goes beyond the limits of her “license” could end up in big trouble. Why? Well, it’s because the Power/Authority/Ruler believes ITSELF to be the one granting the license and thus in control of its terms. But the Fool – at least any Fool that’s worth anything – knows that the license comes from an authority BEYOND that of the Power/Authority/Ruler in question. Otherwise it’s useless. And inevitably, any Fool that’s really doing her job is going to need to go beyond the line that the Power/Ruler believes is appropriate in order to stay true to the job. The Fool will piss off those in power because the Fool MUST cross the line. The Fool must be faithful to her calling to the point of death – even death on a cross. Because perhaps the single most important truth that needs to be spoken to Power, over and over again, is that the Power is not the all-powerful badass that it thinks it is. There is something MORE to which even the Ruler is subject.

    So, how does that sort of thing mesh with pastoral vocation, at least in terms of the prevailing notions of pastoral vocation? At this point, I think the paradigms are pretty incompatible. It’s hard for me to see either the Pastor-as-Shepherd paradigm or the Pastor-as-Authority paradigm meshing with the true task of The Fool. I think the Fool has to be someone else in that mix or it becomes a conflict-of-interest. BUT, that’s me, speaking from my own pain and bias, and I admit that freely. I’m not putting this out as a means of shutting down your project or claiming it can’t be done. I’m putting it out there as push-back, a challenge I honestly think you can tackle, and I look forward to you doing so.

    Lastly, the way you describe your own journey in terms of personality/temperament makes me resonate a lot with you (yet again), as that has been my journey as well. Somehow you’ve had the faith and maturity to keep your faith and calling intact, whereas in my immaturity and frustration I’ve allowed myself to escalate to the point where I became as mean and abusive as the institutions that abused me. So much that I’ve given up on engaging with it. I’m too scared of what I have to lose and the friends and loved ones I will alienate if I keep speaking the truths that my heart tells me the Powerful in the Institutional Church ought to hear. I’ve given up trying to be Jon Stewart to the Church. I’ve tossed aside my Fool’s license.

    I honestly hope you never choose to toss away yours.

  4. Might be interesting to look at the angle of The Emperor’s New Clothes tale. Another role of the Licensed Fool – or lack of one, so a child was licensed.

  5. Your ideas are intriguing, Landon, and make me recall lots of situations when I’ve played this role. When I was a parish pastor, I often took advantage of my position to ask members questions that no one else seemed to ask. I didn’t necessarily use humor, but I did somehow convey that I had a license to be a tad impertinent, and no one ever objected. Most of the time, people were really relieved that someone had finally broached the topic and given them permission to talk about something I had intuited was important–and turned out to be. I still use this approach from time to time. Once, I asked a nephew who was in art school about his long-term dreams for his art. The whole rest of the family leaned forward in their chairs to hear what he was going to say. As a distant in-law, I could just be curious, and he didn’t mind my asking. If anyone else in the family had asked, the question would have been perceived as loaded, even judgmental.
    What I’m wondering about your idea is, Who is The Ruler?

    • I would say, in regards to a pastor as jester, the Ruler is the congregation as a whole and the individual members of it. I would probably want to work out this relationship based on what I started in OSC, where I set the entire chapter on leadership in Jesus’ declaration that we are “servants” and “slaves” in Mark 10.

  6. You should contact Chuck Campbell, homiletics prof at Duke Divinity who taught for many years at Columbia Theological Seminary. Great guy. He’s written a book on powers and principalities and pretty much made the Jester-fool theory his career. When he was honored with the homiletics chair at Columbia with a service in the seminary’s chapel, a jester sat in the chancel and made all kinds of gestures. It was classic! Chuck also gave a great speech about the importance of the fool as it relates to the faith and the gospels, the street preachers, the prophets, etc.

  7. Religion is a waste of time.
    You and fools deserve each other.
    At least fools have the decency not to pretend they’re speaking on behalf of someone invisible who demands obedience.

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