Failing the sobriety test

Western culture has too high a tolerance for silliness. There is a delightful draw to infantile behavior, especially for men. Behaving as children, wearing funny hats, telling stories on one another, and then collapsing in fits of laughter is more a guy thing than something that predictably blesses the hearts of the fairer sex. Either way, there’s a place where doing things to make people laugh becomes counterproductive.

Without roosting here too long, I think graduation ceremonies might be an example. My daughter’s graduation was held in a church. We had prayer, exhortations to godly service, a hymn or two, and we had a couple of dolts in the back with a Freon horn (like you hear at football games). Other people, seemingly impatient with not being the center of attention, had to make do by yelling and whooping. Very few were blessed by the racket and those very few laughed like fiends at their own cleverness.

School teachers, Sunday School teachers?all those who deal with minor children?are tortured all through the day by the tendency of children to have frequent “look at me” moments. I think many television programs have added to this syndrome. All the kids are smart-mouthed, all the adults are witty or stupid, and a laugh track goes wild at every tedious quip. Kids seem to think that the world should come with a laugh track.

And then there’s this item from the news yesterday. A judge in New Zealand has enforced a law there that bans children’s names that would cause offense or embarrassment. Examples of banned names are: Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii, Fish and Chips, and Keenan Got Lucy. Lest you think this censorship has gone too far, Number 16 Bus Shelter was ruled an acceptable name for a child.

Celebrities in the U.S. have a history of embarrassing their children by naming them silly things. Frank Zappa gave us Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Ahmed. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship, named a child “god.” Good sense overcame her later and she changed the name to China. Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps in revenge for her own name, named a child Apple. Bruce Willis has children named Rumor and Scout. Perhaps these don’t rise to the glories of Fish and Chips but they’re not different.

I’m fairly sure we will never have a Supreme Court justice named Apple and that New Zealand will never have a Nobel Laureate named Number 16 Bus Shelter. The names alone will ensure the children’s paths will not go that direction.

A dictionary definition of “silly” is “exhibiting a lack of common sense or sound judgment.” A good antonym of silly is “sober.”

The pastoral letters of Paul and 1 Peter use exhortations to be “sober” and “sober-minded” as calls to be clear-headed and sensible. You can see the relationship with the concept of sobriety as a contrast to drunkenness. It does not mean somber or humorless. I interpret this word to additionally include an aspect of knowing and respecting the difference between important and trivial things.

The sober-minded among us can celebrate a child’s graduation without being rude or foolish. Someone who can tell the difference between the significant and the trivial will not answer every question with a smart remark. Sensible people don’t name their kids something that only seems funny when they’re drunk.

I think being silly has its place, albeit a fairly small place. Joking around is conducive to bonding within a family or friendship. Silliness can lighten the mood when that is appropriate. Little kids love it when Grandpa is goofy or Grandma acts like one of the kids. That’s all precious and it’s a bit intimate. Maybe that’s why public foolishness is not so funny to most looking on?it immodestly displays something personal to a general crowd.

And I also see a difference between someone who performs in an intentionally silly way and amateurs who foist their own attempts on an unwilling audience. It is not, by definition, inappropriate to tell a joke or goof in a performance for people who want to experience it. Even so, some comedians become rude, even irreverent, when they make light of things that matter or make innocent people the victims of the joke.

Innocent people are the victims when parents name their kids after fast food. I’m somewhat sympathetic with the idea of a law that protects 9-year-old girls (such as Talula Does The Hula, etc.) from being humiliated by the names inflicted on them by juvenile parents.

This might be a good place for Christians to be countercultural. While we might not be so energized as to initiate laws against silliness, maybe we should work harder to teach our own children what’s appropriate. Maybe Dad (speaking to myself here) shouldn’t fall back on the goofball role quite so often. I think pastors should consider humor to be the cayenne pepper of their sermons and use it very sparingly. Turn off sitcoms and cartoons that teach your kids to be relentlessly mouthy.

When Christians model joy and good sense at the same time, we season a culture that easily loses any understanding of moderation. If we avoid the desire to be the constant center of attention, we just might attract the interest of that one who’s looking for a grownup to help him answer important questions. When that happens, it’s good to be sober.

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