Can Laughter Be A Weapon? (Oct – 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Gary Holloway
October, 1992

6Church is serious business. In Churches of Christ we have always taken our religion seriously, particularly when it comes to doctrinal controversy. After all, the eternal salvation of souls is at stake.

This seriousness of demeanor is seen in the photographs of the pioneer preachers in our movement. here are tough, stelly-eyed defenders of the faith, ready to debate at a moment’s notice.

One picture is different. It shows an older man with a long beard and a serious expression, but if you look closely at his eyes, you can catch a twinkle of mischievous merriment. His name is Thomas R. Burnett.

T.R. Burnett certainly took his Christianity seriously. Converted to the Christian movement as an adult in 1874, he devoted the rest of his life to spreading the gospel throughout North Texas by word of mouth and by pen. Although adequate as a preacher, he excelled as a journalist, publishing one of the first religious papers among Churches of Christ in Texas, the Christian Messenger, beginning in 1875.

Frontier journalists, particularly religious ones, dipped their pens in acid, calling their opponents every name in the book. Burnett was no exception. He could battle with the best of them, and was always ready to meet all comers in debate. However he possessed a weapon few religious leaders had in their arsenals: a finely-honed sense of humor that he expressed in doggerel verse.

Burnett was the poet of the Restoration Movement. Calling himself “the Dallas bard,” he published three volumes of Doctrinal Poetry. Not an issue of the Christian Messenger or Burnett’s Budget (his monthly paper) arrived without his latest poem that poked fun at the latest outrage performed by Baptist or Methodist preachers. Typical is his brief poem entitled Chickenology:

I am a valiant Methodist,
And wear a smiling face.
While chicken is abundant
I’ll never fall from grace!
Though sorrows sore beset me
And waves of trouble roll,
With yellow-legs about me
There’s glory in my soul!
I’ll shout my way to heaven,
And sing until I die,
Just stuff me full of dumplings
And lots of chicken-pie!

Those of us currently in Churches of Christ may be embarrassed by such language. It may confirm all our prejudices about our past: that we were a narrow, bigoted, mean-spirited people. What frees Burnett from such a charge is his ability and willingness to turn a humorous eye on himself and his own brethren.

In Burnett’s day, the Churches of Christ in Texas were undergoing a great transition. Small rural churches had been the norm in his youth, but now large city churches were springing up, churches that built great buildings in a desire to be like their religious neighbors. Burnett described this Modern Church:

Well, wife, I’ve found the modern church,
And worshipped there to-day:
It made me think the good old times
Had surely passed away.
The meeting-house was finer built
Than they were years ago,
But then I found when I went in
‘Twas mostly built for show.
The pews were luscious to behold,
The cushions of the best,
For when they labored with their souls
They gave their bodies rest.
The spires reached up to the sky,
The pulpit was the boss,
And built in finest style of art,
And hidden from the cross.

Not just the building, but the attitude of this modern church aroused his ire:

I saw the people coming in,
Their silks a rustling made,
They did not come to worship God,
It was a dress parade!

Finally, the preacher of the church came under Burnett’s gun:

He did not say confess your sins,
Believe, repent, or pray,
You could not tell there was a soul
That needed aught that day.
He spoke of the “esthetic taste”
Of this “progressive age,”
And said each plays a brilliant part
On life’s theatric stage.
We live upon a “higher plane”
Than did apostles old,
And we should not becloud our minds
With ghostly tales they told.

Burnett was no old mossback, afraid of any change in the church. But the urban churches of his day (and ours) did face the danger of being subverted from their true calling by falling into materialism. He fought that danger with sermons, articles, and books; but his most effective weapon was parody.

Even the most serious doctrinal controversy did not escape his satire. Churches of Christ in his day came close to dividing over the issue of rebaptism. Should believers immersed in the Baptist Church be required to be rebaptized to enter the Church of Christ? The question may have little interest to us, but it prompted one Texas preacher, Austin McGary, to begin a new paper, The Firm Foundation, to defend the necessity of rebaptism.

To Burnett, the whole controversy was silly, a “quarrel over words” (1 Timothy 6:4). If Baptist baptism was not valid, then all the early leaders of the Restoration movement were not truly baptized. As he says in his poem A Hobby Straw:

Old brother Campbell, and his dad,
And Jacob Creath, A Baptist lad,
And Raccoon Smith, and Walter Scott,
All Baptist sheep – a sorry lot!

To Burnett, rebaptism was McGary’s “hobby,” a cranky obsession that threatened to split the church. He has McGary say:

I’ve started a great Texas schism,
And built a sect on re-baptism,
With creed and tenet nice and hobby,
And I must save my blessed hobby!

Burnett’s poetry did not end the rebaptism controversy, but it did help put it in perspective. What seemed like a crucial issue to some was really quite insignificant. Instead of producing defensiveness and anger, it deserved only laughter.

So who was T.R. Burnett? Just a crank with a gift for silly poetry? Hardly. He was a well-respected preacher who spent his years travelling through Texas in appalling conditions to preach the gospel. In his journal of his travels he left this typical entry from December 25, 1866:

Had intended to start meeting, but snow was falling and the weather grew worse and worse. Put out appointment to speak on Christmas day, but weather too cold for people to turn out. Rode over the neighborhood and made up a club of subscribers for the Messenger. Very hard travelling – exceedingly cold, and bushes bent over the road with sleet until my horse could hardly get through at places.

To Burnett, Christianity was serious business. He gave up wealth, endured hardship, and faced ridicule in order to preach. But he also knew when to laugh.

What can today’s church learn from him? No doubt many in the church today do not take their Christianity seriously enough. But many of us make everything a matter of faith and salvation, feeling we must be right and prove others wrong in every doctrinal controversy. Perhaps what we need most in the church is a good laugh, a funny poem. After all, laughter is sometimes our greatest weapon against the Evil One.

Just ask T.R. Burnett.Wineskins Magazine

Gary HollowayGary Holloway teaches Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. See his book Living in God’s Love at the ZOE Life Store and his article “An Invitation to Live in God’s Love”, co-written with Earl Lavender in our Spiritual Formation issue and A Starting Point for Missional Churches: Growing Deeper and Wider in our In Christ Alone issue. E-mail him at [gary.holloway@lipscomb.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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