Letters from Prison, VII: Building up Laughter out of Inadequate Materials
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.
When Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, the maestro hadn’t been on stage for a performance in 12 years; he was too deaf to conduct; there’d been some embarrassing disasters.
But the Viennese were so eager to see their beloved Ludwig that the Vienna theater’s music director put him up on the podium with a baton and told his orchestra to ignore him.
When the Symphony reached its rapturous conclusion, the orchestra had stopped playing several measures before Beethoven stopped conducting. The audience leapt to its feet with thunderous applause.
Caroline Unger, the 21-year-old contralto Beethoven himself had recruited to sing the fourth movement, was standing next to him on the stage; she gently took hold of his shoulders and turned him around to face the audience, so that he could at least see the ovation he could not hear. He could not hear the clapping of their hands, so they waved their handkerchiefs so he could see their adoration.
Beethoven would live another three years and was working on his Tenth Symphony when he died, but as far as posterity is concerned, the Ninth was his final symphonic word. The text of the Fourth Movement is Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy: “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity, Daughter from Elysium.”
In 1907 Princeton University Professor Henry van Dyke was guest lecturing at Williams College, and he was so inspired by the beauty of the surrounding Berkshires that he wrote the lyrics to one of Christendom’s most beloved hymns, and set it to Beethoven’s famous tune:
All thy works with joy surround thee,
Earth and heaven reflect thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around thee,
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain,
Call us to rejoice in thee.
Sometimes St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is called Paul’s Ode to Joy, for two reasons: first because Philippians might be the final work of St. Paul that has survived to the present generation. I’ve been telling you that my guess is that Paul is writing this letter from the Roman prison cell where Paul is awaiting trial under the Emperor Nero. The Bible doesn’t tell us how and when Paul died, but tradition has it that he was executed by Nero in 64, 65, 66 A.D.
So Philippians is Paul’s Ode to Joy first because it’s like Beethoven’s Ninth; it’s the last and best of Paul that we have.
And also Philippians is called Paul’s Ode to Joy because Joy is the repetitious refrain of this precious little thank-you note to his friends. I said it last week: some form of the word ‘Joy’ appears 16 times in this short little letter of 1,600 words. “Rejoice in the Lord always!” says St. Paul, “Again, I say, Rejoice!” Over and over and over again. He can’t help himself: every hundredth word he has to say it again: “Rejoice!”
So I want to say two things about Paul’s advice in his letter to the Church at Philippi: I have an affirmation and a question. First the affirmation. Paul’s got it right about the importance of Joy to healthy human life, right?
Without it, we aren’t much good and don’t have much fun. When the small, simple pleasures of life—the sun rising over Lake Michigan like a red rubber ball, or the Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” from your senior year in high school on the oldies station, or a kind word from your friend or your husband—when these small, simple pleasures fail to gladden your heart and brighten your countenance, you know you are in trouble and headed for some dark and unhappy place.
Who’s seen the animated film Inside Out, about an 11-year-old hockey player named Riley and the emotions determining her behavior and mood from a control panel in her frontal lobe? Don’t you think Pixar got it just right about the crucial emotions which make us who we are? The film features five emotions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, and Sadness.
And where Pixar gets it right is that Joy runs the show, right? Joy is in charge. Everybody else follows Joy’s lead. When Joy is lost, Riley is a mess. Our lives are like that. When Joy is gone, Riley can’t function; her life falls apart.
Mild spoiler alert: Sadness is eventually the hero, but Joy is still the boss. Sadness finally saves the day, but you can’t do anything—in school or in hockey or with your friends—if Joy is lost.
Joy is exhausting. One critic said that in the Pixar film Joy is the Lesley Knope of the cerebral cortex—Lesley Knope from Parks and Recreation—and not only because she’s voiced by Amy Poehler, but also because like Lesley Knope, Joy is “a sparkling whirlwind of positive energy and friendly micro-management.”
Joy can be exhausting. Nancy Reagan was deeply, deeply in love with her husband, but in her memoirs she admits that his native, relentless, indefatigable optimism wore her out. “Ronnie didn’t worry about anything,” said Mrs. Reagan, “so I had to worry for the both of us.” Joy is exhausting, but she is crucial to mental health and winsome personality.
So that’s the affirmation I want to make about Paul’s advice to the Philippians. I also have a question, though. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul. “Again I say ‘Rejoice!’” Sixteen times like that.
But here’s my question: Should the verb ‘Rejoice’ ever be in the imperative mood? Can you command emotions? Rejoice! Strange advice, don’t you think? Near the top of a list called “Pointless, Annoying Advice” would be these, “Relax!” “Calm down!” “Be patient!” “Cheer up!” “Don’t worry! Be happy!” Did you know that Bobby McFerrin stole his catchy little song from St. Paul? “Rejoice. Don’t worry about anything,” says Paul. “Don’t worry, be happy,” says Bobby McFerrin.
The problem with pointless and annoying advice like that is that it invites a person to compel an emotive response. Cognitive and kinetic activities are subject to the will, but not always the emotions.
You can tell your brain to think something, and you can tell your body to do something, but can you laugh when you’re not happy, or weep when you’re not sad?
“Brain! Think! What year did Columbus discover America? What is V-E Day? What is V-J Day? What is Shakespeare’s birthday? What is Shakespeare’s death day?” If you have studied your history, you will get an answer.
Or, “Hands, Reach! Fingers, grasp! There’s cake to be had at this office birthday party.” “Legs, run! Fast! I want this gold medal at the Olympics?”
Cognitive and kinetic goals can be achieved, but what about emotive commands. I once conducted a funeral for one of the most indifferent fathers I’ve ever seen. He didn’t hit his son, but he also didn’t talk to him. For 15 years he ignored his son, then he walked out and abandoned him.
And so there’s this man’s 25-year-old son at his father’s funeral trying desperately to feel sad for the sake of appearance. He thought people would talk if he didn’t cry, so he kept trying to conjure up sad scenes from his youth, Bambi and Old Yeller, the episodes from Lassie where she gets lost. But he told me, “I am not happy. I am not sad. I am just empty. I just feel cold. “Cheer up!” “Have a good cry; you’ll feel better.” Pointless and annoying advice.
So my question for St. Paul is: Should you ever put the verb ‘Rejoice!’ in the imperative mood? Still, that’s what Paul says from his Roman prison cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice!” And in the end, Paul’s advice is appreciably more profound than Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry! Be happy!”
Notice what Paul says. “Rejoice in the Lord.” Joy’s location is in the Lord. Other foundations of happiness shift, crumble, and decay; Jesus endures, redeems, raises our dead hearts out of the dust, gives us time tinged with eternity.
Paul goes on. He says “The Lord is near.” You may think you are alone. You may think the life has been crushed out of you and you are lost in the middle of a dark wood alone where the straight way was lost, but the night is always compassed about by sunset and sunrise, and there is always that Unseen Companion matching your stride step for step.
Joy is the work of the Christian life. Paul Tillich said, “Joy is not easy to attain. It is and always was a rare and precious thing.” Someone asked the atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche why he was wasn’t a Christian, and Nietzsche said, “Christians are no fun; they are joyless. Jesus’ disciples should look more redeemed.” Yes? Do you look redeemed?
Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Eight years earlier, in Mein Kampf, his own 1925 Letter from Prison, Corporal Hitler had tried to tell us what he wanted to accomplish, but almost nobody outside Germany bothered to read it. By the time the first English translation of Mein Kampf became available late in 1933, Corporal Hitler had already been Chancellor Hitler for almost a year.
In February of 1933, three weeks after he became Chancellor—three weeks!—the Nazis were already turning an old munitions factory into a concentration camp near the charming Bavarian town of Dachau. It would become the stockyard for those Hitler would call untermenschen—subhumans.
From the very first day, the German Church fell on its knees at Hitler’s feet in adulation. He promised an end to the long German nightmare that began in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. Some German Christians said, “We no longer need Jesus of Nazareth. Adolph Hitler is the only Savior we need. Jesus was a sissy. We need eine mannliche Kirche—a manly church, a church on testosterone.”
They started referring to Herr Hitler as Sumus Episcopus—the Supreme Bishop. A common prayer at the sacrament of baptism for baby German boys in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s was “Dear Lord, may this baby grow up to be just like Adolph Hitler.” Not like Jesus Christ, but like Adolph Hitler.
Almost nobody recognized that the Führer would become more like the Anti-Christ than anyone else in human history. A few did, though. The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood what it meant when you take Jesus away and replace him with an imposter, with a golden calf. He knew it from the beginning.
Two days after Hitler became Chancellor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address in which he noted how easily a Führer—a leader—can morph into a Verführer—a MIS-leader. It probably won’t surprise you that the broadcast was cut off when Dr. Bonhoeffer was in mid-sentence.
“Jesus was a Jew,” said Dr. Bonhoeffer with a kind of relentless monotony. “Jesus was a Jew! If you lose the Jews, you lose Jesus. If you kill the Jews, you crucify Jesus again. Only those who cry out for the Jews,” he said, “have the right to sing Gregorian chant.” Only those who defend our Jewish brothers and sisters have the right to sing the most sacred and sublime CHRISTIAN music that has ever been sung.
He was one of the only Christians in Germany to get it right. Many German Christians shared his misgivings about Hitler, but almost no one shared his courage.
He was a beautiful soul. In January of 1943, he became engaged to a young woman named Maria. He was 36, she was 18. When she was 12, she’d been one of his Confirmation students. He flunked her. But all was not lost. They met again when she was 18 and the connection was instantaneous.
Their courtship was filled with joy and good humor. Maria says that near the beginning of their relationship Dietrich was telling her what it took to be a good preacher, and he boasted that at the beginning of his ministry he’d memorized his first ten sermons word for word. Maria says, “I immediately fled the room for fear that he might try to prove his point right there on the spot.”
Maria says that he was so happy to take her on a date in Berlin to a restaurant that was owned by Hitler’s brother. “It’s the safest place in town,” said Dietrich, reasonably.
Three months after his engagement, he was arrested for disloyalty and thrown into a Berlin prison. His Letters from Prison sound like St. Paul, like another Ode to Joy: “My past life is brimful with God’s goodness, and my sins are covered with the forgiving love of Christ crucified.” “In Jesus, God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and the firm ground on which we stand.” He talked about “a gleeful defiance of nothingness.”
He was executed at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945; I hope that date breaks your heart. He died three days before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 21 before Adolph Hitler, and 29 days before Germany’s surrender. Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau were all liberated days after he was hanged. The dream of marriage, home, and family with Maria which kept him alive throughout his imprisonment was never to become a reality. As he was led away to the gallows, he said to his companions, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck says that the Joad family learned its joy from Ma Joad. For this family beset behind and before with tragedy, grief, loss, and poverty, her joy was the rock against which they all leaned for support.
Steinbeck writes, “She was the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken.” He says, “Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and superhuman understanding…And since her husband and children could not know hurt and fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.”
A. O. Scott, “Pixar’s Inside Out Finds the Joy in Sadness, & Vice Versa,” New York Times, June 19, 2015.
Lou Cannon, “Nancy Reagan, an Influential and Protective First Lady, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, March 7, 2016.
Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being (New York: Scribner’s, 1955), p. 142.
See Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh (New York: Knopf, 2014), especially chapter 8: “Theological Stormtroopers on the March.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Touchstone, 1997, first published 1953, expanded thereafter) p. 413.
Bonhoeffer, in letters to Eberhard Bethge on August 21 and 23, 1944, in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings, eds. Geffrey Kelly & F. Burton Nelson (Harper SanFrancisco, 1990). P. 513
The words of Bonhoeffer’s biographer Charles Marsh in Strange Glory, op. cit, p. 366.
Geffrey B. Kelly & F. Burton Nelson “Editors’ Introduction,” A Testament to Freedom, 44.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1989, originally pub.1939), 100.