Irreverent (but Respectful of Boundaries)

Certain words delight me. They find their way into my speech and writing, partly because they have deep meaning. But, they also usually possess something interesting as words in either a visual or auditory sense. For instance, I love the word “paradigm.” Ever since I read Joel Barker’s book on the subject years ago, the concept (and that silent ‘g’) have given me immense joy.

I was reminded of another delightful word recently. In closing an email, a friend signed off with “Yes at times irreverent, but respectful of boundaries.” What an absolutely wonderful expression! Of course, now that I travel the path toward a life of ministry, the word “irreverent” has new meaning. How exactly does a minister act irreverently? Can a “reverend” be irreverent?

Well, I certainly intend to explore irreverence as a “reverend” in my ministry. For one, I strongly encourage people to challenge assumptions in their lives and to facilitate paradigm shifts. My most commonly asked question is “Why?” Why do we follow certain rules and behave in certain ways? And, please, never expect me to accept as a valid answer, “Because we have always done it that way,” unless you are able to substantiate the tradition with detailed justification.

Another favorite form of irreverence is humor, particularly satire. My ministry is as informed by the “sermons” of George Carlin as it is by any theologian past or present. Humor gives us permission to lower our guard, so that we can examine ourselves safely and with an open spirit. The act of laughing relaxes our bodies and eases tensions that might make us less open to insight and sharing.

Perhaps my favorite form of irreverence is the use of popular culture as religious metaphor. I frequently infuse imagery from movies, television, and so-called “lower” art forms into my sermons. This summer, I delivered a sermon on the Gospel According to Ed Wood, and I am currently writing a paper on Themes of Religious Humanism in the films of George A. Romero. If someone had not already written them, I would have composed religious education curricula on the Simpsons, Star Trek, and Dr. Seuss.

Irreverence, however, should be wielded with a substantial degree of precision. Like any tool in the arsenal of the minister, irreverence can hammer a point home, or smash its intended target indiscriminately. Sometimes, paradigms exist for legitimate reasons. Sometimes, making light of a topic is simply not appropriate. And, sometimes, we need to appeal to a “higher” state of intellect, emotion, and being to achieve a desired affect. So, I shall strive to always maintain a healthy irreverence, while remaining mindful and respectful of boundaries.