In Praise of Folly

Although I just wrote a biography about a man dedicated to the art of practical joking, I can’t stand April Fool’s Day. Because even if I were clever enough to come up with hilarious practical jokes, I’d feel guilty about making other people to look foolish.

But driving to work today, it struck me that I’m actually quite okay with engaging in regular and occasional practices that make me look the fool, what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “One deficient in judgement or sense…”

I mean, look at how I rolled into the office this morning:

That’s right: I not only spent a bunch of money ten years ago on a 40th anniversary Minnesota Twins replica jersey, but once a year I wear it to work.

So on this rare occasion when Opening Day for Major League Baseball happens to fall on the first day of April, let me acknowledge how foolish it is to be this much a fan of a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004 — an 18-game losing streak unparalleled in the history of American professional sports. I was a junior in high school the last time the Twins won the World Series — and that still makes them a more recent success story than any of the other Minnesota-based men’s teams I root for.

And yet I indulge in this foolishness, year after year, and even advertise it to the world. As I noted five Opening Days ago, baseball fans are foolish enough to believe in what John Updike called “an indefensible hope” — that they love a sport defined both historically dense layers of statistical evidence for the regularity of failure… and by Updike’s “density of expectation” that such odds will be defied.

Sure, that year’s version of the Twins ended up losing more games than any other in the team’s history. But it didn’t erode my love for them, or my hope for next year. And a foolishness rooted in love and hope is one that any Christian should understand. (More on that before we’re done…)

Now, I should underscore that this is the one day when I wear a Twins jersey to work. Ordinarily, I wear what you’d probably imagine a middle-aged male professor to wear: a blazer and slacks with no tie if I’m feeling dressy; khakis and a plaid shirt otherwise. But all that conformity to expectations disguises another, more radical kind of foolishness: my conviction what I do as a history professor is going to make a difference in students’ lives.

There’s little reason for my students to think so. When I teach about the origins of the Reformation this morning, I’ll be in a classroom adjacent to our Business department, the biggest on campus, talking about Luther and Erasmus with students who are all majoring in a STEM or pre-health care field. And they’re there because they have to be there: it’s a gen ed course, required for graduation. I don’t dare to believe that what animates their studies is something so foolish as love of a discipline as impractical as history or theology. I don’t think they hope for anything more out of the class than a better grade on next week’s exam.

And yet I’ll spend fifty minutes trying to convince them to love their complicated, troubling neighbors in the past, to care about things that happened long ago, far away, having no immediate impact on their lives. What does that make me to my thoroughly practical, pre-professional students but another OED definition for a fool: “One who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others…”?

And all in the hope that I’m planting seeds — asking questions, suggesting different perspectives, challenging assumptions — that will unexpectedly germinate at some point in their time at Bethel — or maybe later — and help them more consistently to glorify God and seek their neighbors’ good as followers of Jesus Christ.

Tintoretto’s painting of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at their last supper together – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Have I mentioned that this April Fool’s Day is also Maundy Thursday?

The day before Christians come to the Cross — whose “message… is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” — we come to the Table, to partake in an irrational mystery and be reminded of “a new commandment” (in Latin, a mandatum, hence “maundy”) from our footwashing lord that makes little sense in a politically polarized, culture-warring society: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

Foolishness upon foolishness: a day that begins with the rejuvenation of my love and hope for adults competing in a child’s game and continues with the reiteration of my love for the humanities and my hope for Christian liberal arts education will end with rededication to mutual love, and to hope that God will again bring new life out of death.

Happy April Fool’s Day!