On the Biblical evidence Dr Ian Elmer concludes that the answer is "No. Jesus was not a wowser." Yet somehow Christianity has become tainted with this wowser image reflected in the questioning Ian received from one of his students. In the course of searching for accompanying images for this commentary, I was struck by how stern and formal much of Christian art is. Ian Elmer argues that in contrast to sternness and formality the Gospel stories of the Good News of Jesus are about joy and rejoicing. ...Ed
Was Jesus a Wowser?
I was surprised recently to hear one of my students describe Jesus as a "wowser" and Christianity as the world's foremost proponent of "wowserism". While I might be able to understand why a young person might express the latter sentiment (albeit unjustly), I find it difficult to see how anyone could accuse Jesus of being a "wowser".
It is without doubt one of our most colourful Aussie slang terms — "wowser". Normally used to express hearty disdain for those who are want to compel everyone to follow their own sense of morality, it has entered the Australian vernacular through various literary avenues from the popular press to bush poetry. C.J. Dennis probably best defined a Wowser as "an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder" (Stollznow, 2003).
The origins of the term are difficult to determine. Probably derived from the British dialectal word "to wow" meaning "to mew as a cat, howl or bark as a dog, wail, to whine, grumble, complain", the term "wowser" was originally applied to "a person who was 'obnoxious or annoying to the community or who was in some way disruptive' and was applied, for example, to prostitutes and public drunks" (Ludowyk, 2010).
By the turn of the twentieth century, the term had emerged in the popular imagination as a catch-all title for "[the] mealy-mouthed hypocrite, [the] pious prude, [the] one who condemns or seeks to curtail the pleasures of others or who works to have his or her own rigid morality enforced on all" (Ludowyk, 2010).
It is also true to say that the term "wowser" has been associated with religion, and particularly with Christian morality; and term has become synonymous with bible-basher and devil dodger (Baker 1970:137). Religious wowsers are commonly perceived as narrow-minded, forthright and censorious "fanatics" or "fundamentalists" and are often seen to aggressively rail against the habits or pastimes of which they disapprove, especially gambling, promiscuity and the consumption of alcohol (Stollznow, 2003).
With that brief overview of the term "wowser", we can probably now address the question: Was Jesus a wowser?
"A Drunkard and a Glutton"...
Whatever the perception of Christianity as an institution of "wowsers", a quick survey of the Gospels reveals that we cannot blame Jesus for the invention of such "wowserism". The Gospels do record many occasions when Jesus celebrated with friends and acquaintances. Indeed, at the very heart of the Christian faith stands a shared commemorative meal — the Eucharist — which draws its immediate inspiration from Jesus' final celebration of the Passover with his disciples.
At such an occasion we must imagine Jesus enjoying the geniality of the festival, sharing a few drinks and even a joke or two. There is all-too-often a related criticism of Jesus that he was a somewhat humourless individual. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Granted there was little to laugh about at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died. But the Eucharistic practice of the early Church grew, not just out of that one meal setting, but out of Jesus' ministry of table fellowship. Such occasions seems to have been ones that were filled with joy and conviviality; after all most were parties celebrating weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Jewish religious festivals.
The Gospels do record many other occasions when Jesus partied with friends and acquaintances. From weddings to Passover meals, Jesus seems to have been one who never refused a party invitation. Indeed, the Eucharistic practice that grew out of this table fellowship was meant to be one of joy and celebration — a sense of which is even contained in the Greek word eucharistia or thanksgiving.
These examples implicitly suggest that Jesus did laugh and enjoy life immensely. I would even go so far as to suggest that Jesus was, in the present-day vernacular, a "party animal" — both Luke (7:24) and Matthew (11:19) record that Jesus was accused of being a "drunkard and a glutton". Elsewhere he is accused by the disciples of John of not requiring his disciples to fast and do penance (Mk 2:18; Matt 9:14; Lk 5:33). Jesus' reply is telling. He equates his circle of disciples with guests at a wedding feast, and he goes on to suggest that through his ministry God is doing something "new", which requires a level of rejoicing.
To pursue the issue further, in the Gospels there is a sense of comradely "ribbing" in Jesus' interchanges with his disciples. For example, he seems to have had a penchant for nicknaming his closest associates. Simon Peter was called "Rock"; James and John were branded "sons of thunder" because of their tempers.
Moreover, there is inherent humour in many of Jesus' sayings. The parables, which follow the traditional conventions of folk story, utilise the "rule of three" (three characters, three scenes), which look not unlike our "Irishman, Englishman, and Australian" jokes; they even have punch lines that poke fun at the audience or authority figures. Jesus could use both irony and even sarcasm to good effect; and he was fond of puns and rhymes. There is no doubt that Jesus liked a few drinks and enjoyed a good joke!
Friend of Sinners...
We might also at this point say something of Jesus' attitude to morality. There is little doubt that Jesus was himself a Law-observant Jew. But there is no suggestion that he was particularly censorious in his attitude to those who failed to always live in accordance with the Law. On the contrary, he welcomed sinners and even shared table with them.
Scholars argue that Jesus used the practice of table fellowship to signal the eschatological message that the world as he and his contemporaries knew it was at an end. A new era was about to dawn when God would reign upon earth and all the sinners, the poor, marginalised and oppressed would dine at God's table.
Jesus understood his role in terms of Isaiah's messianic vision (cf. Matt 3:3; 8:17; 12:17; 21:4), as one who would usher in a new covenant that would bring blessings on all who were "beyond the pail" (cf. Matt 12:18-21), on the condition that they "obey everything that [he] had commanded" — i.e., the continuing validity of each "jot and stroke" of the Jewish Law (cf. Matt 5:19). Nevertheless, Jesus believed that no one was ultimately beyond redemption.
There were certainly times when Jesus could get angry and express moral outrage. Matthew's well-known "sermon on the mount" records Jesus moralising and even calling for a higher standard in moral behaviour, which demanded not just the observance of the letter of the Law, but its very spirit as well. It is not enough that one abstain from adultery, one must avoid lusting after a neighbour's wife or husband (Matt 5:27-30). It is not enough that one should not kill, but one should not even get angry at another (Matt 5:21-26).
Does Christian art contribute to this constantly somber and wowserish picture of Jesus? The Sermon on the Mount image above is more contemporary and sourced from Precipice Magazine (artist not disclosed).
Still, for all that, there is more joy and affirmation in the Gospels than there is anger and condemnation. Even Matthew's "sermon on the mount" begins with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12), which promises redemption and fulfillment to all the "little people" oppressed by societies' rulers. Generally, most English translations render the opening phrase of each line as "Blessed are they…" But the correct translation may be "Happy are they…" The Beatitudes stand (at least in Matthew) as the linchpin of Jesus' message and, therefore, the call to happiness and joy are the centre piece of Christian message. Moreover, it is a call to happiness and joy despite hardship and persecution.
The word "joy" too is an important one in the New Testament. A word search of the NRSV reveals that the word "joy" occurs 56 times (and "rejoice" 40 times), 24 of which appear in the Gospels alone. Without going into details I would cite especially John 16-17 where Jesus speaks extensively of his joy, which he imparts to his followers. Paul too picks this theme up, and throughout his letters we find numerous references to "joy" and enjoinders for his converts to "rejoice".
Returning to our question — was Jesus a wowser? — it would seem unlikely; despite the fact that he did call on people to live morally good lives. So what sort of a man was Jesus? Was he easy-going and amiable? Or was he a bit of a firebrand?
Awhile back in a series of articles on Jungian influences on Christianity I noted how John A. Sanford, in his little book entitled The Kingdom Within (1970), argues that the Gospels testify that Jesus seemed to have been comfortable and proficient in exercising all aspects ("functions") of the human psyche. In the Gospels, Jesus emerges as the template for the fully realised, or in Jung's terms "fully individuated" human being. Jesus had no shadow side to his personality; which is probably a Jungian way of saying that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. But what does this mean in terms of Jesus, the man?
Like all humans Jesus could get angry and irritated. There are a number of incidents in the Gospels that picture Jesus doing just that, either in his criticisms of the pedantry of the Pharisees or his frustrations with the obtuseness of his disciples. However, it is also equally clear, even doubly so, that joy, laughter, and rejoicing proliferate throughout the Gospels, and I suspect that such references far outweigh the references to anger. The fault is with us. We see the few references to anger and miss the many references to joy.
Jesus' dedication to sharing table, enjoying a drink and a joke with his friends, as well as the poor, marginalized and even the sinner, says something about our own Eucharistic table fellowship. Eucharist is meant to be a foretaste of the eschatological banquet. It should be celebrated with song and dance, conviviality, joy, and good humour. To do otherwise is to miss the point of Jesus' message and Jesus' commitment to table fellowship as a sign of the coming reign of God.
Jesus was no wowser; and neither should we be, who profess to be his latter-day followers.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Baker, S. J. (1970). The Australian Language. Melbourne: Sun Books.
Dennis, C. J. (1912). "The Eternal Circle". The Bulletin, 10 October, 47.
Ludowyk, F. (2010). Aussie words: Wowser URL: http://www.anu.edu.au/andc/pubs/ozwords/May_97/4._aussie_words.htm
Sanford, J. A. (1987), The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meanings Of Jesus' Sayings. rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper.
Stollznow, K. (2003). "Whinger! Wowser! Wanker! Aussie English: Deprecatory Language and the Australian Ethos". Proceedings of the 2003 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society. URL: http://www.als.asn.au/proceedings/als2003/stollznow.pdf
The image of Jesus used in the header and footer illustration has been sourced from paradigm-shift-21st-century.nl. Clicking on the other images will provide information about the original source.
Dr Ian Elmer is the Lecturer in Biblical Studies at St Paul's Theological College, ACU (Australian Catholic University). He is also on staff at the CECS (Centre for Early Christian Studies), and a member of various professional associations, including ACBA (Australian Catholic Biblical Association) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). His research specialities are Paul and First-Century Christianity. He is the author of published articles in the Australian Ejournal of Theology (AJET), Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church IV and V, and the Australian Biblical Review (ABR). His most recent publication is the monograph Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers, WUNT II.258 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2010Dr Ian Elmer
[Index of Commentaries by Dr Ian Elmer]