It’s probably not what you would describe as your typical research project.
Jesse Joyner, a professional juggler, recently shared about his dissertation, “Holy Fools: Exploring the Journey of Calling for Christian Variety Performers,” for which he interviewed 30 jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, clowns and similar entertainers who live out God’s calling on their lives. He related their experiences through a theological lens.
“In the interview data, I heard this idea of God using ‘the foolish things of the world to confound the wise’ as the heart of Christian variety performing,” Joyner wrote in “Holy Fools.” “Thus, I believe the concept of the holy fool is a useful and unique descriptor for the lived callings of the participants in this study. They are the modern holy fools, sharing God’s simple joy to the world in its manifold foolish ways.”
Joyner has been a “holy fool” himself for 16 years, performing and ministering full time after graduating from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
He started juggling at age 11 because he was a “bored middle school kid” who was bullied and not very social. After he saw his friend Tim juggle, he spent hours each day practicing and poring over library books on juggling.
That practice became a metaphor for how variety performers live out their callings, Joyner said. Since his ceiling was low, he practiced on his knees, looking up.
“It’s like a visual image of an internal truth of what it means to be a called artist,” he explained. “Offering it back up to the Lord.”
The big break
As a pastor’s son, Joyner was 13 when he gave his life to Christ. His faith and skill grew and he performed for the first time in a high school variety show.
“That was my big break where I finally came out and did my stuff on stage for other people,” Joyner recalled. “It was at that moment that I realized I did have a gift to share with the world — and that the world wants to see it. It brings joy to other people.”
About the same time, he started feeling a call to ministry and pursued a degree in Bible. While in college God revealed to Joyner that juggling was to be included in his ministry.
Years later Joyner went to seminary, where one of his professors knew he was a professional juggler and suggested he use his experience for the dissertation.
Using struggle as strength
Joyner said he was surprised at how God used performers’ struggles as a strength.
“One of the most touching examples was a full-time magician who started out in clowning,” Joyner recalled. “When he was young, he had a speech impediment and kids would make fun of him. As a teenager, he saw the Ronald McDonald clown and [he] was doing tricks. This fellow [went up to the Ronald MacDonald clown] and said, ‘That’s really neat. I want to learn to do that.’
“So Ronald McDonald taught him how to do some tricks.
“This fellow started doing shows of his own. When he dressed up as a clown and started talking, the kids loved it and thought it was so funny,” Joyner said.
“He told me, ‘What the kids didn’t know was that my clown voice was my normal voice — the one that had always been made fun of. I wasn’t changing anything. When I dressed up like a clown, the kids loved it and enjoyed it. In that, I found that I actually had a gift that brought joy to other people through my speech impediment.’”
Joyner said another big finding from his research was that joy is a major component of the “calling.” All the performers he interviewed “believe the Lord takes pleasure in what they do and they, in turn, feel that pleasure inside of them.”
“One of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t have to preach the gospel in the juggling show in order to shine the light of Jesus,” Joyner said. “I want to respect the art of juggling and not just see it as a utilitarian tool.
“Only Jesus can save souls. The juggling doesn’t do that. What juggling does for other people is that it brings joy and that alone is a calling. A characteristic and aspect of God that the world needs is the joy of the Lord.”
Joyner’s research also affirmed the power of encouragement and community.
“We need to keep our eyes open to the gifts and callings of others around us,” Joyner said. “When we see something in them, we should call it out and encourage them in it. You never know if just a word like that could make their day or make their life.”