Is the gospel funny?

James Cary writes: Previously on this blog, the question has been posed: “Was Jesus funny?” In the last couple of years, as I’ve been writing my new book, The Sacred Art of Joking, I’ve concluded that yes, he was funny. I’ll tell you how and why in a moment.

First, we have to briefly address another question to arise from researching this book which is this: “Can theologians be funny?” I think I have an answer to that one too and theologians aren’t going to like it. But consider this. Theological books are rarely funny. Books on academic theories about humour are even less funny. A book by a theologian about comedy therefore seems unlikely to raise many, if any, chuckles.

Soren Kierkegaard’s work in this area is not an inviting prospect. In 2004, Princeton University Press released an anthology of his work called The Humor of Kierkegaard in which Thomas Oden tries to argue that Kierkegaard is the funniest philosopher of all time. If you have to explain why or how something is funny, then it probably was never that funny to begin with. Methinks Oden doth protest too much?

There are some informative and helpful books in this area, like Prostitute in The Family Tree by Douglas Adams (not that Douglas Adams). Another book I enjoyed is the sadly out-of-print The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood who highlights occasions in which Jesus is, in his view, joking. In one chapter, he boldly claims the Parable of the Shrewd Manager can only be reconciled to the context if one takes the whole thing as a joke. It’s an interesting theory. It’s also a readable book, partly because it is slender and accessible.

So why would I embark on this journey of writing a book about comedy in the Bible, given I’m not a theologian, nor the son of a theologian? As it happens, I do have a degree in Theology (BA Hons Dunelm, since you ask). I can barely be described as a theologian, however, given I was hardly the most attentive of students, doing the bare minimum to get an acceptable final grade. My main distraction is key here. I spent most of my time at university writing, rewriting, directing and producing comedy. Twenty years on, I’m still at it. I’ve written or co-written about 150 episodes of BBC comedy ranging from Miranda to Another Case of Milton Jones. I also blog and podcast about technical aspects of comedy writing.

I approach the subject of Jesus’ jokes not as a theological expert, but a comedy technician. As such, the evidence and my instincts would suggest that Jesus was funny. Sure, there is no verse which said “Jesus laughed”, but who laughs at their own jokes? It’s not good form. But also, being picky, Jesus laughing and Jesus making jokes are two separate things.

We know from Psalm 2:4 that God laughs. He is amused by our attempts to live without him or eradicate his presence from the world. It is laughable. Imagine if your goldfish declared war on you? You wouldn’t recoil or tut. You’d laugh. The Bible contains plenty of rebellious goldfish, from dim-witted disciples and sanctimonious Sadducees to pompous princes and hard-hearted harridans. We read stories of deeply flawed people making poor choices which are every bit as comic as they are tragic.

So why don’t we laugh when we read these stories? Firstly, we don’t read them. Most Christians don’t read their Bibles every day, and those who do read a small fraction of it. We can’t be amused by stories we don’t know.

Scripture is read aloud in church so why are we not rolling in the aisles? Again, the comedian in me would suggest that comedy is partly about expectation. Church is, broadly speaking, serious. It can deviate into sentimentalism or hysteria, but rarely comedy. Read the room. Ecclesiastical art shows serious saints doing important holy things. There are thousands of paintings of Jesus looks sombre, and thousands more where he looks serene. There are barely any that show him smiling, let alone sniggering or stifling a giggle. Comedy in church is an aberration. Jokes are deployed in sermons to ‘lighten the mood’. In short, no-one is going to church expecting to laugh.

It’s no surprise, then, that the small portions of scripture that are read aloud in Church never garner chuckles. Let us take the story of the man born blind in John 9. It’s a funny story that, read well or performed verbatim, can make audiences laugh out loud. I’ve seen it done. I’ve heard the laughs. But what are the chances that the whole chapter will be read aloud, so the story has time to build momentum? And what are the chances that the Bible is read well? Church readings are normally done, at best, in a very perfunctory manner.

Moreover, the reading of the lesson is seen as a way of involving someone in the service. This is curious to me, since the Bible is the very words of God. Anglicans even say so at the end of the reading, saying “This is the Word of the Lord.” If that is so, why not put some effort into reading it aloud well?

Few churches would approach the music in this way. No minister would toss a guitar to a tone deaf teenager and tell them to give it a go. We don’t let children play the organ (their feet can’t reach the pedals, for one thing). Why do we have this approach to the public reading of Scripture? One of the casualties of this situation is the comedy.

Scripture is a script. It was written to be read aloud and performed, rather than studied given most people for most of human history couldn’t read. It lends itself to public performance. One can simply reply that it doesn’t read very funny at first glance, but Shakespearean comedies aren’t funny on the page. The language and the customs are foreign. It takes work. Give the words to decent actors and a director and the comedy will soon emerge.

The church no longer has that tradition of dramatic performance, let alone a heritage of comedy. The mystery plays of the Fifteenth Century declined with the Reformation. Protestantism gave birth to Puritanism, a movement much admired by modern day evangelicals (like me). But let us also note one of those puritans, Oliver Cromwell, closed the theatres. This is not a movement that has any use for light entertainment.

For Christians to recover their Biblical sense of humour, a profound shift in Church culture would need to take place. But comedy is so low down on the list of priorities, and is so toxic when it goes wrong, no-one is terribly interested in addressing this problem.

This is a pity given that our culture takes comedy extremely seriously. Primetime television is dominated by comedians like Michael McIntyre, Graham Norton and Paul Merton. Politicians are at pains to show they have a sense of humour. We are suspicious of people who take themselves too seriously. And yet it’s we Christians who seem to be lacking a sense of humour, complaining and tutting when our faith is mocked on television, shrieking that they’d never mock Islam in the same way (which I address at length in my book).

Islam takes us to one other factor in discussion about Jesus and comedy, but it’s probably not what you think. It is the idea that God becoming a man is funny. There is something comic about the Incarnation. The very idea that God could become a man is so incongruous and unthinkable that Muslims can reject Christianity almost entirely on that basis. For them, God could never be clothed in flesh and walk among us. The very idea is blasphemous. Or at least it would be if the person claiming to be co-eternal with the Father weren’t actually telling the truth.

This is one of the many ironies around the Easter story. Jesus was accused of claiming to be God. Religious people who knew their scriptures could not accept his divinity and wanted to kill the Author of Life himself. He was executed beneath a sign that this was the King of the Jews, put up as a joke but actually factually correct.

To see the comedy played out more overtly, we need to look at the events between the Incarnation at the Nativity, and the Crucifixion on Good Friday. Jesus’s life, as the god-man, is inherently comic because of his cosmic power. Again, we’re not expecting to find it funny, but in other situations it is normally played for laughs, or at least, it used to be.

So let us go back to 1978 and the first Superman film. Back then, superheroes weren’t in every single blockbuster movie, scrapping over the burning remains of New York City. They were a bit of a novelty. And let’s recall Lois Lane’s first interaction with Superman. She is falling from a great height and Superman flies up and catches her. “I’ve got you,” he says, with a reassuring smile.

Lane instinctively sums up the comedy of being rescued by someone who looks like a normal person, but has special powers like being able to fly. She replies to Superman with “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!” It’s an excellent honest question.

We need to remember this reaction as we read about the disciples, the Pharisees and the crowds encountering Christ for the first time 2,000 years ago. Here was a man raising people from the dead, feeding five thousand people and walking on water. A valid reaction to such divine incongruity is astonishment, and our reaction is, in turn, laughter.

Think back to all those other films you’ve seen where something out of the ordinary happens, like a space ship passes over head or someone turns into an animal. A nearby security guard or homeless person looks into their cup and questions whether they’ve had too much to drink. (There’s a similar joke to this in Acts 2 when the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost causes some to wonder if it’s the booze talking). Again, a proper presentation of the accounts of the life of Jesus would bring this all to life and we could marvel afresh at the astonishing reality of Jesus’s divine power.

Countless articles have been written about the fact that Superman and most superheroes are essentially Christ figures. They normally have to sacrifice themselves or make themselves vulnerable in some way in order to save the world from evil. What is often forgotten is the very incongruity of the superhero and the Christ figure.

If you’re a specialist, there is always a temptation to see the world exclusively through your own lens. As a comedy writer, I need to ensure I don’t fall into that trap. I’m not arguing that Jesus was essentially a stand-up comedian. He wasn’t. He said things that were funny. His incongruous identity as a god-man is comic. If Christians would only invest time and energy in engaging with the text of the Bible as a script to be read and performed, we might recover that precious joy that comes from the absurdity that lies at the heart of the Gospel that sounds like folly to the world: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Like much observational comedy, it’s funny because it’s true.

The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary is published by SPCK on 17thJanuary.

Other links:

The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

33 thoughts on “Is the gospel funny?”

  1. Fantastic question, becuase humour is so cultural. One of the first things that strike people who go to live in another culture is that they often don’t get why people are laughing, and why they aren’t laughing when I am. Even within Europe this is so (Henning Wehn, the german comic, makes a living out of the difference between Germany and England), so the cultural gap (middle east and England) and time gap (2000 years!), makes humour difficult to unpick.

    Living in South Asia I noted things that made people laugh more than I would expect included:
    – People acting out of status e.g. the funniest thing at a skit evening at our project was a doctor who walked across the stage sweeping the floor. That was it. It lasted less than a minute, and people were weeping with laughter
    – the jester character (funny voice, funny walk etc.)
    – physical, slapstick humour (e.g. walking into a pole).
    None of this translates well into story.

    Its worth noting that there word play is clever and admirable, but not funny. Its more about poetry than puns.

    • Is there anywhere in the world where somebody walking into a pole isn’t funny?

      (How that translates into story is that you show the person… then you show the pole… and then the audience knows what is going to happen, but not when. Oh, and then they avoid the pole but fall down an open manhole instead.)

      • You’re Groucho Marx and I claim my £5. – Come to think of it, he was Jewish. Maybe walking into a pole is part of Jewish humour. (Walking into a Dutch person wouldn’t be).

        • Yes, I am that kind of cultural Marxist.
          Colin, did I tutor you years ago in OT for the Open Theol College? Are you from NZ and were you in Bangladesh?

          • Brian – Yes, that’s me. Great to “meet” you on this site. I’m currently VP at Redcliffe College, teaching MA in Contemporary Missiology. So your teaching has gone to good use. Thanks.
            I hope you’re well and enjoying life

          • Colin, delighted to see you involved in this cutting edge work! I don’t know Redcliffe College but it looks like it does some very interesting stuff, especially in the interface of anthropology and the gospel.
            No doubt you are following the electoral news from Bangladesh with interest. I find it fascinating that, despite it being a Muslim country, women may have great political power there – as was the case with Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Is the Indic identity (and dynasticism) deeper in some ways than the Islamic? Prayers today for every blessing on your ministry.

  2. Obviously Danish humour doesn’t travel well. It’s Cowperian: ‘Beneath a frowning countenance, He hides a smiling face.’ But the Baltic mist can be inpenetrable. After Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard there was …. well, Victor Borg. If you remember him, the Alzheimer’s Society would like to study your brain.
    After that, the Danes succumbed to the Scandinavian winter and produced (one side of) “The Bridge” – which is funny in the way that Leonard Cohen is whimsical.
    No, Soren wasn’t a ribtickler. But he was easily the best and most lyrical stylist that modern philosophy has ever produced. One resolution I must keep is to read more of the Church Warden this year.

    • Oh, those Scandinavians. A few years ago I played Gustav in an am-dram production of Creditors by August Strindberg. If you don’t know Strindberg he’s like Ibsen but without all the frivolity and joie de vivre. Not a lot of laughs there.

        • Hedda Gabler spends the first half of Ibsen’s play complaining that she’s bored. When I saw it at the Vanbrugh Theatre, the kind ladies seated nearby took it upon themselves to suggest to one another ways in which her boredom could be assuaged. ‘Well, there’s knitting, there’s…’.

          They were a great deal more sensible and mature than she.

          • True – but would anyone come to a play about knitting – and Norwegian knitting at that? “Ah, that’s a lovely pattern. Herring bone, is it? Very patriotic.” And wasn’t the subject of the dissertation she tried to destroy ‘Domestic Handcrafts in Brabant’ – IIRC? Suggestions that she take up knitting would have led Hedda into worse than adultery.
            (The last time I saw Hedda Gabler was many years ago in London, with Tom Baker as Judge Brand. Alas, he couldn’t whisk the bored woman off into another time.)

        • Movie: Educating Rita.

          Essay question set for students: “Suggest how you might resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”
          Rita’s essay answer “Do it on the radio”

          Back to OP – the gospel funny? Oh no it isnt

  3. By the way, guest-writer, you’ve sold a copy of your book.

    And I thought Bluestone 42 was really good, although that was a HIGHLY inappropriate way for a chaplain to behave with an officer.

    • Ha ha. Yes. It was a pity that she gave in as she did, but at the same time, she’d put herself in a very isolated position and those things happen when you’re all alone. What I was pleased about was in the following episode, I was able to show the consequences of her actions – the psychological ones and how that affected her. You so rarely see that, especially in sitcoms.

  4. Reading this brought to mind the work of Kev F Sutherland, an atheist comedian and comic artist, who I first encountered through his Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre. The Bible Society have used him to produce comic versions of bible stories – particularly women of the bible. This is his nativity story.
    (Spoiler alert – he hasn’t read the annual “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable” post…)

  5. Doug Adams, mentioned in the article, used to oversee summer courses at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, entitled Bringing Biblical Humour to Life. His interactive reading of Matthew’s Genealogy was engaging, enlightening and hilarious. He described how he had been at worship and someone had read the wrong verses- the beginning of Matthew instead of Mark, perhaps- and it had been desperately dull. Doug returned to the passage, believing it could be read with interest, and devised cue cards… Boo, Hiss, Applause, Cheers, Huh?, which he held up based on a one line description of each begetter’s deeds. Huh? was for someone whose story had no more than a name. After the exile, a long list of names and Huh?s saw Doug slowly sink towards the ground until he finally perked up with Joseph (Applause), the husband of Mary (Cheers), of whom was born Jesus who is the Christ (Cheers, Applause).
    The approach of the Summer School was known as Humorneutics.

  6. There’s always BabylonBee for a chuckle of self affirming, superior, sinless smirk :
    Or even this, will be too near the knuckle for some musicians:
    But many will raise a Mona-Lisa smile at this illustration of political idolatry of any stripe:

  7. I was rather more reminded of professional Christian funnyman Adrian Plass, in whose hands many a parable can raise hoots of laughter. In all depends, as the first comment said, on the cultural context of the humour. I find, for example, the story of 1 Kings 1:1-4 greatly entertaining, whereas 100 years ago an earlier generation would have tut-tutted and moved on to something more edifying. Thus all humour, even Bible humour, very much remains in the eye of the beholder. Who, in an earlier generation, would raise any thought at all to the concept of the ‘man-drawer’, out of which Michael McIntyre can raise 20 minutes of helpless laughter?
    There is a serious point here, however, for those of us who preach. Because humour sells ideas in ways that more orthodox methods of communication don’t. If you need to wonder at the cynicism and atheism throughout the land, look no further than a whole raft of stand-up comics and other wits, who probably have far more influence over the national psyche than any number of well-meaning politicians or Bishops.
    So, is the Gospel funny? it depends how you read it.

    • I would as always argue backwards. Humour (a complex concept) is already being excellently used, but we need to know precisely what sort of humour is in view here, so rather than trying to work out from first priciples we can simply observe, mark and learn. J John would be a good place to start.

      What do we learn from a master like that? One lesson is that *truth* produces the sort of laughter that is associated with relief and with ‘coming home’ from the far country of untruth. Another lesson is that people spend a lot of their time trying to look clever when in fact the same truths can be imparted much more honestly in plain English and homely manner.

  8. In Sunday School class a few weeks ago at my church I was reading the passage in Daniel where Belshezzar sees the hand writing on the wall and soils himself. Our whole class couldn’t stop laughing.

  9. I have been to a number of J John events and enjoyed them and his humour, but the one that stands out took place before Christmas, one year, with an obvious Christmas theme, in a music auditorium. It was engaging and humorous,as usual but the humour stopped – he didn’t beat about the (burning?) bush- when it came to the gospel, so much so we (wife and I) wondered if her unbelieving friend would ever talk to us again.

  10. “We know from Psalm 2:4 that God laughs.”

    One of the most staggeringly anthropomorphic comments I’ve ever read! Cue laughter.

    • Andrew,
      It is God’s derisive laughter here.
      I take it that you approve of God’s derisive laughter, and speaking in his wrath to those opposed to him, and terrify them in his fury, Psalm 2: 4,5

      I’d suggest context is crucial, the whole of Psalm 2.
      You need to read the rest of the Psalm and God’s dealings with those who oppose his son, Jesus. Fear, trembling, breaking with a rod of iron, kiss his feet, anger, quick wrath, perish
      Not so funny.
      And the way out of all this is to “take refuge in him.”- the way of happiness v 11.

  11. God is laughing with me again today because I am about to preach on this on Sunday and the book comes out next week!!
    Nigel Walter actually talks about this in his Grove Booklet (plug for you there Ian) Church Buildings for People. He mentions several episodes but not my two favourites: the walking on the water in Mark (6) where you can picture him walking past saying ‘hi guys’ and the temple tax caught in the fish (Matt 17). You couldn’t make them up 🙂

  12. My favorite is Eutychus in Acts 20. Paul preaches so long that this poor kid who was sitting in the window fell asleep, fell out of the window and died! HAHAHAHA!!! Moral: If you preach too long, you may end up having to raise someone from the dead! 😀


Leave a comment