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 Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology
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