Is religion too fun to be funny?

07 Jul

Every once in a while the juxtaposition of religion and humour pokes me in the side, whispering cheekily in my ear “Now you see me… now you don’t!”

It is a strange question really! The very nature of humour is something that must be undefined to be fun; anything you can force into the mould and chains of a formula somehow seems to lose something. Yet the very nature of religion is that it is important – and therefore worthy of careful consideration, justification and counter-balancing thought. So straight off, we do seem to have a bit of a slippery pairing on our hands.

As I’m sure those who know me will guess, there are many rants I could have about the ‘failures’ surrounding the issue, gleaning ample examples from modern society. However, that is not really what I want to be about here. I’d rather go about constructively clearing up some of the misunderstandings that go around “muddying the waters”.

Moreover, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on the issue by my appreciation of both camps. There’s a large volume of stuff out there from those who have a high respect for one side of the fence, and no time at all for the other.

Anyway, before we dive into the details, here is the perfect one-sentence summary of it all:

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. [Ecclesiastes 3:4]Β  (Edit: Sorry for the original ref to the Song of Solomon… 😦 )

Ok, so first off, I’d tackle the notion of humour and religion being mutually exclusive.

The general idea stems from the concept that, as religion is sacred, we cannot allow so much as a smile within miles of it, as that is a mockery of religion. Not only does the conclusion not follow from the premise, in my view it is an unscriptural Pharisaicalism (demonstrated by both the text above, and by the additional references.ΒΉ)

However, that is not to say I entirely reject the notion. To me given the alternative of religion vs. humour, I consider it not so much an absolute choice, but a question of priorities.

It seems I am sometimes expected to accept the assumption that “everything must bow before the god of humour”. This might sound like an extreme characterisation… but it is no more extreme than on occasion truthful.

I am speaking of the idea that, for the purposes of entertainment, it is acceptable to push any boundary, break any rule, tread on any tradition. So long as we’re light-hearted about it, and mean to “learn from it”, then humour as a medium is acceptable, and everything else can bend to its rules.

Now, I’m not advocating boundaries, rules or traditions neccessarily. But if humour is to “know no bounds”, then it seems to me as if it is humour itself – as some kind of abstract notion – that is given the place of Highest Sacred-ness.

So, in the extreme cases where humour is pitted against religion, I chose – rationally and individualistically – that, actually, religion is my top priority after all, and the so-called humour has no place.

But, I did say I wouldn’t rant… And to get back on track, and be reasonable about it, most examples do not follow such an ideology as I’ve described. Nor do they tend to be as black-and-white as all that either.

For example, often humour ‘against’ religion is directed not against the religion itself, as at the hypocrisy of the people who do not ‘follow’ the religion they claim to believe in. And I have no problem with this:

  1. I’m all for having hypocrisy pointed out.
  2. Humour *is* an effective medium of illustrating how ridiculous some hypocrisy is. (One of my all-time favourites has got to be John Ploughman’s Pictures, and its precursor.)
  3. Having hypocrisy pointed out is not mocking the religion – or God – but rather we are laughing at ourselves. Surely, that can only be a good lesson in humility!

Along similar lines is the idea of pointing out inconsistencies in beliefs. At the very least, a system of belief should be “internally consistent” as my agnostic philosophy teacher at school once claimed. However, there are many things that are justified by appealing to the authority of religion, that on closer inspection, do not merit much credibility. Humour can expose such flimsy appearances.

So, all in all, I would argue religion and humour can, and should, co-exist. Moreover, though not everyone may agree with my assessment that religion is a higher priority than humour, it would only be rational to acknowledge that there is sometimes a priority-call being made.

ΒΉMore evidences of laughter being considered in a positive light in the Bible: Job 8:21, Psalm 126:2, Luke 6:21


Posted by on Saturday, July 7, 2007 in philosophy


Tags: , ,

14 responses to “Is religion too fun to be funny?

  1. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 9:10 am

    What do you call a male teabag?

    A Hebrew πŸ˜‰

  2. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 10:24 am

    This isn’t really the post I was expecting after the few chats we’ve had about this in the past. I thought you would be giving me a telling off about using Biblical references in a jokey way (like when I used Lamentations 1:20 “Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled;” when I was feeling unwell, or my blog post here which I think may have annoyed you but you never really said). Instead, you seem to be putting forward an “all humour vs. religion” argument (or at least a prioritisation of one over the other) but don’t you think that humour exists within religion? Don’t you believe that humour and laughter (if not being used as offensive tools) are gifts from God?

  3. rach

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    1. This blog is not just a place for me to “tell people off” πŸ˜›
    2. I wanted to avoid the “xyz annoys me soo much” angle, as that still doesn’t positively give guidance about what we *can* do… it is all focused on what we shouldn’t do. Both sides of the coin are important, but I purposefully chose to tackle one side.

    …don’t you think that humour exists within religion?

    3. Yes. But I have very rarely seen unoffensive examples within religion. I picked out C.H.Spurgeon (referred to in the post) as one of the rare and marvellous exceptions to the rule.

    My last paragraphs were meant to be an illustration of places within religion where I consider humour can be put to good use.

    However, there is also a place for un-humour πŸ˜› if I may make such a bold statement! Going back to my original “balancing” text – there is a time to laugh – but just before that it says there is a time to weep.

    Particularly within religion, there are contexts that are deliberately serious. We need to recognise this, in order not to trivialise something that is too important to be sweeped over with a light-hearted skin-deep brush.

    As an analogy, God also gives us the gift of having an appetite, but that doesn’t mean we should eat all the time, or eat everything we see. There is to be some moderation πŸ˜‰ to keep us healthy/alive! Similarly with humour, there are things it does us far more good to have a good cry about, and get them off our chest πŸ˜‰ than to try and ‘bravely’ face them with a laugh.

    For example, to pick you up on the point about using texts/Biblical references out-of-context for a humourous purpose (seeing you had to bring that up!):

    Yes – the humour can work at the time, just like any other well-crafted joke. Even if it “doesn’t quite fit” the original text, humour often requires just having a laugh and not digging too deep beneath the surface.

    But… the problem with using something ‘sacred’ in that manner even only once, is that forever afterwards it can be hard to remember the serious (and real) meaning of the text because we’re so busy giggling at the remembered joke. (And I don’t think that’s just me…!?)

    This memory-effect happens with most things (eg managerial-speak in meetings πŸ˜› ) However, it doesn’t become an issue until the thing being used for the joke is somehow ‘precious’. Ok, so this is our fault, that we’re so easily distracted… but if we want to appreciate the real meaning of a text, and want to give ourselves the best possible chance of doing so, it is easier not to fill up our memory with a set of “related jokes”.

    So, this is why I (still!) consider this a question of priorities:
    Is the humour so important to me, that I will ‘sacrifice’ a bit of my Bible to allow myself to appreciate the humour? Or is the Bible precious enough to me, that I want to keep it “untarnished” in my mind?

    Don’t you believe that humour and laughter (if not being used as offensive tools) are gifts from God?

    4. I may have to request extra time for this one πŸ˜‰ But here is my first stab at an answer:

    I do believe it is true that humour and laughter are gifts from God, and can be used to His glory. However, too often the argument presented is used as a justification for trivialising God and religion. With so much scope for mistakes, that is why I would “play safe” and ask myself the (honest) question: am I being offensive to God or not? If we really are not being offensive to God, then fine πŸ˜€ !

    Considering the stuff I was talking about in Section 3, it is much easier to find unoffensive humour in places that are not connected with religion. (E.g. Jane Austen, one of my favourites!) But that’s not to say there isn’t any within religion – I’m just really struggling to find examples other than those already mentioned.

    Ps: your first comment was pretty inoffensive, but not ‘exactly’ religious either! I suppose it depends on how loosely you define religion.

  4. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    But… the problem with using something ’sacred’ in that manner even only once, is that forever afterwards it can be hard to remember the serious (and real) meaning of the text because we’re so busy giggling at the remembered joke.

    😳 Now how guilty do I feel? I hadn’t thought if it like that. I really hope I haven’t tarnished anything for you. I consider my knuckles rapped, despite what you said in point 1…

    Just as gauge for what you find offensive, how about:

    How many Unitarians does it take to change a lightbulb? “We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a light bulb. However, in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”

    If I was a Unitarian and heard this, I’d like to think that I would just have a little chuckle at it and think no more about it. Being able to laugh at oneself is important, I think. The differences between people and the observations of those differences form the basis of a lot of humour. If people would just accept the fact that these differences exist and join in the fun, then wouldn’t the world be a nicer place? Ok, so read the next one (a bit closer to home for you) and then tell me if it annoys you.

    How many Calvinists does it take to change a lightbulb? None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.

    I’m quite glad you’re not in the office today. Maybe I would be getting a slap if you were? πŸ˜‰

  5. rach

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Hey, I think I’m pretty good at “letting you off” with things!

    The Unitarian/Calvanist lightbulbs: I’m not overly offended, I don’t think! People choose to subscribe to a creed with a set of obviously distinguishing characteristics… recognising/acknowledging them in a joke doesn’t negate the creed. And although people can consider their creed important too, it is by no means on the same level of sacred-ness as the Bible.

    Yes, we can laugh at ourselves, and sometimes we can even learn from laughing at ourselves – thats what I mean about pointing out hypocrisy. If we have double-standards, and these are pointed out to us in a joke we laugh about, we can even ‘get the message’ from that and sort ourselves out.

    I did not mean we could not laugh at ourselves. It is laughing at God – whether that be by trivialising His word, or offensive/mocking jokes that is by far the most offensive to me. It offends me much more someone offending my God than if they ‘directly’ pick holes in me.

    I know I’m not perfect… I think I have quite a bit to go, yet πŸ˜› So, if someone laughs at me, they’ve very likely got a good reason for it!

    The differences between people and the observations of those differences form the basis of a lot of humour.

    True. But humour can also be about just how “follow the crowd” everyone is, and how everyone thinks they do something their own way, but really they are no different from anyone else.

    If people would just accept the fact that these differences exist and join in the fun, then wouldn’t the world be a nicer place?

    [Are we getting into a whole new debate!? Am I allowed a new post, just for stats-increasing-reasons πŸ˜› pretty please!]

    Humour is not the only way to recognise differences, and sometimes humour can even be “taken too far” in making people feel isolated when people just never stop ‘highlighting’ their differences. I.e. the political correctness vs racism/ feminism/ every-other-ism debate.

    I’m definitely not a P.C. advocate, but I can understand how sometimes even the best-intentioned fun-joiner can sometimes just get fed-up of always being a ‘target’. This approach only works insofar as everyone gets an equal ‘quota’ of ridicule, and no-one has a sore-spot regarding the topic concerned. I suppose one way of inoffensively getting round that is to always chose to pick on yourself πŸ˜› .

    Personally, I may actually prefer other positive methods of making the world a better place: for example, noticing that precisely because of their difference, there is something they are able to do better than anyone else. Then letting them do that job, and not-grudging them the praise they get for doing the job well. (As a friend of mine would call it, “letting everyone find their niche”.)

    Too much of the time, people are “put down” for being different, instead of being given opportunity to make something positive of it. I’m not against laughing at (with?) differences, but only so long as there’s enough bits of friendliness mixed in!

  6. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    [Are we getting into a whole new debate!? Am I allowed a new post, just for stats-increasing-reasons πŸ˜› pretty please!]

    What am I, your blog police or something? πŸ˜›

    But…. no, you can’t have another post. Not after that sneaky link to a previous post in your last comment and the freebie I just gave you πŸ˜‰

  7. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    You are getting this from me when it’s your birthday πŸ˜‰

  8. Grant

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Oh, and Isaac means “laughter” πŸ˜€

  9. quact

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    C. S. Lewis.

    The Screwtape letters are rather funny at times.

  10. rach

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    Yes, you’re right! πŸ˜€

    I’d forgotton about them – must read them again sometime πŸ˜‰

  11. cath

    Monday, July 9, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Wow, 10 comments since i read the original post! AND Grant beat me to the lightbulb joke 😦

    I thought this was quite funny … sorry to betray my unorthodoxy … but the clue’s in the url – things stop being funny when it becomes irreverent (this is rachel’s point 3, which is also a milestone in that it’s the first thing i’ve read along to here while actively nodding πŸ™‚ )

    However, I also feel burdened to add that it is a very serious matter when bloggers mix up the book of Ecclesiastes with the Song of Solomon ….. πŸ˜›

  12. rach

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007 at 12:29 am

    Ahhhh…. I am truly humiliated!

    *edits furiously*

    while actively nodding

    But I do feel honoured to have received your approbation, even in some small way!

  13. cath

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    My “approbation” ?? 😳 nowt to get overly honoured about i can assure you.

    Have you read Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students? He has some brilliant caricatures of different preaching styles, complete with cartoons, if i remember right πŸ™‚

    This is maybe a bit off-topic but I was also thinking of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal – when he ‘mocked’ them by suggesting a list of ironic reasons why Baal might not be responding to their desperate antics (they performed increasingly bizarre rituals for hours and nothing happened!) (compared to the instantaneous and unmistakeable answer of Jehovah to Elijah’s prayer).
    My question is, do you see that as an example of humour ? Cos I’ve always been uncomfortable with that interpretation – it seems a very terrible occasion, nothing very funny about it, but i’d like to know what you think πŸ™‚

  14. rach

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    lol πŸ˜‰

    I’ve never even heard of CHS’s Lectures to My Students…! Do you have a copy? May I pretty please add it to the list of books I’d like to borrow after I give back the books I’m currently borrowing? πŸ˜›

    When I was searching for Biblical references to laughter, I specifically did not count/ref ‘mocking’ laughter (e.g. “laughed to scorn”). In my head I was thinking more along the lines of happy laughter as opposed to mocking laughter – I guess on a similar track to your comments.

    I suppose my comment to make fun of hypocrisy through humour is kindof what Elijah is doing here. But I’d imagined that more as the more “pleasant outcome” scenario of people realising their hypocrisy through the humour, and by laughing at themselves, realise their inconsistency. Whereas this account is the other side of the coin, where he was trying to get them to realise, but they just weren’t.

    I have always thought it a rather curious “taking it to extremes” account. I don’t know that “humour” would be how I would describe it… but I always did get the impression he was leading them on some pretty decent-length wild goose chase. It was all part of the point he was trying to illustrate though… they still weren’t getting it, and so the continuation was merited. It was them, after all, who were being so stubborn as not to give up until they’d made complete and utter fools of themselves!

    Or you could look at it another way, that he was giving them yet more opportunites to see/realise for themselves just how ridiculous it all was – it was their own stupidity that they allowed themselves to be mocked. (cf Ephesians 4:18)

    I guess there is a positive aspect of thankfulness of Christians in the line of “having the last laugh” victory over opposition. But it wasn’t really the “caring for the opposition” angle that I was balancing it with in my own head. As was quoted last Sabbath (back at home) “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” Ezekiel 33:11

    Yes, we will be acquitted one day, but in the meantime I’d so much rather that humour could help people realise the truth about themselves, rather than that it should be heaping coals of fire on anyone’s head. Not a very light-hearted thought, but nevertheless close to reality.


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