Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 11: Faith and Humour

A Franciscan and a Jesuit... 

A man asked a Franciscan priest how many novenas he would have to say in order to get a Mercedes Benz. The Franciscan asked, “What’s a Mercedes Benz?” He asked a Jesuit priest the same question. The Jesuit asked, “What’s a novena?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about religious humour recently. The media coverage of Saint John XXIII’s canonization paid a lot of attention to that saint’s sense of fun. His reply to the question ‘How many people work at the Vatican?’, was repeated over and over again. It was even mentioned at the Mass I attended on the day of the canonization. (The reply, of course, was: “About half”. I include it in case this article, yellowed and dug out from the bottom of a box somewhere, is read by somebody twenty years from now.)

St. John XXIII
I hope my readers won’t object to me once again turning away from contemporary events (with a brief muttered prayer that the pro-abortion parties get hammered in the local and European elections), and taking a look instead at the subject of humour and religion.

Is there a conflict between the two things? George Orwell wondered how G.K. Chesterton could make jokes about Hell if he really believed in it. And when you really think about the stakes of human life, according to the Christian worldview—either eternal bliss or eternal punishment—it’s hard to see much room for levity. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be all that much room for levity in the non-Christian worldview (which usually means atheism, in this part of the world). Eventually, according to the atheist’s view of things, all human life will vanish as though it had never existed, and all the injustices of history—the concentration camps, the Irish famine, the murders committed by every serial killer-- will remain eternally unrighted. What could be funny about that?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against ‘immoderate laughter’ (paragraph 1856). And the Bible’s references to laughter are not always very jolly. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy into sorrow” says the letter of St. James. “There must be no foul or salacious talk or coarse jokes”, says St. Paul. Most notably, our Lord says: “Woe to you who laugh now”. Of course, everything in the Bible must be understood in context, and in the light of the Church’s teaching. But it doesn’t seem, on the face of it, as though the New Testament places an awful lot of importance on having a sense of humour. 

And then, of course, there’s the matter of Jesus himself. 

Did Jesus Joke?

I've just been reading Hans Kung!
Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the central figure of Christian and post-Christian civilization. Even today, no single person can claim as great an influence on our culture. And one characteristic of Jesus Christ that is frequently remarked upon—although not, perhaps, as frequently as might be expected-- is that he is never described as laughing, joking or even smiling.

Of course, we know tantalisingly little of our Lord’s life and deeds—we see him through the very narrow lens of the Gospel, which tells us all we need for our salvation but leaves our curious human minds with so many unanswered questions.

Many people have claimed to find examples of Christ’s sense of humour in the Gospels, perhaps through a feeling that he can’t be ‘perfect God and perfect man’ if he never joked. The image of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle, it has been said, would have been received by his audience as quite a rib-tickler. The same has been claimed for his use of extravagant imagery in other parables. In an article in America magazine, James Martin S.J. points out that a ‘talent’ was equivalent to fifteen years’ wages for an ordinary worker—so that, in the parable of the talents, the wealthy man hands over seventy-five years of wages to one servant. This, he insists, would have ‘touched the sense of the ridiculous’ in his hearers.

I must admit that I have my own candidates for moments where our Lord’s tongue seems to slip into his cheek. Take, for instance, his nicknaming of St. James and St. John as Boanerges, ‘the Sons of Thunder’. Whenever I read this, I wonder whether our Lord was affectionately teasing them, especially the rather hotheaded St. John.

Then there is the discourse with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. “I have no husband”, she says. “You are right to say you have no husband”, answers our Lord. “For although you have had five husbands, the one you now have is not your husband”. Those words always sound to me like the dry, knowing reply of some no-nonsense headmaster, stern but good-hearted, towards a naughty schoolchild. 

The Secret of his Mirth 

I bet that many of my readers have, at this point, already been reminded of the famous final passage in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: 

“The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

G.K. Chesterton
With all due respect to the great Chesterton, and to everyone else who has seen jokes and flashes of humour in our Lord’s discourses, I find something ultimately unconvincing about all these theories (and about my own fancies, too). Maybe we get glimpses of our Lord being playful, and maybe they’re enigmatic because so many layers of time, translation and cultural difference lie between us and the original founding documents of Christianity. But this seems like pure guesswork.

And, if I’m honest, I find the idea of Jesus cracking jokes (or even laughing up his sleeve) to be rather unseemly, and not at all appealing.

Why? Because the Gospels are an account of the most important thing that ever happened. Everything our Lord said and did was charged with such awesome significance for every human being that ever lived, and that ever will live, that any kidding around would seem grotesquely out of place. 

Most Solemnly I Tell You… 

But it’s more than that. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical was entitled The Joy of the Gospel. All Christians, and many non-Christians, do indeed find a reservoir of joy in the Gospels that transcends anything else in their experience. My contention is that the solemnity of the Gospels is essential to their joyousness. Humour is a good thing, but the supreme mountain peaks of joy are too elevated for joking.

 Think about it. Our moments of deepest happiness are usually solemn moments. Brides and grooms don’t kid around when they are exchanging vows. A child utterly absorbed in a game is usually more earnest than any judge. A film buff watching his all-time favourite movie, or an art-lover transported before his favourite canvas, is likely to be utterly intent and serious. In our moments of rapture, a joke would be a comedown, a descent from the sublime to the banal.

Philip Larkin, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, described his habit of visiting churches in his famous poem “Church Going”. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, he wrote, in seeking to explain what brought him there. And it’s true. Churches are uniquely serious, uniquely solemn places in our culture.

And we live in a culture that seems allergic to solemnity. Advertising, television, literature, and even everyday conversation is drowned in an ocean of facetiousness. Only a few weeks ago, the President of America found it appropriate to perform a comedy routine, at a time when the world seems to be drifting into a new Cold War. The organizers of the London Olympic Games decided to open them by casting the Queen in a James Bond comedy sketch. The playing of national anthems has disappeared from everyday life. And we are bothered by the very idea of public monuments, to the extent that Dublin celebrated the millennium by putting a meaningless spike in O’Connell Street. All this, I suggest, is an impoverishment.

 The Bright Side of Life? 

Of course, the Christian religion—in this regard, as in so many others, the one great holdout of modern culture—has come under ever-increasing pressure to lighten up and to stop treating the sacred as sacred. Yesterday, I was watching the famous TV debate between two members of the Monty Python team and two Christians (Malcolm Muggeridge and the Anglican Bishop of Southwark) on the release of Life of Brian in 1978. What struck me was that the two Christians were willing to stand on the dignity of the Gospel, to insist that the film was offensive, and to be typecast in the role of stuffy old curmudgeons. Less than forty years later, would a Bishop or a Christian intellectual be so willing to seem a spoilsport?

The infamous Life of Brian debate.
But, in a funny way, I think Christians are doing comedians a favour by being so earnest about their beliefs. Why are there so many jokes, sketches, comic novels and cartoons about priests, nuns, monks and vicars? Because religion is still taken so seriously by so many people. If nothing was serious, nothing would be funny. We are called to be fools for Christ, and perhaps one of the fringe benefits of this is that the world gets a laugh out of it. (And not just the Life of Brian variety. There is also plenty of healthy and good-humoured joking about religion.).

The Irish comic writer John D. Sheridan, who died in 1980 and who wrote an undeservedly forgotten work of Catholic apologetics called The Hungry Sheep, argued in the same book that humour only makes sense from a religious point of view:

“The Christian can offer a rational explanation for laughter, whereas the materialist (who so often, unknown to himself, is drawing on the spiritual investments of his ancestors) is in difficulties at once; for if directed chance or molecular structure governs all our actions there is nothing against which we can measure the unexpected and the incongruous.”

That really seems to me like the last word on humour and religious belief. But, having begun with a joke, I’d better finish up with one. 

We’re back in the nineteen-fifties. A Dublin man who has survived a car crash takes it as a sign from God and decides to change his wicked ways. He goes to confession for the first time in thirty years. The priest is taken aback at the litany of dramatic sins he confesses; stealing, adultery, brawling, forgery, the list goes on and on. Eventually, he finishes: “I can’t remember anything else.” The priest can’t resist a little gentle humour: “Are you sure you never ate meat on a Friday in all those years?”. “What do you think I am, Father?”, cries the man, indignantly. “A Protestant?”

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