In a story from the Times (of London) last month we are told about efforts to determine which jokes are the most offensive to Christians and other religious folks. I take it that the idea was to test the British government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which had its third reading in July. A vote was taken to determine winners in such categories as Most Offensive Joke, Funniest Joke, etc.
I'm of two minds about religious jokes. I must confess that I sometimes think they're pretty funny. One of my favorites concerns a Jesuit, a Dominican, and a Baptist riding in a train together. The Baptist notices that he's riding with clergy, but he's unfamiliar with the Orders, so he asks the Jesuit and the Dominican why their habits are different. "My brother here is a member of the Jesuit Order," says the Dominican, "while I am a member of the Dominican Order." "What's the difference?" The Baptist asks. "The Jesuit Order was established to combat the Protestant heresies," says the Jesuit, "while the Dominican was established to combat the Albigensian heresy." The Baptist looks confused. "I'm still not sure I see the difference," he says. The Dominican pipes up immediately: "When was the last time you saw an Albigensian?"
Other religious jokes I find more irritating than funny. The "Vatican Rag" by Tom Lehrer, for example, strikes me as in very bad taste. I mentioned the other day that I became a Roman Catholic in 1983. Well, as it happens, I converted to Christianity before that--in 1979 I left my abject atheism behind and became an Episcopalian. Tom Lehrer was very popular among the Episcopalians that I used to hang out with, and the Vatican Rag was a particular favorite. I think the main reason was because my friends were mostly "high church" Episcopalians who had Rome Envy, so jokes about Rosaries and Communion Wafers struck them as funny because it was a vicarious way of saying "Yeah, we're members of that club, too." These same folks thought that Monty Python's Life of Brian was hilarious, but I still think it falls somewhere between blasphemy and anti-Semitism.
Am I just a killjoy? Why do I think some religious jokes are funny but others are offensive? For the life of me I can't see why I should laugh at a joke about a man hanging on a cross. Even if I did not believe that man to be the Son of God I would not think it funny, but given who that Man was and what He was doing the joke is not only not funny, it is downright blasphemous. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the lines "Get down on your knees/Fiddle with your Rosaries/Bow your head with great respect and/Genuflect genuflect genuflect" (from the Vatican Rag) seems to me to make light of something that is infused with sublimity and importance. To think it funny, it seems to me, is a little like thinking that the Mona Lisa is funny because she has no eyebrows--it says more about the folks who are laughing than about the object of laughter. I think some people may think it is somehow "with it" to find things like the Vatican Rag or Life of Brian funny--they appear to think that laughing at these things shows that they are in the know, members of the club. But really it just shows how banal their faith is. In my opinion.
OK, so maybe I'm a dork. "Blessed are the cheesemakers" isn't funny to me. But that joke about the Jesuits cracks me up every time.
De gustibus non disputandum est.