Sunday, September 04, 2005

What Are You Laughing At?

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.


Tom P. said...

"Life of Brian" is one of the funniest Monty Python films (yes, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is funnier). It is true that if you are the stuffy type of Catholic who takes everything seriously (usually found among converts) you may not think it is funny. Too bad. As far as "Blessed are the Chessemakers" goes, it's not meant to be taken literally. Obviously it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Scott Carson said...

Ah, yes, the old "You must be a stuffy person with no sense of humor" argument. The old "You're not laughing at the same things I'm laughing at, so you're the one with the problem!" argument.

Believe me, I've heard it.

Nobody who sits in the same room with me when the Simpsons are on, or Spongebob Squarepants, or Monty Python's Flying Circus, will have any illusions about me being too stuffy. I often laugh hysterically at some of the dumbest jokes on the planet. I laughed pretty hard at the Starsky and Hutch movie, too.

So it's not a matter of being stuffy, or of being too serious.

It's a matter of being serious to the proper degree about the right sorts of things.

Tom P. said...

No, it's a matter of being stuffy about religion. As I said, I see it a lot in converts but not often in those born into Catholicism. And the fact that you laughed at the Starsky and Hutch movie speaks volumes about your lack of a sense of humor. ;-)

James the Thickheaded said...

"Life of Brian" is funny almost precisely because it tackles the taboo. Had a medieval french literature prof with whom I studied the Breton Lays and lit of Chretien de Troyes...and he swore that the "Holy Grail" was probably the most authentic approach to the period's literature. A deeply religious Roman catholic world reknown and published for two "careers" in French literary criticism, he was also not afraid to suggest there were jokes hidden in literature everywhere...perhaps even in the Gospel...for which we simply have lost the context of understanding. His sense is that this may be the clues in the puzzling passages...that would have been clear to those at the time, but just seems odd (And if that idea doesnt' load a gun or two, I don't know what will).

I am reminded of a passage from Thomas Merton that always struck home with me where he mentions that that those who share the deepest insights can appreciate the mirth of the Almighty. Surely there are those that insist that "God doesn't play dice with the universe", but as Merton suggests....why can't we appreciate the humor in the inch worm? Admittedly, no one in my inquirer's class some 30 years ago was terribly impressed...but they hadn't read Merton either or been fans of Monty Python. And I know they never read the church fathers. Where did Occam keep his razor? and did he use gel or foam?

I think faith remains a personal experience. Some will see value in the notion that maybe even in those moments where we are most devout and serious, we should be more humble. Mirth unlocks a bit of that. I think even the Greeks saw this...where Demeter's condemnation is relieved by a joke, and once more the earth is allowed to bloom.

Clearly, there is theology of humor one could work on...and I suspect there is much virtue that would be seen that those jumping to exclude it would admit to. Then again, like so many things, there are those unsympathetic ones who laugh at our faith rather than themselves....and I think the sort of humor at least I'm talking about lies in the presumptiousness of our own religiosity. I think the sense of attention to personal detail in Monty Python clearly makes this personal self-refelction the center of the humor.

But now I'm being stuffy about humor. So there you are.

Scott Carson said...


Don't get me wrong--as I mentioned in my main post, I certainly enjoy plenty of religious humor. And I can't, by any means, claim to have anything like a refined sense of humor, since I do enjoy things like Benny Hill, Austin Powers, Alexy Sales, etc.

I think if you were to have a look at the article from Times, though, you would see what sorts of jokes I'm talking about--and here's an actual example from my own experience. A Catholic friend of mine once told me a joke about Jesus hanging on the cross and calling out "Peter...Peter...Peter..." and Peter runs up and says "Yes, Lord?" and Jesus says "I can see your house from here!"

This is a joke that I just don't think is funny, though I know lots of people who have laughed at it. Your point about the use of humor in literature is well taken, but that's not at all the sort of humor I have in mind. I'm thinking of jokes that simply make use of a religious context for a non-religious purpose, not literature that uses humor for a religious purpose.

So where does Life of Brian fit into a scheme like that? Am I supposed to believe that this is a film that is using humor to make a religious point? I doubt it. What precisely is it making fun of? This is Monty Python we're talking about, not Aristophanes. I don't believe they were the least bit interested in social commentary--indeed, they've sais as much in interviews. Holy Grail, I think, is quite funny, but then I don't read it as making religious jokes, particularly. True, the Holy Grail itself is supposed to be iconic, but there's no reason to suppose that such a thing ever really existed--the quest that they are on is already a mythological one, and of course it's not really even the mythological quest that those guys are on, there just out having fun with utter silliness.

I particularly like your point about mirth as a form of humility, though--and I am quite certain that there is, indeed, humor in the Gospels, though I am nowhere near expert enough at interpreting them to know what is and what is not intended as humor (I've often thought that Jesus' comment to the woman at the well in the Gospel of John--"You're right that you're not married, you've had five husbands, and the man you're living with now is not your husband"--was somewhat tongue-in-cheek).

Thanks for the very thoughtful comments--maybe I just need to lighten up.

So this Rabbi walks into a Cathedral....

James the Thickheaded said...

Scott: mean THOSE types of jokes. I must live under a rug. Don't see them.

"Life of Brian" - well, I think the funny parts are the ones that you probably don't have a problem with: Like the "You have to haggle...", or " I always wanted to be a woman...", or "No, no, no, no...we're not the People's Front for Liberation....ewwww. We're the Front for People's Liberation." Or the scene conjugating latin to properly paint "Romans go home...". The street people, street author Biblical wannabes reciting bible-sounding drivel was good and perhaps a little on the fringe, but the real border line comes on the Crucifixion - until the arrival of the nuts like the Samurai crack-suicide squadron. No, Scott I'm sure your sense of humor is well intact. It's just that far too many of us take our Monty Python almost as seriously. Grin. Oh, and of course he/they/it/Monty Python/ are inerrant, too. Just ask any fan. So maybe the question is whether we're sola script or sans script or ought to be constrained to san scrit in talking about our humor. VBG

Tom P. said...

Yes I did laugh at the crucifixion joke. Perhaps it's because I have spent every Sunday for basically my entire life looking at the huge crucifix in my church. A joke that twists the crucifixion can be funny to me. Not that I would want to be crucified even if I could get a good view of Peter's house. But the scene of all those people on crosses singing "Always look on the bright side of life" had me rolling in the aisles.

Jenstall said...

Why do I think some religious jokes are funny but others are offensive?

Hmmm. Could it be the difference between in jokes and jokes by outsiders? The Jesuit joke is obviously an in joke. It's the kind of joke I can see Dominicans telling around the dinner table with Jesuit friends and then laughing about ridiculously loudly. It's laughing at ourselves rather than being laughed at kind of thing.

I haven't seen Life of Brian in years, but I remember never finding it as funny as Holy Grail which is freaking HILARIOUS!! Parts of Brian are funny. I love the political humor stuff with Michael Palin, but overall I just did not find that movie to be very funny and the last time I saw it I probably was still in my "atheism hate the church" phase.

Generally, I find part of the humor with Monty Python lies in the fact that they really know their source material and I feel that because they know they take such efforts to know the source material they also respect it. I could be wrong though.

Scott Carson said...


I think you're on to something with the "inside joke" thing. I also tend to think--more cynically--that some people laugh at religious jokes at least partly because they don't really think of the events in our religious history as having really happened. Imagine telling a joke about a Jew being burned alive during the Holocaust, or being tortured to death. Not only would nobody laugh at such a joke, but we would all rightly be offended and disgusted by such a joke, because things like that really happened to real people.

Well, Jesus was a real man who was really crucified, and I don't see how anybody who really believes that, who really thinks that the crucifixion was a genuine historical event, could think that a situation of such intense physical suffering has anything humorous about it. It's only if, as Tom said, you were brought up in an environment where the crucifixion was more just a symbol than anything else, and you've gotten used to seeing crucifixes everywhere and don't think so much about the sacrifice, that you begin to abstract the situation and think about it in a detached enough way to see humor in it.

Jenstall said...

Scott, that sounds about right. I'm guessing that none of the Python crew are "believers". To them, the Bible is probably nothing more than mythology. I think a believer could write some funny stuff about some of the biblical events with an insiders point of view, obviously not the crucifiction, but I think the frequent stupidity/bewilderment of the apostles in the face of some of Jesus' more difficult pronouncements would be a goldmine of humor for the insider. I always think lots of what Peter says set off massive amounts of eye-rolling from Jesus.