Sunday, 21 September 2014

Humour and Faith

Rowan Atkinson, in his Vicar's Wedding Speech, has the Vicar, in rather nervous tones, say:
"Hi! People! After all we're all people aren't we? I heard someone laughing out there at the back. Well done. Good, because the Lord he loves laughter and that's really the theme of my talk today, on this - let's face it - happy occasion: God, the laughter giver, Christ, the Comedian."
But that's not too far from the truth, as we shall see. People tend to think of Christianity as something very serious, where there are ponderous sermons without a joke.
That is why there was such a media outburst a few years ago with the discovery of the 3rd century "Gospel of Judas", and much was made of the fact that "Jesus laughs". A reading of the text, however, showed this was laughing at the disciples because of their lack of hidden knowledge; it was the mocking laughter that is not particularly pleasant, and showed in that portrayal rather a harsh and patronising Jesus; it was the laughter of someone who is a member of a secret society, laughing at those outside - "those fools, little do they know".
But comedy and Christianity have been around for some time, and we see this in the miracle plays, where humour is used to mock those in authority, much as stand up comedians may do today.
I remember "All Gas and Gaiters" on television in the 1960s, with the Bishop, Archdeacon, Bishop's chaplain and Dean of St Ogg's Cathedral. It poked gentle fun at the Church of England, but was considered in its day by some to be something the BBC should not be doing. In fact, most clergy adored it, as it got the absurdities and pretensions of the C of E so well.
In more recent years, the Vicar of Dibley, while going at times for very broad humour, combined Christianity and comedy very well, and was extremely popular. Perhaps not quite as popular, but still brilliant, was "Rev.", where unlike the rural valley and gentle countryside of Dibley, there was inner city deprivation, and small declining congregations, and humour that pushed the boundaries, often in a very thought provoking way.
I think it is largely due to a Puritan legacy that we have a notion that Christianity should be serious, of the kind that Lord and Lady Whiteadder (in one of the episodes of Blackadder II) would approve - tight lipped, no place for children except seen but not heard. These were, after all, the people who abolished old Christmas customs because of frivolity, and some were lost for good. The Reformation also ended those vehicles for humour, the Miracle Plays. The Puritan legacy casts a long cultural shadow, and we are still chained in part by its cultural legacy, whether we believe or not..
But, here, with a counterpoint, is G.R. Balleine, who in an article in the Jersey magazine, "The Pilot" , from 1964, fifty years ago, was writing about Christianity and humour.
The Humour of Our Lord
by G.R. Balleine
Does this title shock you? It should not, for humour is a very charming and very useful quality. Indeed a lack of humour is always recognised as a defect. Solemnity is seldom a sign of saintliness. True humour is something very different from clowning. It is an appreciation of the whimsicalities of life, a quickness to notice what is absurd. It acts as a check on one-sided views. It helps to keep life sane. All the most successful teachers have owed much to their humour, for abuses, which resist logic and rebuke, often shrivel beneath gentle ridicule.
No one can possibly read the Gospels with an open mind without noticing how often our Lord made use of this weapon. He had a keen sense of the ludicrous, and loved to employ it in his teaching. He seldom said to sinners, "See, how wicked you are!" but, "See, how ridiculous your course of action is!" Just as we sometimes use a magnifying glass to make a thing clearer, so he would humorously exaggerate a failing to make its absurdity more obvious.
If he wants to warn us of the folly of fussing over niggling scruples, while we neglect things that really matter, he pictures a man carefully straining a gnat out of his wine, while all the time at the bottom of his cup lies the corpse of a drowned camel! If he wants us to remember that censoriousness is far a more serious thing than the faults that the censor so glibly condemns in others, he draws the unforgettable picture of a man with a plank in his eye offering to remove a speck of sawdust from the eye of his neighbour, a true bit of carpenter's humour.
If he wants to put us on our guard against self-advertisement, He pictures a roan, about to give a penny to a beggar, hiring a trumpeter to blow a blast to attract everyone's attention. If he wants to make absolutely clear the fact that love of money makes entrance to His Kingdom impossible, he pictures a camel trying to squeeze, hump and all, through the eye of a needle.
If he wants to caution against incompetent teachers, he pictures a blind man leading another, and both falling into the ditch. Equally ludicrous are his pictures of a man trying to feed pigs with pearls, a man counting all the leaves on his mint before making his mint-sauce, in order to send every tenth leaf as tithe to the Temple, and the pompous Pharisee praying, "I thank thee that I am not as other men are".
If an artist tried to reproduce these pictures in black and white, we should see how almost grotesquely comic most of them are. Our Lord was not a portentously solemn or lugubrious person. He often taught with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye
There was fun in the nicknames he gave his friends, when he called impetuous Simon Peter Cephas, the Rock, and the loud-voiced brothers, James and John Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder.
But most of his humour was more subtle. He quietly called attention to the fact that some people managed to reach a street-corner at the hour of prayer, the spot the modern advertiser covets, for then people in two streets could see them at their devotions.
There was irony in the words put on the Elder Brother's lips in the Parable, "Thou never gayest me a kid," when we have already been told that the Father had "divided unto them his living". All the Father's property belonged to the grumbler. "All that I have is thine," but like many other of the Father's children he did not use the gifts given him.
How quick too our Lord was to appreciate humour in others. When, for example, that "dog of a Gentile", the Syrophenician woman, put forward as a plea for her daughter that "the little dogs under the table do pick up the children's crumbs".
We miss much of the message of the Bible, if we think only of its serious side, and ignore its humour. Some of its most vital teaching is given with a smile; and many of its difficulties disappear, when we recognise that words that puzzle us are not to be taken with prosaic literality, but are semi-humorous exaggerations of a truth.
For example scholars have argued ponderously over the camel and the needle's eye, trying to prove that the word "camel" may mean a kind of rope, or that some narrow gate may have been called the needle's eye. But their far-fetched arguments are unnecessary, when we realise that our Lord did not disdain humour.

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