The A-Z of Believing: J is for Jokes

Faith always involves a degree of absurdity... Ed Kessler, head of the Woolf Institute, presents the 10th part in a series on belief and scepticism

Saturday 20 October 2018 19:08 BST
Comic belief?
Comic belief? (Shutterstock/agsandrew)

Written and presented by Dr Ed Kessler MBE, founder and director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, this compelling guide to religious belief and scepticism is a must-read for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Founded in 1998 to explore the relationship between religion and society, the Woolf Institute uses research and education to foster understanding between people of all beliefs with the aim of reducing prejudice and intolerance.

Says Dr Kessler: “Latest surveys suggest that 85 per cent of the world’s population identify themselves as belonging to a specific religion, and in many parts of the world the most powerful actors in civil society are religious. Understanding religion and belief, the role they play and their impact on behaviour and decision-making is, therefore, vital.”

Dr Kessler – who was awarded an MBE for services to interfaith relations in 2011 – is an affiliated lecturer with the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, a principal of the Cambridge Theological Federation and additionally teaches at the Cambridge Muslim College.

He says: “This A-Z of Believing aims to show how the encounter between religions has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of civilisation and culture, both for good and for ill. I hope that a better understanding of believing will lead people to realise that while each religion is separate, they are also profoundly connected.”

J is for… Jokes

A sense of humour and the ability to laugh are not traits we normally associate with faith. The religious personality is more likely to be linked in our mind with images of austere puritans, or stern Victorians, than with storytellers who have a twinkle in their eye, like Rabbi Lionel Blue. But from the earliest days, humour has been part of religion, as the book of Ecclesiastes states: there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”.

Perhaps laughter – our ability not to take ourselves too seriously – is related to our ability to take other things very seriously indeed

Even the Book of Esther, with its terrifying theme of attempted genocide, is full of as many reversals as a Whitehall farce. Of course, the Bible does not consist of books of jokes, but its lack of textual indicators to alert the reader to a joke, as well as its lack of punctuation (not even exclamation marks!), means that humour is often overlooked. I recently wrote a book on Jesus and noticed that his humour was often missed. Ordinary life in first century Palestine was difficult and the time was right for comic relief. Religious comedy can be found from ancient times to the modern day – from the matriarch Sarah who laughed when she was told she would have a son (the name “Isaac” means laughter) to the joke about a Catholic telling a Muslim, “My priest knows more than your Allah”. The Muslim thought for a moment and then replied, “Of course he does, you tell him everything”.

Comedy is often about coping in difficult conditions and laughter keeps everyone going. Some psychologists have deconstructed humour in terms of managing external hostility through self-mockery. A Yiddish proverb illustrates what this means: “Want to alleviate your big-time worries? Put on a tighter shoe.”

Religious humour is a means to reach a wide audience and break down barriers between ordinary people and to make them more receptive to moral instruction. In a warning about judging others, Jesus said, “How dare you say to your brother, ‘let me take that speck out of your eye,’ when you have a log in your own eye?” Rather than expounding the meaning of hypocrisy, his listeners would just have laughed, and reflected on, an absurd scene.

Another example of comic absurdity can be seen in this critique of Jewish leaders in the Gospel of Matthew:

“You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of law, justice, mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Those who heard Jesus speak might have been shocked that he was taking on the establishment, but they would also have enjoyed his clever turns of phrase and plays on words. The joke is even more apparent with knowledge of Aramaic, Jesus’s native tongue, as the Aramaic for gnat is galma and the word for camel is gamla.

What we can laugh at, we can rise above. Perhaps that is why peoples who have suffered much have developed a sense of humour as a defence against despair. Humour has something to do with hope. Listen to this:

In the 1930s a Jew is travelling on a bus in London, reading ‘The Jewish Chronicle’. Suddenly, to his shock, he spots a friend of his reading a Nazi newspaper. He glares at his friend in anger‚ ‘How can you read that Nazi filth?’ he asks. Unabashed, his friend looks at him. ‘So what are you reading, ‘The Jewish Chronicle’? And what do you read there? In England there is an economic depression and Jews are assimilating. In Palestine, Arabs are rioting and Jews are being killed. In Germany they have taken away all our legal rights. You sit there and read all about it, and get more and more depressed.’ But I read the Nazi newspaper and lo and behold, we own all the banks and control all the governments!’

Perhaps laughter – our ability not to take ourselves too seriously – is related to our ability to take other things very seriously indeed. A trait of religious humour is a self-assurance and confidence about who we are and having the courage to talk about any subject, from life to death. One Sunday morning, a priest noticed a little boy staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the church. The plaque was covered with names. The seven-year-old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the priest walked up, stood behind him and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex”. “Good morning, Father,” replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. “What is this?” he asked. “Well, son, it’s a memorial to all the men and women who have died in the service.” Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Alex’s voice was barely audible when he finally managed to ask, “Which one, the 9 o’clock or 10.30 service?”

Jokes are an art form and humour varies from being neurotic, nervous, and alive with superstition to being farcical and a mockery. But let me end this podcast as my favourite Christian comic, Dave Allen, ended each broadcast – good night and may your God go with you.

Next week is: K for Karma

Listen to each episode of An A-Z of Believing: from Atheism to Zealotry on the Woolf Institute podcast site or wherever you get your podcasts

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