Is ‘religious humor’ an oxymoron?

CNN, Nov. 19, 2002
By Todd Leopold

(CNN) –People take their religions very seriously.

Step over the line, and you invite lines — of picketers and protesters, letters to the editor, and in the worst-case scenarios, terrorists and suicide bombers.

Chicago artist Dick Detzner found that out first-hand when his painting, “The Last Pancake Breakfast,” was displayed in a suburban Chicago gallery.

The work depicts the icons of several breakfast products — Tony the Tiger, Trix the Rabbit, Quisp — surrounding a Jesus-posed Mrs. Butterworth in a parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Very quickly, the painting was the center of a controversy.

“I’d shown the painting in Chicago and Champaign. People enjoyed it — there was no big fuss,” says Detzner. But when it hit the suburbs, “People petitioned the museum to have it removed. … I got tons of e-mail, with various forms of outrage.”

Robert Darden wishes it were otherwise. As the editor of The Door, “the world’s pretty much only religious humor and satire magazine” (as he describes it in an e-mail), he says religion needs humor if only to burst a few overinflated balloons.

“At its best, religious satire fulfills the Old Testament mandate to break down idols,” Darden says in an e-mail interview. “As a culture, we’re idol-makin’ fools — wealth, glory, prestige, power, personalities. … If fallible, wounded People of God resist that [mandate] — be it [idols such as] a Golden Calf or a golden-throat TV evangelist — then they’re doing themselves a grave disservice.”

‘What are you so worried about?’

Religion and humor have a checkered history. There are a few stories in the Bible, such as the story of Esther and the tale of Eutychus in the Book of Acts, that have humorous elements, and Darden mentions that Martin Luther was capable of funny asides.

Then there are the countless “rabbi, priest and minister” jokes, though many of them make fun of the messengers, not God or religion themselves.

Mostly because, in history in general, to laugh at religion was to invite harsh criticism, ostracism — or worse.

Darden refers to a 17th-century admonition that banned “games, sports, plays [and] comedies” because they didn’t agree with “Christian silence, gravity and sobriety.” The penalty wasn’t specified, but people have been killed for less throughout history.

Steve Lawler, an Episcopal priest who advises organizations on ethical questions, believes the humor-impaired are the ones that truly lack faith.

“Laughing at oneself and one’s own beliefs shows a kind of faith that escapes the literally minded,” he observes.

“The idea that there is a particular line to be drawn gets complicated right away. Who gets to draw the line? What happens to those who cross it? And, probably my biggest question — what are you so worried about?”

He notes that many religious festivals celebrate life-cycle events of the seasons and of human beings. Ironically, those festivals have sometimes been hijacked by people who miss the point of celebration, he says.

“These festivals have stories and activities that are meant for fun and for humor. It is the deficit of literalist and fundamentalist traditions that make the world less enchanted and more dour,” he says.

“They are proudly ignorant of their own histories and the practices of those others who have a stronger claim on the essential understanding of their tradition.”

‘There goes the belly laugh’

Some religions seem to be more comfortable with humor than others. Mark Wallace, a professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, theorizes that Judaism and Catholicism tend to have rich traditions of humor, particularly in America, because of the marginalization of their immigrant communities.

“I think humor comes out of pain,” he says. Jewish and Catholic immigrants, who found it hard to climb the ladder in the United States early on, used their pain to make fun of their betters and themselves, he says.

Lawler also has an explanation of why America’s Protestant denominations have less of a humor tradition.

“If we look at the Calvinist form of religion that undergirds American civil religion, we can see why there is a lack of books on the humor of folks in those traditions,” he says. “Anti-emotion and anti-body, there goes the belly laugh.”

Are norms changing? In the Western world, Darden believes they are.

“We’ve seen a lot more films and TV shows dare to wade in the once-forbidden waters of religion and humor, ranging from [Kevin Smith’s film] ‘Dogma’ to the Church Lady to anything Jerry Falwell says,” he says.

“Today, pastors do feel more free than ever before to crack the occasional joke from the pulpit — for which we’re all so grateful that we generally laugh much louder than the little jape deserves.”

For his part, Detzner — who says he was raised Catholic — points out that he’s piercing the idols of commerce, not so much religion. He has a whole series of paintings he’s titled “Corporate Sacrilege.”

“If I were to try to skewer religion, they’d know it,” he says. “There are times I tell people, the only way I can take your complaint seriously is saying Jesus is a syrup bottle.”

Besides, humor reminds us that we’re human, says Lawler.

“I have done a couple hundred weddings in my life,” he says. “I have noticed the people standing before me doing one of four things: crying, being stone-faced and fearful, being sincere, and giggling.

“Too many of the humorless have loss the fullness of their humanity. They stand stone-faced and scared before God. The sad thing is that they think the rest of us should as well.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday November 22, 2002.
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