Jesus the most subversive funny-man? That might be a controversial thing to claim, but I think it’s true and I think by articulating and defending the notion Christians can present a far more provocative offering to the Guardian readership than what Patrick McKearney charged stand-up comedians with on Tuesday last week.
Of course he is right on one level. Stand-up comedy in this country tends to be fairly lazy about making religion the mark of its haha-darts. The opportunity to open up the moral imagination of the audience, by challenging presuppositions, getting under the skin of prejudice and allowing a glimpse of illustrative honesty to erode the antagonism many atheists feel towards religion is often farted away. But let them get on with it. People, honest people, will get bored of the shallow offering. Creative comedians will come along and deliver. As one comment said: “Write some jokes then.”
But I also think that Mr. McKearney’s view has two problems which are worth raising. Organised religion has power. When power is abused, or when the powerful act in a hypocritical way, they deserve to be corrected through mockery. The Pope, dear Patrick, has his own country. Don’t forget that. Moreover, as a Christian I am told to expect to be the object of mockery since what I believe is so offensive to the more refined sensibilities of the sure-smart anti-theists.
But I think Christian teaching is so offensive because Christianity offers one of the greatest stories of subversive laughter. The claim that the creator of the universe visited his creation by being born as a vulnerable baby in a manger, escaping a murderous king, then proclaiming his divinity as an adult before the most religious—and as the story goes—most ruthless, power-hungry political schemers of Israel; then dying on the cross and subsequently rising from the dead so that his followers could be reconciled to his way of life and participate in a new creation order – that, Patrick, is laughable. But the humour takes on two forms: The laughter of joy and the laughter of mockery.
The laughter of the soldiers who made a crown of thorns and placed it on his head, and stuck a notice above him saying: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” – that’s the laughter of the powerful mocking the seemingly weak. But the statement is entirely consistent with the nature of the power that Jesus sought to show his disciples, the chuckles of which we hear of in his entrance into Jerusalem: Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews, riding into Jerusalem on an ass. Not a horse, an ass. Born into a manger, the target of infanticide by a murderous faux half-king, riding an ass into Jerusalem, now that is what I call subversive. An ass Patrick, an ass. The nature of Christianity, a King riding into triumph on an ass, and the good news that it brings, a message for the humble who are laughing with joy because they can’t believe their luck. That’s subversive and powerful.