Ann Widdecombe‘s most recent offering on the BBC is a documentary entitled: Are you having a Laugh? -Comedy and Christianity. It was a sociological exploration into the relationships between british comedy and the faith that I hold. The thesis, which is to some extent disproven in the documentary, is that we now live in a society were sneering at and ridiculing christian tenets of faith has become a central part of our culture of comedy. The dog collar and the casoc have always been fair game, but now we laugh at what Christians believe. By doing so, Christianity is becoming privatized. While the documentary is certainly welcome by this writer, I would have much rather seen Widdecombe portray a more explicit theology rather than sticking to a sociology of laughter. I guess sociology is what passes as theology at the BBC.
It’s when God laughs that people take note. The laughter at the foot of the cross on which Jesus died, the humour of Ricky Gervais, some of Stephen Fry’s offerings, or the former christian Jimmy Carr should have been contrasted with the laughter at the resurrection of Jesus three days later. I might be unfair, perhaps it was. Perhaps the thesis of this blog post is about to be problamatized.
It is unsurprising that the most theological observations about comedy and our society came from evangelical Paul Karenza, a stand up comic and co-author of the BBC’s hit show Miranda. Obviously he has thought about his work in relation to his faith a great deal. The other is the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. Both talked about their experience of watching the then controversial Monty Python film Life of Brian. They observe that the film is not about Jesus but rather about Brian and more or less say that the humour is intended to be about people misunderstanding the message of Jesus’ teaching. Steve Punt of the Now Show makes the observation that the only time Jesus is shown in the Life of Brian is from a distance, a scene in which he is giving the sermon on the mount, perhaps the most central message Jesus gives. As the camera pans out one of the characters asks what Jesus is saying and misunderstands the beatitude ‘blessed are the peacekeepers’, for the claim ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’. As an evangelical the punchline hits very close to home.
More surprising however, and a testament to his wit and humanism, was the self evidently understood theology behind the joke told by the atheist political comedian
, approvingly quoting the evangelical comedian Tim Vine. Vine does what comics do best. He took what has by now become a cliche and added a twist to Carolyn Joyce Carters poem Footprints. Cheesey poetry indeed.
Keeping the same meaning of the cliche in the poem in which God walks with a man along the beach with the leitmotiv being footprints in the sand which is meant to illustrate God’s care for the Christian, Vine changes the instance where Ms. Carter would have us think God was carrying the questioning Christian when only one set of footprints can be seen. Vines interpretation of the single set of footprint is not that God picked up the faltering Christian. His is that whether the Christian new it or not, God had them skip along the beach together.
This is light humour rather than the more serious humour of Christ’s crucifixion. It is at this instance that Widdecombe might shudder and even call me blasphemous, but it is my understanding that the crucifixion, and the required subsequent resurrection (as the necessary double entendre of the cross) is the most cosmic of jokes available to humanity. If we understand the inner workings of a joke to be that of incongruity, in which the tension is built up to an excruciating level, and then an unexpected punchline is delivered to the audience of the narrative in order to alleviate that tension, the ensuing effect is laughter.
If the cross of Christ is the tension, the resurrection is the punchline. It is at this theological juncture that the joke is on the naysayers laughing at the foot of the cross, laughing at the death of God, for they know not what they have lost. Christian humour is far deeper than this infinite cynical sneer.
Standing from a viewpoint of that punchline, any amount of ‘persecution’, or incentive joking by comics (many of whom I enjoy immensely) is nothing to be afraid of. Bring it on.