Sunday, October 22, 2006

Can Religious Folk Take a Joke?

"See, Not So Bad Once You're Up."

Haven’t heard a good sermon or read a good article about blasphemy recently.

My son Andrew and I both love Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Andrew especially gets a kick out of the “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” song that Brian and his followers sing while being crucified.

I like almost any form of religious satire. Makes little difference which faith or which place. Seems like Jesus himself spent a lot of his time skewering actual religion.

But maybe you can get too much of a good thing.

More traditional Christians have always thought so. And I’m guessing much of the Islamic cultural anger about the west basically comes down to a very different understanding of blasphemy and the kinds of limits on what can be said about God or religious people.

When the Pythons satirized Christianity they made sure to differentiate Brian from Jesus. When I poked fun at violence and power loving right wing Christianity in Confessions of Neo-Conservative Jesus I also made sure that the object of satire was a clearly bogus version of Jesus. To do otherwise would get you huge grief even in the current "secular" west.

When I was an undergrad I heard a famous 70 year old English humorist who came to Stanford say, “All humor is based on the difference between aspiration and actual achievement. At my age, that’s why sex is so funny.”

If that definition of humor is true, can people who believe God is perfect ever use real satire or joke about God? And if religions tend to make a close identification between religious followers and their God, how much satire and humor is OK when applied to religious groups and institutions?

I’m pretty interested in why religious satire tends to produce such intense emotion and even hatred and violence. Seems like kind of a key question right now.

Can religious folk take a joke?


Blogger Samer Farhat said...

As usual, good post Tom. I think it comes down to people's understanding of the sacred versus the profane. Those that are offended likely feel that satire brings the sacred to the level of the profane, regardless if the satirist uses an absurd portayal to distinguish it from real religion. People are offended that what they hold most sacred is somehow seen as profane.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I agree with Samar. It seems that satire is funny unless the object of the satire is central to a person's value system.

That's probably why us religious types get so upset about satire, though I wonder if that is why satire reveals the fragility of what we sold dearly value, since we feel the need to defend our deepest values when we feel they are being denegrated.

It is ironic that we feel the need to defend God when we feel that God is being attacked, even through satire. As if the big guy couldn't take care of himself.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, I'm not sure God needs a lot of defending either.

Pretty much every faith has some form of the command, "Don't Take the Lord's Name in Vain," so obviously you've got something at the heart of religious faith that in central and can't be allowed to be ridiculed with impunity.

I've always thought the Lord's Name refered to God's person and nature. The real deal, you might say. Making light of the real deal is clearly a no no for believers and I think even non-believers see it as bad manners, which is why so few people other than folks like the late Sam Kinnison will actually satirize or ridicule Jesus or other key religious figures directly.

But in my mind that still leaves a huge field for satire. Namely, everything that isn't the real deal and smacks of human weakness and self-righteousness. In my view that includes most of what falls under the category of religion. Of course, folks have a different view of what the real deal is, and we know people are shot through with self-justification, so satire is both risky and necessary. If you can't take a joke you probably need to lighten up and take some of the self-righteousness load off.

And you've still got to figure out how to handle the idea of blasphemy in a democratic republic. Should non-believers be able to poke fun even at the 'real deal?" I think the way we've solved in in the west is pretty good. We tend not to pass laws limiting religious satire of any kind, but we control that kind of things through widespread social disapproval. Basically, when most folks view it as bad manners you're not going to see much of it in movies, books, etc. But not sure the Muslim world or Islam would allow for that solution.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Great points Scott and Tom.

Tom, I think whether the Muslim world would allow for that solution goes back to the point you've made before about Islam lacking something similar to the Enlightenment.

12:34 PM  

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