Is it funny?

Paul Griffin asks whether people are too quick to take offence at humour based on Christianity and the Bible

Each age is puritanical and licentious in its own ways. In our age, there seem to be many people who pride themselves on the speed and ease with which they are offended. A joke that would have passed unnoticed fifty years ago stirs up a wasps’ nest of letters to the Press. If Muslims object to references to the Koran, readers say, why should Christians be indulgent to mockery of the Bible? There are in fact a number of answers to that, one being that we are not Muslims, another that Our Lord himself on occasion made religious jokes.

There are two basic types of joke: the type that is launched at a target, as in ND’s 30dAys, and one that is just frivolous, like the old hymn joke: ‘Gladly the cross-eyed bear’. I doubt if this was intended as a criticism of hymns, or of a particular hymn. It is just a joke. Should a joke involve the cross? Probably not, but when I remember some of the jokes my sainted father-in-law used to bring back from Convocation, that even shocked me, a young man of no particular piety, I am astonished at its moderation.

The Old Testament, of course, is safer ground. A book that contains Og the king of Basan, Ittai the Gittite, and Dodo the Ahohite, while being not in itself a bundle of laughs, cannot be immune from titters.

In our teenage, when sermons seemed much longer and more focused on the Old Testament than today’s, the name Chedorlaomer leapt out at us as a relief from boredom, and we whispered ‘cheese’ to each other in a witless way.

The sanctity of hymns is uncertain. There has always been a tendency for poets to use hymn parodies as missiles, as T.S. Eliot, not an irreligious man, does in his poem ‘The Hippopotamus’ on the lines of Cowper’s ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’ about the True Church and its dividends.

There used to be a fashion for singing scurrilous, or at best non-religious, words to psalm chants. I remember a clergyman going wild with fury when he heard a group of boys singing inappropriate words to ‘There is a green hill far away’. Something of an overreaction, I thought.

When Graham Leonard, in his days as Bishop of London, joked that he did not want to receive Communion from a woman, because he just wanted to take her into his arms, he received considerable criticism. In lessons on literary criticism, one is taught to weigh a statement by its Sense, Feeling, Intention, and Tone. Under these headings we ask four questions about the author. First, what is he saying? The answer here is that he was stating a fact. Second, what is his attitude to the subject? He finds the ordination of women ridiculous.

What does he want to achieve? He wants to comfort and rally such as ourselves, and provoke his opponents to thought. Finally, what is his attitude to his audience? Some would say that he patronizes and underrates their intelligence, others that he overrates their ability to see his serious implications.

These are important questions for religious jokers. While our giggles about Chedorlaomer were not notably respectful to the faith, they implied a fellowship of equality, a belief that we were not offending those to whom we spoke. Directed humour is quite another matter. We cannot but know that some of these pages may offend, but equally we cannot but know that they encourage our members, and hope they provoke thought in those to whom the magazine is also sent.

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