What role does humor have in religion?
June 13, 2010 5:37 PM   Subscribe

What role does humor have, if any, in religion?

I've long wondered where, in the pantheon of human experiences that world religions deal with, does humor sit?

1. I'm looking for well-informed and perhaps scholarly work on the role of humor in western and non-western religions. If you have links, I'd really appreciate them.

2. I'm not looking so much for sociological studies as to why there are so many Jewish comedians (for example), but rather, does humor/laughing have any role in the liturgy, in the holy texts, among the clergy, in prayer, etc.

3. If you can think of any examples of humor in religious texts (Torah/Talmud, Koran/Hadith, etc.), I'd love to hear what you know.

posted by holterbarbour to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a paper on humor in the Hebrew Bible. It's kind of awesome, and I'd imagine the reference list would have some pretty great reading as well.
posted by superlibby at 5:58 PM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

You may find this article and its list of references at the end useful WRT Jewish/Christian Scripture. Also good to know there is (or at least was, it doesn't seem to go beyond 2008) an International Journal of Humor Research: it looks like humor and religion is a recurring topic, so it might be worthwhile to dig around those archives.
posted by nanojath at 5:58 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by nanojath at 5:58 PM on June 13, 2010

Can't speak to anything that takes longer than a cup of coffee to read, but you might find The Straight Dope on the subject interesting.
posted by tellumo at 6:00 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Christoph Harbsmeier wrote a wonderful article entitled "Confucius Ridens" (the smiling Confucius) about humour in the Analects. As far as I can recall, he draws comparisons between [that] and Greek and Roman uses of philosophical humour, and what specifically he believes it entails in the context of the Analects. Though Confucianism isn't religion per se, it has had a massive influence.

MeMail me if you don't have academic access to the article.
posted by flippant at 6:03 PM on June 13, 2010

I have no scholarly links to offer you, but look into Zen, and particularly koans. Zen has a distinct absurdist streak—it's meant to provoke enlightenment, not laughter, but perhaps it's related to what you're looking for.
posted by ixohoxi at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2010

I can't find my (old) relevant syllabus from the class, but I would highly recommend looking into Cherokee religious ceremonies and ideas, especially post-contact. Off-hand, here's a link about the Booger Dance, which included really funny caricatures of white people in ritual:
Each is called by name and performs his own solo dance. There are Cow’s Tail, Sooty Anus, Black Buttocks, Sweet Phallus, Penis, Rusty Anus, and Big Testicles. Most of the dances represent the boogers’ names in some way. It’s mostly just chaotic motion and groping. The clumsy display brings to mind a white man imitating an Indian dance.
But by including the whites as a part of the ritual and making them into a funny character, the Cherokee were able to gain a spiritual and social power over them. That is an oversimplification, but just kind of a distillation. (If I'm inaccurate, feel free to correct.)
posted by quadrilaterals at 6:19 PM on June 13, 2010

These are great! Please keep them coming!
posted by holterbarbour at 6:45 PM on June 13, 2010

Don't know if you're at all interested, but Foucault's 'The Name of the Rose" is a (fictional) medieval murder mystery set in a monastery which relies on some Christian medieval attitudes toward humor in religion. The book and the movie are both very good.
posted by darkstar at 6:50 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agh! Umberto Eco, not Foucault!

Jeez, brain.
posted by darkstar at 6:51 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

In late medieval and early modern English literature, there are many allegorizations of the Seven Deadly Sins that are (I think) meant to elicit a mix of humor and horror. Some good examples are Langland's Piers Plowman, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.

Oh, and the mystery plays often rely upon situational comedy and scatological humor as well. In several of the cycles, there is a play on "Joseph's Doubt" (that Mary is really a virgin) that is usually played for laughs, and whenever devils show up, they usually use filthy (but very funny) language.

Good question.
posted by duvatney at 6:59 PM on June 13, 2010

My favorite religious humor is from Sufism: the stories of Nasruddin. Even a casual googling will turn up all sorts of lessons in the form of funny stories.

This site includes my absolute favorite, listed as "What in the World Were You Smuggling?"
posted by mordax at 7:10 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

religious texts (Torah/Talmud, Koran/Hadith, etc.)

The New Testament is chock-full of jokes and puns. The only anecdote I can think of at this moment is that when Jesus refers to Peter and the rock, there's a pun involved, because Peter "means" rock.

I think in Thomas Cahill's Desire of the Everlasting Hills, he refers to Jesus The Trickster when relating the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. (Thomas Cahill catalog link)

'Fraid I'm short on linkable-specifics, but my main point is to not ignore the huge amount of data that is easily found. The meme of the Trickster in religion has been gaining popular traction since at least the 1970s in the USA, so I'm actually having a hard time thinking of a religion that doesn't apply to your question. (eagerly awaiting posts from folks that actually study this stuff - yeah, wicked good question)
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 7:41 PM on June 13, 2010

In Judaism, the mishna and the talmud have a good deal of stories meant to educate those who study them about. One source of traditional Jewish humor (and education) were the stories about Chelm. The mythical place was a city of fools, essentially the Jewish version of Stan and Ollie jokes, but the stories were also parables of religious learning.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:52 PM on June 13, 2010

There's a religious studies professor at William & Mary, John Morreall, who specifically studies humor. One of his classes (according to this) is "Comedy, Tragedy and Religion."
posted by Alt F4 at 7:58 PM on June 13, 2010

My personal favorite piece of biblical humor comes from a scene in the Book of Exodus. The people are hot, and hungry, and exhausted. One guy looks up at Moses and asks (in what I imagine to be a Groucho Marx voice):

"Were there not enough graves in Egypt, so you had to take us to die in the wilderness?" [Ex. 14:11]


I don't know why, but that one actually cracks me up. I'll let the other MeFi clergy people add their favorites as well. :)
posted by AngerBoy at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

So in 4:3, the Qur'an says: "...Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice." So multiple wives are okay... if you can do justice to them. Sounds easy, right?

Then, later on in the very same surah, we get 4:129: "Ye will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much ye wish (to do so)." In other words, what a silly mortal you are for thinking you can deal equitably with more than one wife! Fat chance!

People have read this as forbidding polygamy. Whatever your position on that, it's pretty witty!
posted by a sourceless light at 10:53 PM on June 13, 2010

Whatever your position on that, it's pretty witty!

posted by hal_c_on at 2:40 AM on June 14, 2010

The book of Jonah (4 short chapters) is generally regarded as satire.
posted by apartment dweller at 2:54 AM on June 14, 2010

"The most distinctive traits of the Northern mythology are a peculiar grim humor which is found in the religion of no other race, and a dark thread of tragedy which runs through the whole."

"Perhaps the funniest of the Norse myths is Þrymskviða, which tells how the giant Þrym stole Mjöllnir and refused to return it unless Freyja (the goddess of love, and the sister of Freyr) was given to be his bride. Freyja, naturally, refused. The gods were desperate to recover Mjöllnir. Heimdall concocted a plan: Þór would disguise himself as Freyja and travel to Þrym's hall to recover the hammer. Þór protested, "The Æsir will think me perverted."

His protests were overruled. The gods dressed Þór in a bridal veil and a becoming dress. To the outfit, they added broaches, and they hung a bunch of keys from his waist. Their eye for detail only added to Þór's misery, while delighting the assembled gods. Þór's protests were ignored as the gods crowned their efforts by placing a head-dress on Þór's head.

Taking Loki to serve as bridesmaid, Þór traveled to Þrym's hall in Jötenheim, land of the giants. Þrym was in a frenzy making preparations once he saw that "Freyja" was arriving. That evening, at the feast, Þrym was suspicious of "Freyja's" enormous capacity for food (an entire oxen) and drink (three casks of mead), as well as of her blazing eyes, but her "bridesmaid" explained that it was due to "Freyja's" wild anticipation for her wedding night.

When the hammer Mjöllnir was brought out to hallow the marriage, Þór snatched it and used it to crush the skull of Þrym and to kill all the other giants in the hall.

I can't do justice to this story of Þór and Þrym in two paragraphs. It is beautifully understated deadpan comedy and is considered to rank with the best ballads in any language. It also highlights a significant aspect of an Norseman's view of the gods: rather than being fearsome deities, the Norse gods and goddesses were comrades with whom it was permissible to be familiar."
posted by iviken at 4:22 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my limited experience, Budhists are the funniest lot. Most other religions I've been around, not so much.
posted by sully75 at 5:34 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zen koans are used to kind of shock the brain with cognitive dissonance, and can be pretty funny in an absurdist way.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:02 AM on June 14, 2010

There's quite a sizable scholarly literature on Christian attitudes to laughter. Start with the article by M.A. Screech and Ruth Calder, Some Renaissance Attitudes to Laughter, which Screech later expanded into a book-length study, Laughter at the Foot of the Cross. This is indebted to Mikhail Bahktin's seminal study of Rabelais in the History of Laughter, in Rabelais and His World, first published in English in 1968. See also Quentin Skinner's article Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter (pdf), which provides a good overview of classical and Renaissance writings on the subject, and Jacques Le Goff, 'Rire au Moyen Age', translated as 'Laughter in the Middle Ages' in Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, eds., A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day.

Screech and Calder observe that 'at least since St Augustine, Christian writers have often been suspicious of laughter'. As readers of The Name of the Rose will know, St John Chrysostom pointed out that in the Gospels, Jesus is recorded as having wept but never as having laughed; while St Basil argued that laughter could never be appropriate in such a sinful world. Although the Old Testament refers to God's laughter, this is usually in the context of scornful laughter (e.g. Psalm 2:4, 'He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision'), and this is paralleled by Aristotle's theory of laughter, which holds that laughter is always an expression of contempt.

Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque offers an alternative history of laughter, exemplified in the writings of Rabelais, in which laughter is a healthy and liberating force. 'For the Renaissance', according to Bakhtin, 'the characteristic trait of laughter was precisely the recognition of its positive, regenerating, creative meaning'. However, Bakhtin's interpretation is challenged, in different ways, by Skinner and Le Goff. Skinner shows that Renaissance theorists, following Aristotle, tended to take a more negative view of laughter as arising from scorn and contempt. Le Goff argues that the positive and negative aspects of laughter always went hand in hand, so that it's misleading to set up an opposition between Carnival and Lent, Christian gloom on the one hand and Rabelaisian merriment on the other.

So there are several possible ways to think about the role of laughter in Christianity. You could argue that throughout its history, Christianity has always been suspicious or intolerant of laughter, so that if you want to bring the laughter back into Christianity, you'll have to step outside the mainstream tradition and take the plunge into the riotous, subversive world of the carnival. Or, alternatively, you could argue that there is a rich, though often repressed heritage of laughter available in the Christian tradition if you only know where to look for it. One of the delights of The Name of the Rose is the way it uses the debate between William of Baskerville and Jorge of Burgos, and their struggle over Aristotle's lost book on comedy (which William wants to preserve and Jorge wants to destroy), to dramatise the choice between these two alternatives.
posted by verstegan at 4:38 PM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I forget where I heard this but I remember someone pointing out that in occupied Judea, "render unto Caesar what is Caesars" could probably be read sarcastically.
posted by condour75 at 7:27 PM on June 14, 2010

And the same with "...and unto God that which is God's". What isn't God's?
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:59 PM on June 15, 2010

I think some of the most interesting intentional humor in the Hebrew Bible is Elijah mocking the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18:

22 Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only one of the LORD's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God."
Then all the people said, "What you say is good."

25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire." 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

There are other similar passages where a prophet mocks the idea of someone worshiping a (non-existent) idol god. Like Isaiah 44:

14 He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.

15 It is man's fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.

16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
"Ah! I am warm; I see the fire."

17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
"Save me; you are my god."

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.

19 No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
"Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?"

There are numerous other examples, I'm sure.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:31 AM on June 16, 2010

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