Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Jesus’ sense of humour
Simon Jenkins ponders Jesus’ sense of humour
The shortest verse in the Gospels is famously: “Jesus wept.” But how about: “Jesus laughed”? Did that ever happen? Can faith be funny? Does the Holy Ghost make people split their sides? Has God got a sense of irony? I’ve been thinking about these questions for quite a lot of my life, but they remain questions, because Christianity, from the Spanish Inquisition to Westboro Baptist Church, has been famous for its sense of humour failures.
One person for whom these questions were more pressing than usual last month was the retired teacher, Albert Voss, from Münster, in Germany. Voss is an atheist who likes to advertise his non-faith through the medium of funny, homemade car bumper stickers. One of them reads: “Jesus, our favorite artist: hanging for 2,000 years and he still hasn’t got cramp.” Probably the most offensive thing about it is that its not very funny, even by the legendary comedy standards of Germany.
The stickers landed Albert in court, where he was convicted of blasphemy and obliged to cough up €500. I was surprised to learn that blasphemy is a criminal offence in Germany, as it is for eight other EU countries. It was a good job Albert didn’t drive his weak jokes about Jesus and the Pope around Ireland, where his wallet could have been relieved of up to €25,000.
We Christians seem to be in two minds about religion and humour. About the same time Albert was appeasing the Almighty with a cash payment, someone posted the following thought on Twitter: “Did Jesus have a sense of humor? I’m sure He did. Can you picture a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle without laughing?” Well, yes, I can. No offence, Jesus, but it would be miraculous if a 2,000-year-old joke could still raise a weak smile, let alone a genuine laugh.
Most Christians I know think Jesus could be funny. It’s quite widely accepted that he did the first-century equivalent of standup, with gags such as the gnat and the camel doing the backstroke in someone’s glass of wine, or routines such as the man happily walking round, oblivious to the great big plank of wood hanging off his face.
But when you think about it, having a sense of humour isn’t just about being funny. If someone on a dating website includes “Must have GSOH” in their list of requirements, they don’t mean “Must tell lots of jokes”, they mean “Must be able to take a joke.” There’s a big difference.
So what about Jesus? Has he got GSOH? Did he mind having his leg pulled by the disciples? Is he OK if people crack jokes about walking on water? Did he find the crucifixion scene in Life of Brian funny? Is he cross if Christians involuntarily laugh when someone exclaims: “Jesus Christ on roller skates!”? Did he mind that whenever I used to see Robert Powell in Holby City, I thought: That’s what Jesus would look like as an OAP?
Something tells me that quite a lot of Christians would object to those questions, because they hold that even mild jokes about our Lord are blasphemy. That’s really unfortunate when you think about it, because if humour only goes one way – as in Jesus poking fun at the Pharisees – then it would make him someone who laughs at others, but goes ballistic when they laugh back. That sort of God would have all the easy, self-deprecating humour of Kim Jong-un.
It’s not clear, reading the Gospels, whether Jesus really did have GSOH as we know it. But what is clear is that whenever the Church has access to significant political power, it loses any GSOH it might have had. That’s why we still have the legacy of blasphemy laws in Europe, with churches resisting their repeal.
We need to make up our minds about God. Are we going to embrace the radical New Testament idea that Jesus was truly one of us, with all that implies for giving and taking humour? Or are we going to stick with a more Old Testament kind of God: distant, grumpy and making a note every time someone says “OMG!”? The answer is important because it goes to the heart of the vexed issue of religious offence.
Edward Abbey, the American author and hellraiser, once said: “Jesus don’t walk on water no more; his feet leak.” On the spectrum of humour, that is possibly a shade darker than Albert’s not very funny bumper sticker. But it’s a joke I think Jesus can take, without reaching for a thunderbolt.
This article was published in the April 2016 edition of Reform.