Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Can the God of the Bible take a joke?
A fond farewell from Simon Jenkins
All jumble sales must come to an end, even (or especially) apocalyptic ones. It’s time for all the tat no one wanted to take home to be tossed into a black bin bag and sent off to landfill. This column has plenty of knick knacks I haven’t been able to sell, such as Bobblehead Jesus (a plaster statue of our Lord with a too-large head wobbling about on a spring) plus the Last Supper Musical Pillow. This latter item is embroidered with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper – but what makes it special is that, when you rest your head on the pillow, it plays ‘Hey Jude’.
Lampooning these holy but hilarious products seems entirely lovely to me but I’m aware that some of the laughter spills over onto things which all Christians find meaningful and precious, such as Jesus and the last supper, neither of which are normally surrounded with mischievous laughter. Christianity has always been wary of humour, and that’s because comedy is unruly and unstable, always distracted by goings on that take place in the toilet or the bedroom. It’s why St Paul lists ‘foolish talking and jesting’ alongside ‘fornication and filthiness’ as things that shouldn’t even be talked about.
Laughter is especially difficult around God. There aren’t any acceptably comic remarks about God in the Bible, although there are verses where God finds humans laugh-out-loud funny. ‘The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming,’ says one of the psalms, which always makes me think of a Bond villain cackling with glee as a white-hot laser beam does some tailoring on the inside leg of 007’s trousers while he’s still wearing them.
Even though Socrates said ‘the gods love a joke,’ it’s worth asking: Can the God of the Bible take a joke? Several months ago, I was researching hilarious hymns for this column, when I came across the following lines by Isaac Watts: ‘His terrors ever stand prepar’d, To vindicate His name’. Watts makes the Lord sound like Donald Trump with his tiny hands hovering over the nuclear button. So, in protest against these pictures of a thin-skinned, trigger-happy God, I’d like to close ‘Jumble sales of the apocalypse’ with thumbnail tributes to three dissenters who took a poke at religion and paid dearly for it.
Let’s start with William Gott, a Bradford trouser salesman who had a quarrel with the Almighty he simply couldn’t let rest. He expressed his atheism in comedy pamphlets, for which he went to prison for blasphemy four times in the 1910s. But it was a rather good joke about Palm Sunday which finally earned him nine months with hard labour in 1921. The Lord Chief Justice of the time was outraged by Gott’s description of ‘Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys’. Gott’s health was broken by the sentence, and he died the following year. But the case was so awful that he succeeded in being the last person in Britain to be imprisoned for blasphemy.
Up there with William Gott is Charb, the editor of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. He was one of eight cartoonists gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015. After the murders, a colleague revealed that Charb often used the Islamic slogan, Allahu Akbar (‘God is the greatest’) as a comic catchphrase in emails and conversation. As in: ‘Allahu Akbar! Do you think you can get me your article by tomorrow?’ This happened so regularly, that a journalist at the magazine told him: ‘Charb, stop yelling that! The day they come to bump you off, we won’t know whether it’s a joke!’
Improbably, my third hero is Shaggil-kinam-ubbib, a conjuror who lived in Babylon in about 1000 BC. He wrote a Job-like poem protesting at how the gods had failed dismally in protecting him from the miseries of life. ‘In humility and piety I searched for the goddess,’ he says. ‘But she brought me poverty, not wealth!’ This was a significant piece of religious bravery, as witnessed by the way Mr Kinam-ubbib attempted to fireproof his poem. He embedded a secret message in it, which only comes to light when you take the first letter of each verse, and assemble them into a sentence, which reads: ‘I, Shaggil-kinam-ubbib, the conjuror, bless god and king.’ He must have hoped the gods would read this hidden confession, believe he was loyal to them after all, and take a break from smiting him. I wonder how that worked out? Badly, I’m sure.
And having said all that, it only remains for me to thank you for reading, take a final bow, and exit stage left, pursued by a well-deserved thunderbolt.
This article was published in the July/August 2018 edition of Reform