Photo of Paris man holding up Je Suis Charlie sign

Religion must be a laughing matter

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In the wake of the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Ship of Fools editor Simon Jenkins argues that while all religions need to be satirised, the satire works best when it operates from a moral centre and makes a credible point.

THE MURDER OF cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices must be one of the worst examples ever of sense of humour failure. What could it be about a few cartoons, drawn in an atmosphere of laughter, which made others who saw them reach for a Kalashnikov?

There are many reasons why people experience catastrophic loss of humour in the face of a joke, but the traditional reason is when they find themselves squarely in the punchline.

I’ve been to enough comedy clubs to know how it feels when jokes are told against my faith and a boisterous audience is laughing at something which is deeply part of me. It feels highly awkward and very uncomfortable. And if the standup asks, ‘Any Christians here tonight?’ then it feels like you are being beckoned on to comedy martyrdom, where the roar of Colosseum lions has been replaced by roars of laughter.

Lord Carey might see this as a prime example of how Christians are ‘persecuted’ in this country – but social awkwardness can never equate to what believers go through in Iraq, North Korea and other places of genuine persecution. I only mention the experience because I am trying to grasp even a fraction of how it must feel to someone from a truly minority faith, such as Islam in the West, when his or her religion is dragged through the mud in cartoons.

Several years ago, we launched a project on Ship of Fools called The Laugh Judgment, searching for the 10 best and 10 worst religious jokes of all eternity. We confined ourselves for the most part to cracks about Christianity, as poking fun at other faiths has never been in our sights. Almost 1,000 jokes were sent in by our readers, ranging from the light and fluffy to the dark and painful. We then opened an online discussion on all the most interesting jokes, inviting people to say whether they found them funny or offensive, and asking them to theologise about humour, faith and blasphemy.

We discovered that some 30 years after the final musical number in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, many Christians were no longer shocked and appalled by jokes about the crucifixion. Some were, of course, but there were less of them than expected. ‘For me, that’s when it gets personal,’ said one reader. ‘It would be like telling a joke about my mother being raped.’

If you are offended by humour about Jesus, you might like to skip the next three paragraphs, as they have an example joke which made it into our top 10.

After the resurrection, Peter goes fishing and Jesus tries to walk on water out to his boat, but begins to sink.

‘What’s happened, Lord?’ asks Peter, suddenly doubting.

‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘I didn’t have holes in my feet last time, did I?’

We found the majority of our readers were offended by jokes which contained racist and sexism, but not by jokes made at the expenses of popes, priests and mothers superior, or even by jokes aimed at God and Jesus. Maybe this is the effect of Christians living for several decades in a culture where deference has declined, and where the church has lost its sacred status and become the plaything of comedy. Maybe it is because Christians feel surprisingly confident about their faith in a hostile climate.

At a live show for The Laugh Judgment, we performed all the jokes, ending with our top 10 of religiously offensive jokes. These became progressively darker and more tasteless as we approached the worst joke of all, and the audience, which had laughed gamely through some quite horrible material, finally heard the last three jokes in complete silence.

I think something similar has happened with the most extreme Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Images of Muhammad with a hook-nose, or kneeling naked, or wearing a headdress shaped like a phallus, look less like humour or satirical comment and more like a scribble on a toilet wall. They are not mere depictions of Muhammad, but images which reach too quickly for sexual and scatological imagery to add insult to injury. On the Christian side, a cartoon showing the three members of the Trinity blissfully engaged in an orgy is in the same vein: small on satire, big on insult.

All religions need to be satirised. They hold huge power over us and that power is sometimes in the hands of leaders who are abusive, controlling, ambitious or egotistical. But satire works best when it operates from a moral centre and makes a credible point. I would not want to see Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons banned from publication, but nor would I vote for them in an editorial meeting. Perhaps something has got lost in translation, but for me they are not funny or satirical enough.

In his book, The Decameron, the Renaissance author Boccaccio has one of his characters say: ‘The nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog, for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse.’

Even the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo which bite like a dog do not add up to a justification for why young men should murder 12 people in cold blood. But they do make it hard for me to say ‘Je suis Charlie’. Instead, put me down for ‘Je suis not convinced’.

This article was originally published in the Church Times

Photo: Valentina Calà under CC BY-SA 2.0

Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins is the editor of Ship of Fools, and the author of comedy-meets-religion book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse.

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