“What did the Romans ever do for us?”
Recently, one of my comic heroes passed. Terry Jones, the (very!) creative director of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and actor in numerous Python skits, has made his final curtain call. In The Life of Brian he played Brian’s mother and the phrase that ‘she’ uttered: “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy” will go down in comic history as one of the great lines of all time. Of course, I should admit that I am a Monty Python fan from way back, indeed, as were most of the theological students at my college in the early 1980s. It was almost mandatory then for all theological students to be able to recite large portions of The Life of Brian, and, if this was beyond your ability, you should at least have been able to recite the ’Parrot Sketch,’ the one about Norwegian Blues that stun easily.
The Life of Brian was deemed to be a ’a bit naughty’ in my day. It was, according to the most popular analysis, blasphemous. There were interviews on TV where self-selected English Bishops told us as much – only to be exposed in the interview as having not seen the movie in the first place. Not a moment of glory for the Church! I have seen interviews with the Python crew some years later that indicate they looked closely at the story of Jesus only to conclude that ’he was a pretty good bloke’ and that ridiculing him with Python humour was not really what they wanted to do. So their historical analysis of the story of Jesus led them to see the factions (the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes and Zealots) in early first century Judea, as well as the role that the Roman Empire played in persecuting (but ultimately enabling) the Christian cause (“What have the Romans ever done for us..!”)
For me, The Life of Brian was never blasphemous, just hilarious. But it did raise the important and somewhat personal issue for me (and my faith) at the time. The issue revolved around whether or not I could laugh at myself as I engaged in the very serious business of theological study. Were laughter and God ultimately connected or would a life of faith mean a life of seriousness and dour contemplation for me? Maybe, just maybe, Terry Jones and the mad Python crowd enabled me to laugh at myself and to avoid the dangerous pitfall of pomposity that every wannabe Vicar must negotiate. Let me return to this point in my conclusion—there is much more to be said about the Gospel and Humour and it can only be addressed very briefly here.
One of the happy consequences of learning to laugh at oneself (and even at aspects of one’s faith) is that I became aware that I was laughing at the silly scaffolding that every formal religion erects around its core belief(s). There is so much ‘scaffolding’ (dogma, doctrine, acts, canons, resolutions) in the day-to-day rehearsal of one’s faith as a priest that it is entirely possible to lose sight of the important matters at the heart of things.
Years later, this “humour vs God” issue played out in another interesting way. I was studying the fine art of psychoanalytic psychotherapy and the role of humour once again came up as a topic for consideration. The role of humour, according to Freud, was “to make the unacceptable acceptable.” I have never been able to corroborate this attribution to Freud (and yes, I have spent quite a lot of time looking) but, on the basis that my tutor at the time knew what she was about, I have never rejected this insight. Humour does seem to be able to disarm us of our defences and corrupt our rigidities. Yet a good laugh, for all this, doesn’t spell the slippery slope to individual moral decline—humour doesn’t ‘ruin’ us—it just gives us a little breathing space that we might not ordinarily allow ourselves.
Research is even adding to the usefulness of humour—laughing for a minute a day is said to have very real benefits for blood pressure and the like. Apparently you can even go to laughing sessions where you are made to laugh and therefore derive empirically verified benefits from the same!
In the end, it may be attributing too much to Terry Jones to say that he formed me as a theologian, shaped my self-view, de-stressed my life and extended my lifespan. Nevertheless, laughter, humour and absurdity have been my constant friend ever since I can remember and any gifted purveyor of these precious elements in our lives deserves some sort of praise.
So, as promised, I return to the serious business of humour in the gospels: It was Alfred North Whitehead (one of the great early twentieth century philosophers) who said ‘the total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature’. And, the theologian Ralph Wood concedes that it is ‘not without cause that the Bible ‘has been called the world’s least amusing book, a sober-minded tome whose black covers convey its essential mood and vision’. Yet another notable scholar, John Morreall declares: ‘God of the Bible has no sense of humor’ and that ‘if the Scriptures are God’s revelation of himself and his will for human beings, humor has no place in God or in his plan for human beings.’ These are harsh conclusions — you’ll agree — and, in my opinion, they all share the conceit that if it doesn’t make me laugh it isn’t funny. As I’ve already commented, humour is very cultural and contextual so in order to determine that which is funny we need to delve more deeply.
On the basis that there’s a theory for everything you may not be surprised to learn that there is a well researched theory about humour. What makes something funny? Well, the current theory, known as ‘The General Theory of Verbal Humour” (the GTVH for short), maintains that there are to be two stories being spoken but they are at odds with each other. A good example is a metaphor—we learn about something through the imagery of something completely different. So, for example, we might say that “the curtain of night fell upon us” and we do not literally mean that the night turned into some sort of velvet curtain. “The curtain” and “the night” have nothing to do with each other technically—but they form a rather beautiful metaphor. Let’s be clear here, metaphors are not necessarily funny in themselves (that’s not the point) but they are the necessary condition for humour to actually happen.
And here’s the real value of this GTVH theory: it is universal, i.e. applicable across cultures and across the centuries. So long as these two stories that are at odds with each other involve the actual vs the non-actual, the normal vs the abnormal or the possible vs the impossible they harbour the necessary ingredients for a good laugh. So, when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20) he is saying something that is actual vs non-actual, or perhaps possible vs impossible. The groundwork for humour, at least, is there, even if it is impossible for us so many years later to tell if any one was laughing…or perhaps scoffing. Perhaps the Gospel has far more humour in it than we have every given it credit for?
In the final analysis I would like to say that ministry for nearly forty years has provided plenty of laughs. It has turned out not to be so serious after all! My inital sense of guilt, that somehow laughter and God don’t go together, has diminished entirely. With the mundane things of life and the glories of heaven there will always be two stories that are at odds in our lives. Such is the foundation of our faith and the source of eternal laughter.