“If it turns out there is a God,” Woody Allen once declared, “I don’t think he’s evil. I think the worst you can say about Him is that He’s an underachiever.”
Is it ok to joke about God? Can wise-cracking go too far when it comes to matters religious? Some think humor and religion just don’t mix, like oil and water, or, for those who keep kosher, milk and meat. I think they complement each other like chicken soup and matzah balls.
“Humor,” said 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is the last stage of existential awareness before faith.” The Baal Shem Tov, 18th Century mystic and founder of Chasidism, believed that “humor moves a person’s mind from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness…. Humor helps lift us out of depression into a place where God’s love and goodness become palpable and real.” The 3rd century Talmudic sage Rabbah started his lessons with an opening joke.
Having spent years hanging out at the intersection of the holy and the humorous, I’ve amassed a collection of religious humor — cartoons, jokes and parodies – that fills eight scrapbooks and hundreds of computer files. My experience of laughing prayerfully, or praying laughingly, as well as some very amusing research, culminated in “Religious Humor: The Historical and The Hysterical,” a presentation I give for religious and community groups. As self-designated synagogue class clown, I regularly put cartoons on the office doors of my rabbi and cantor. It helps that I come from a family of competitive jokers.
Let me clarify that I’m not talking about Catskill shtick or making fun of anyone’s beliefs. An example of the religious humor I enjoy comes from Pastor Susan Sparks, who once delivered a sermon titled “Lord Grant Me Patience – and Make it Snappy.” Sparks is pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City and a stand-up comic on weekends. And there’s Woody’s take on Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the lion lie down with the kid, the calf, the beast of prey and the fatling together.” His version: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get any sleep.”
Well-timed hilarity relaxes muscles, reduces stress hormones, strengthens the immune system, increases endorphins and T-cells, and lowers blood sugar. Clergy and religious scholars and philosophers have long recognized the healthful aspects of laughter. The biblical proverbs were written thousands of years ago, but the author of Proverbs 17 wisely recognized that “A merry heart makes for good health. Despondency dries up the bones.” Adds Sparks, “Laughter heals and grounds us in a place of hope. It fosters intimacy and honesty in our relationship with each other and with God.”
Religious humor extends across centuries and civilizations. Pastor Sparks’s research turned up an ancient Greek text referring to laughter as a means of merging with the divine and an Egyptian creation myth which teaches that the human soul was created through divine laughter. Bes was the Egyptian god of humor. He’s in good company with Lud, his Celtic equivalent; Pan, from Greek culture, also god of love and confusion; and Uzume, a Japanese shaman-goddess who encouraged humor as a way of achieving wholeness. Trickster gods were troublemakers who brought humor and joy. They include the Native American god Coyote, Loke from Teutonic legend, and Hermes, the Greek god, and his Roman counterpart Mercury.
So, yes, it’s ok to laugh about our feelings about the Almighty. The issues religion raises — the meaning of life, good and evil, how to treat our fellow humans, what happens after we die — are serious and bewildering enough. Also, understanding that religion can thrive in a humorous mode makes it less intimidating. Many of us probably share the feelings of the late comedian George Carlin, who once remarked. “I’m not an atheist. I’m not an agnostic. I’m an acrostic. I’m puzzled by the whole thing.”
Ann Green is a free-lance writer and writing tutor who has a mild obsession with religious humor. She speaks to community groups on “Religion and Humor: The Historical and the Hysterical.”