Redeeming religious laughter
FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
One of South Africa's leading papers, The Mail & Guardian, announced last Friday that it had underestimated "the depth of anger ignited' by a cartoon it published earlier. It depicted the Prophet Muhammad lying on a psychiatrist's couch, with a thought bubble over his head that said, 'Other prophets have followers with a sense of humor!' The weekly said it regretted "the sense of injury it caused many Muslims." The cartoon was by Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, whose sharp satiric pen has gouged many a politician.
Zapiro (one of my favorite cartoonists) is keenly aware that touching religion can be explosive. A classic Zapiro cartoon that I show in presentations to highlight the special sensitivities around religion has the cartoonist tiptoeing across a surface adorned with heads sticking up out of the sand, wearing different religious garb; a nearby sign says: "Danger - Religious Minefield." Zapiro spares no one, be he Pope or President. In the new cartoon, however, he was raising the question of how religion and humor are linked and did not seem to be poking fun at anyone.
Peter Berger is a very serious scholar of religion, but whenever I see him, the first thing he says is "Have you heard the one about..." The story almost always involves characters from different religions who highlight the foibles of their various traditions. And he wrote a whole book on religion and humor: "Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience." This scholarly, fascinating book examines both how different religious traditions approach humor and what religious humor means in the history of human consciousness. He sees laughter as both fundamentally human and a boundary area between the profane and the spiritual.
Humor can bring joy and danger. Comedy in an earlier era was sharply delineated from more sober intellectual pursuits. But, with the Enlightenment, many aspects of humor were tamed. Berger comments that to mitigate the dangers of unrestrained mirth, both religion and the comic have been confined to specific places and times. Modernity did away with much of the enchantment of medieval times as rationality came to reign. He suggests that modern comedy can be related to characteristics of modernity that include intellectualism and emotional control.
So a first answer to the Zapiro character's challenge is that indeed humor and religion go together and most or all religious traditions have elements of humor. And cartoonists spare nothing. Gary Trudeau in his Doonesbury cartoon this week even takes on God: the military chaplain character, despairing of what is happening to her troops in battle, comments that God must be "doing her nails".
The furor around cartoons and Islam caught South Africa by surprise and has sparked lively debates. One commentary on the controversy goes to some lengths to emphasize that despite the dour images of Islam, Muslims are blessed with a decent sense of humor; the commentator quotes the Qur'an as evidence of the Prophet's own clever sense of fun and humor. South Africans seem horrified at the vehemence of the outcry. I had the chance to ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu about it at a meeting; he thought that the reaction was prompted by what Muslims felt they ought to be expressing, more than a genuine sense of outrage.
The global angst and debate about cartoons and their depiction of Muslims clearly have deep roots that go well beyond the question of whether it is acceptable to tell jokes. Questions about freedom of speech are pitted against restraint and voluntary limits, and the debates about defamation laws raise plenty of important questions around human rights in today's diverse societies. And there is a fundamental issue of the reality of Islamophobia and totally understandable concerns of many Muslims that their deeply held faith and their identity as Muslims are not treated with respect. That, it seems, is the real reason that tempers flare.
In questioning where humor is cruel or kind, it is worth remembering two key elements of good comedy. The best humor is often directed at oneself. And timing is everything. Many of the best religious jokes have a punch line that returns to the teller's own faith: the rabbi tweaks Judaism and the Presbyterian minister ends the joke with a surprise insight into his sober faith. In the current global environment where we so badly need to build and cement a nuanced and thoughtful appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of all religions, Islam included, and to turn our commitment to human rights into something that that truly enhances the human condition, the timing and tenor of jokes need wisdom more than legislation, good timing more than bans.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
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