Did Christ laugh?
Religion is no laughing matter. Or is it? Our Paris correspondent points out that biblical prophets make full use of irony and there are plenty of examples of humour among the Christian saints. For it is humour that cuts human beings down to size. LAUGHTER has often been frowned upon by serious thinkers ? whether philosophers or theologians ? as unseemly, frivolous, an abdication of reason or, worse, a diabolical temptation. As the prince of the mockers, Voltaire, put it pithily:Those who seek the metaphysical causes of laughter are rarely funny. Neither are most theologians. Religious traditions tend to regard laughter with suspicion. The Old Testament contains more humour than the New, for wit and humour are an integral part of Judaism. Jews have developed a certain freedom of speech and even familiarity in their relations with God, especially in the midrashim, the oral commentaries of the Torah, which explains the hidden meaning of Scripture. The Talmud is based on dialectic, on contradictory truths, on wordplay where humour has a role. Now the atheist begins to understand how he could become a believer and the believer how he could turn atheist. As Woody Allen put it:God does not exist and we are his chosen people. Many puns and tricks conveyed in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament are lost in translation. For example, in the Genesis account of the creation God fashioned man (adham in Hebrew) from clay (adham?), and the woman created from one of his ribs was to be called woman (ishsh?) because she was produced from man (ish). Proper names play an important part because they denote the true identity of a person or thing. To change one?s name signifies a change in one?s vocation ? thus Abram became Abraham (father of a multitude of nations) and the names of the patriarchs conceal hidden meanings. The best-known example is that of Isaac whose name Yitshaq means he will laugh. The son of Abraham and Sarah was given this name because at the announcement of his birth by God both Abraham, 100 years old, and Sarah, 99 years old, laughed at the idea of becoming parents. This is the first laugh in the Bible, but not the last by any means. Certain books are totally satirical. The book of Jonah is a fictitious tale that ridicules sectarianism, and the book of Job is an ironic commentary on conventional religious ideas and morality. The prophets resort to ridiculous or outrageous behaviour to denounce the corruption of the chosen people. Isaiah went around naked for three years, Ezekiel ate a cake made of barley and human excrement, and Hosea married a prostitute to symbolise the prostitution of Israel with false gods. The Wisdom Books are full of humorous aphorisms, concerning feminine wiles or the abuse of alcohol, that could have come straight from the pen of La Rochefoucauld or Oscar Wilde. Lack of humour in the New Testament led to a famous debate among scholastic theologians: did Christ laugh during his earthly life? This is one of the themes of Umberto Eco?s The Name of the Rose. The plot of his medieval detective story centres on the concealment, in a monastic library, of the second book of Aristotle?s Poetics, devoted to comedy, by the reactionary monk Jorge de Burgos, who claims that laughter is diabolical and should be banned from the monastery. This is the tradition of the desert Fathers and founders of monasticism, Anthony, Pachomius, Augustine and Benedict, who all condemned laughter as the enemy of the spiritual life. Saint Chrysostom held that we are not on earth to laugh but to weep over our sins and Saint Benedict, in his monastic rule, condemned at all times and everywhere ? buffoonery and idle talk which provoke laughter. It is true that the gospels never show us a laughing Christ. We are told that he wept over the fate of Jerusalem and that he was moved to tears by the death of his friend Lazarus. He also warned: Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall know mourning and tears ? a condemnation of wicked men who mock their victims. But one only has to observe Jesus? behaviour and listen to his parables to be struck by his sense of humour. He shared meals with outcasts and sinners, announced that prostitutes would precede the pious into heaven and his first miracle was to change water into wine. He reversed the accepted hierarchy of values with irony and humour. The early Church?s attempt to banish laughter from Christian life was doomed to failure. The mystery plays soon had their farcical interludes and the spirit of carnival vied with the sobriety of church devotions. Thanks to Boccacio, Chaucer and Villon, writers of the medieval fables and especially Rabelais and the great Renaissance authors, Erasmus and More, humour came into its own. Even the monastic rules became more relaxed. Saint Francis of Assisi cautioned his brothers not to appear sad and gloomy, like hypo-crites, but joyful in the Lord, gay and friendly as is fitting. Monasteries today are noted for their good humour, and one French abbot is even on record as saying:Without humour, monastic life is impossible. On the whole, the Catholic Church has a better reputation for humour than its Orthodox or Protestant sisters. The Orthodox, particularly the Greeks and Russians, take their religion tragically. Their mystical tradition is more flamboyant, particularly that of Christian folly. The fools for Christ (yourodiv in Russian, salos in Greek) were itinerant monks who acted out the folly of the Cross (as Saint Paul called it). Rather like the Old Testament prophets, they appeared as madmen, village idiots or court jesters. Protestants, on the other hand, are much more dour and subdued, apart from the extremist elements, the Holy Rollers, Quakers or Pentecostalists. The Catholic tradition, which takes into account the whole man with his five senses, is rather more jolly. As Hilaire Belloc put it: Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine,
There is laughter and good red wine.
At least I have found it so,
Benedicamus Domino! There are a certain number of Catholic saints, like God?s jester Saint Francis, who had a healthy sense of humour. The most eccentric of them all was Philip Neri, founder of the Roman Oratory. He had what the Italians call festivit? (good humour). He hid his ascetic private life by his pranks and practical jokes. He would cut ridiculous capers in front of his cardinals, put his clothes on back to front or wear large white boots with his cassock. He would pull people?s hair or beards, and was known for the ridiculous penances he would give to the city dignitaries to teach them humility. He once told a pompous burgher to carry a large dog through the streets of Rome. Humour serves to destabilise the ego. This is why laughter is essential to religion. It cuts a person down to size. Humour is the first step to humility.
? Alain Woodrow?s article is based on his new book, Et ?a Vous Fait Rire!, published by Les Editions du F?lin, Paris.