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Comedy and the Christian Faith: Appreciating Jesus’s humour gives us a new perspective

One day long ago, in the 1970s, I remember listening to the fusty old Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, on Radio 4. Years later I read a novel by Italy’s premier semiotician, Umberto Eco. The combination of both gave birth to a need to write a book on Christianity and comedy.

Lord Hailsham, urbane, dry and precociously witty, left a few bon mots behind: “The best way I know to win an argument is to start by being in the right”; “The introduction of religious passion into politics is the end of honest politics, and the introduction of politics into religion is the prostitution of true religion.” But it was listening to him muse about Jesus’s sense of humor that suggested I had missed the laughter of Jesus in the Gospels. He talked about Jesus’s hyperbole and the wit that lay behind the parables.

Failing to confront a builder’s plank stuck in one’s eye while giving way to a preoccupation with spotting a speck of sawdust in our neighbor’s eye is ludicrous and funny. Whether the eye of a needle is the eye of a needle or the name for a tiny entrance in the Jerusalem wall doesn’t matter much. It’s still about a monumentally large clumsy thing trying to get into or through a very small and delicate space. It’s the stuff that comedy is made of.

Reading the New Testament is a two-way process. We read it, but it also reads us. If we have no idea that love laughs, we may miss both the love and the laughter in its pages. We talk for instance about the parable of the prodigal son, but really, the story is about the prodigal father. A father so steeped in love that he runs towards his wastrel child and forgives him everything from greed to egotism and prostitutes and gambling. Jesus walks in dangerous territory here. For at the heart of the story is the message that there is nothing that should stand between us and the forgiveness of the Father. The father is almost eccentrically funny in his generosity.

Did Jesus laugh? The disciples must have laughed as they penned the papyri. Even calling the pompous, self-righteous religious prigs whose own self-regard was inversely proportional to their real spiritual caliber, “white-washed sepulchers”, is as funny as it is rude. Peter’s own ludicrous over-reactions veering between high-octane courage and narrow-minded over-confidant dogmatism are as funny as they are tragic – if you love him.

Read more at Catholic Herald

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