Wanted: a divine wit

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 17/04/06):

It was a question of who delivered our catchphrase first as we walked out of Good Night, and Good Luck, and my wife came in 15 seconds ahead. “Not many jokes,” she said: a definitive judgment. By which she meant that a movie about media people battling McCarthyite odds ought to have some of the wry, coarse humour of any newsroom, as well as po-faced executives quivering over big issues. Life is serious, but not that serious – as I almost said a few weeks ago in my one and only real church sermon.

I chickened out, of course. If you’re a neophyte preacher standing in the pulpit at Trinity Chapel, Dublin, sandwiched between a polyphonic mass and holy communion, you instinctively steer clear of gags. Through long childhood years of local church and Baptist chapel, then up to London to hear Dr Sangster or Soper, the great pulpit men of their era – prepare to be uplifted, not amused; prepare for light without shade.

And that, to this day, is one of my troubles with religion, my struggle at the hurdle of acceptance. Not many jokes. Not a trace of one vital ingredient of survival, hope, endurance that actually makes the world go round. I know that God is compassionate, wise and merciful, and mighty when raised to wrath, because I have been told so many times. But I do not know whether he has a sense of humour, because there is scant textual evidence to hint as much.

It’s difficult, naturally, to talk about senses of humour without sounding as portentous as a researcher carrying clipboard and pencil. Do you like Noel Coward or Bernard Manning, Charlie Chaplin or Ricky Gervais? The choices and styles are infinite. Yet, on any short list of traits that separate humankind from the animal world, you’d have to put humour high on the list: an indispensable proof of our difference, of our humanity.

Organised religion, though, puts no such listing on its formal agenda. Sure, there are plenty of jolly priests in fiction and reality. The Vicar of Dibley and Don Camillo could happily watch Father Ted over a bottle of amontillado. The exceptionally entertaining chaplain of Trinity College knows all about cocktails in Bono’s riverside bar. Wise-cracking rabbis work the comedy circuit and Thought for the Day with equal felicity.

But these are men and women of the cloth playing out of the pulpit, having normal good times, being as human as any of us (because they are). None of that addresses the dearth of evidence connecting their laughter with anything from Genesis on. Where does humour – the gift of self-knowledge and self-abnegation, among other things – come from? Not from the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount or any other passages I can run to earth. Maybe, trawling the extremities of the internet, there’s an in-joke when Samson sets an obscure riddle. Maybe Abraham managed a grin when his 90-year-old wife bore him Isaac. Maybe the parting of the Red Sea had its lighter side, unless you were an Egyptian.

Not a word of this, however, adds up to the central recognition that humour exists, or matters. Either the bearers of Testament, Old and New, couldn’t contrive a grin between them, or the thought never occurred to them because religion itself is so deadly earnest. Does the George Bush who makes knockabout after-dinner speeches keep any of that perspective when Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell starts born-again sermonising? Is there a trace of light or shade when the new Pope tears into the “clots of callousness” destroying family life? Where, just over the Muslim divide, can any flicker of wry reflection be found as demonstrators die over a few paltry cartoons?

If life is so unrelentingly serious, why did God give us a sense of humour in the first place? Why does he never mention it, or instruct us as to what it’s for? We can excavate for ourselves, as Muriel Spark did, uncovering new mines of Catholic wit after her conversion, but it’s a solitary mission: it stands to one side of how the church preaches, it finds no sustenance in scripture. Hellfire, damnation, evil and devilry … They’re all there, along with tolerance, understanding and the rest, in sermons of now and long ago. But the ability to smile, to shrug, to see the absurd as clearly as we’re told to see the apocalyptic? That’s the missing link. Not many jokes. So we have to write them for ourselves.