Monday, May 14, 2007

Jokes in the Bible

"And the Bible, from apple to Armageddon, does not contain a single joke." (Julian Gough, "Divine Comedy," Prospect Magazine, Issue 134 , May 2007)

Is that really true?


Second interesting tidbit from the same article:

"The problem is not specific to Christianity. Islam has always had a problem with comedy at its expense, as Salman Rushdie showed in The Satanic Verses. In Medina, in year two of the Hijra migration, with Mecca not yet fallen, the Prophet asked the faithful to kill the Jewish-Arab poet Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf for reciting his poems satirising the Prophet (and joking about Muslim women). The faithful obliged."


Third tidbit:

"The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent."

Gough goes on from there, into a few more claims about how cool novels are. But the idea that the work is more intelligent than the author (or than readers) is one that crossed my mind while I was working on my dissertation: Doris Lessing is a great writer, but her novels are much more intellectually sound than her essays. When she tries to say what her novels are about, her remarks fall far short of what the fiction itself is actually doing.

Further (about that reader parentheses in the previous sentence), at the same time, I also noticed that Christa Wolf's "Was bleibt," with all the controversy surrounding it, was far more insightful than all of its critics and supporters—and probably than its author realized, too.


Fourth tidbit:

"The comic point of view—the gods'-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing."


Fifth tidbit:

"The task of the novelist is [...] not to fake a coherence that does not exist, but to capture the chaos that does."

NOT. Kyle Gann:

"There's no reason music should reflect the world. If a chaotic world needs chaotic music [...], the terrifying 14th century wouldn't have produced the orderly isorhythmic motet [...] Since I don't believe we live in an unusually chaotic period, my theory about neoexpressionism ["Downtown" music from New York in the eighties, e.g., John Zorn] is that it provides an illusion of freedom, chaos, heroic survival, in a world that, when you really look at it, seems ever more rigidly controlled by corporate machinations." (That's from Music Downtown, but I have it because

That's a lot of tidbits!


mrjumbo said...

Sounds like a fun article. I'll have to dig it up.

Whether the Bible includes jokes depends on how you read it and what you think a joke is. (God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"/ Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on.")

But it does include some wicked pranks. Think of David stealing King Saul's underwear while the King takes a dump. What about Solomon telling the two "mothers" that they can both have the child; he'll just cut it in half?

Like beauty, humor sometimes is in the eye of the beholder. If you take it too seriously, the Bible, like any other work, can die with a thud. But leavened with some levity, it gets richer and more human.

Sarah thought it was funny when God told her she was going to have a son at her wizened old age. So when she did bear fruit, she named him Isaac, which means "May God laugh," give or take a nuance. Since the Bible is (at least partly) a story of how words came to be, there are lots of plays on words.

But behaviorally the story is also funny, at the same time as its richness takes that humor deeper. What do we make of Noah waking up hungover and cursing his grandson with eternal slavery? Can anyone not see the humorous element in that?

Some of us might find other, subtler humor in the dead-on character descriptions of people whose types we still know, in the arch weariness with which the Preacher describes "fools" again and again in Ecclesiastes, in the mistaken-identity circus of Esau and Jacob, poor thick Esau starved and selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. Is it funny when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and finds the Israelites worshiping a golden calf? How can anyone not see the humor in this, not roll their eyes along with the prophet--who then rewards the crowd with a little Laurel and Hardy slapstick, smashing the tablets before he makes the idolaters drink the ground-up calf?

Every one of these moments has its serious side too, sure. Comedy is tragedy told with timing. I don't think the Bible restricts us from seeing the humor. And I'd say if we can't see what makes these moments ironic, we miss a lot of what makes the stories worth retelling.

Andrew Shields said...

I wonder if Gough really meant "jokes" in the narrowest sense, or "humor" in a broad sense. As you suggest, Mr. J., there's a lot of humor there, though usually not at Yahweh's expense?

Julian Gough said...

I'm flattered you found so many tidbits in my essay, Andrew. As to Mr Jumbo's points... well, I would say we're talking about two different things. I agree you can find the Bible funny (I often howl with laughter reading it), but that doesn't mean it contains any jokes.

A joke is a fairly mechanical device, made out of words, designed to make the reader laugh. For it to work, the information has to be delivered in a certain order, the word order within each piece of information has to be just right... And I don't see that in the Bible.

Even when the writer is describing something that is inherently funny, the writing, the style, the delivery of information is po-faced. It's heavy with the importance of what is being told. It's not meant to be funny.

So we're both right. There are funny things described in the Bible. But the descriptions of them are not jokes.

And on the broader issue of humour, same thing applies. There's a great deal of humour to be found in the bible today. But it wasn't put there deliberately by the writers.

Best of luck with the blog, Andrew, and thanks again for engaging with my essay,

-Julian Gough

Andrew Shields said...

Julian, thanks for clarifying your point about humor vs. jokes!