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Religion must be a laughing matter

23 January 2015

But effective - and amusing - satire needs to have a moral core, argues Simon Jenkins

THE murder of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices must be one of the worst examples ever of sense-of-humour failure. What could it be about a few cartoons, drawn in an atmosphere of laughter, which made others who saw them reach for a Kalashnikov?

There are many reasons that people experience catastrophic loss of humour in the face of a joke, but the traditional reason is when they find themselves squarely in the punchline.

I have been to enough comedy clubs to know how it feels when jokes are told against my faith, and a boisterous audience is laughing at something that is deeply part of me. It feels highly awkward, and very uncomfortable. And if the stand- up asks, "Any Christians here tonight?", then it feels as if you are being beckoned on to comedy martyrdom, where the roar of Colosseum lions has been replaced by roars of laughter.

Lord Carey might see this as a prime example of a way in which Christians are "persecuted" in this country - but social awkwardness can never equate to what believers go through in Iraq, North Korea, and other places of genuine persecution. I mention the experience only because I am trying to grasp even a fraction of how it must feel to someone from a truly minority faith, such as Islam in the West, when his or her religion is dragged through the mud in cartoons.

Several years ago, we launched a project on Ship of Fools, "The Laugh Judgment", searching for the ten best and ten worst religious jokes of all eternity. We confined ourselves for the most part to cracks about Christianity, as poking fun at other faiths has never been in our sights. Almost 1000 jokes were sent in by our readers, ranging from the light and fluffy to the dark and painful. We then opened an online discussion about all the most interesting jokes, inviting people to say whether they found them funny or offensive, and asking them to theologise about humour, faith, and blasphemy.

We discovered that, some 30 years after the final musical number of Monty Python's Life of Brian, many Christians were no longer shocked and appalled by jokes about the crucifixion. Some were, of course, but there were fewer of them than expected. "For me, that's when it gets personal," one reader said. "It would be like telling a joke about my mother being raped."

If you are offended by humour about Jesus, you might like to skip the next three paragraphs, as they are an example of a joke that made it into our top ten.

After the resurrection, Peter goes fishing, and Jesus tries to walk on water out to his boat, but begins to sink.

"What's happened, Lord?" asks Peter, suddenly doubting.

"Well," said Jesus, "last time, I didn't have holes in my feet, did I?"

We found that the majority of our readers were offended by jokes that contained racism and sexism, but not by jokes made at the expense of popes, priests, and Mothers Superior, or even by jokes aimed at God and Jesus.

Maybe this is the result of Christians' living for several decades in a culture where deference has declined, and where the Church has lost its sacred status, and become the plaything of comedy. Maybe it is because Christians, in a hostile climate, feel surprisingly confident about their faith.

At a live show for "The Laugh Judgment", we performed all the jokes, ending with our top ten most religiously offensive jokes. These became progressively darker and more tasteless as we approached the worst joke of all, and the audience, who had laughed gamely through some quite horrible material, finally heard the last three jokes in complete silence.

I think that something similar has happened with the most extreme Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Images of Muhammad with a hook nose, or kneeling naked, or wearing a headdress shaped like a phallus, look less like humour or satirical comment and more like a scribble on a lavatory wall. They are not mere depictions of Muhammad, but images that reach too quickly for sexual and scatological imagery to add insult to injury. On the Christian side, a cartoon showing the three Persons of the Trinity blissfully engaged in an orgy is in the same vein: small on satire, big on insult.

All religions need to be satirised. They hold huge power over us, and that power is sometimes in the hands of leaders who are abusive, controlling, ambitious, or egotistical. But satire works best when it operates from a moral centre, and makes a credible point. I would not want to see Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons banned from publication, but nor would I vote for them in an editorial meeting. Perhaps something has got lost in translation, but for me they are not funny or satirical enough. In The Decameron, the Renaissance author Boccaccio has one of his characters say: "The nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog; for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse."

Even the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo which bite like a dog do not add up to a justification for young men to murder 12 people in cold blood. But they do make it hard for me to say "Je suis Charlie." Instead, put me down for "Je suis not convinced."

Simon Jenkins is Editor of Ship of Fools, the online magazine and community.

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