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The Sacred Art of Joking, by James Cary

18 January 2019

Fergus Butler-Gallie reads a theoretician of comedy

AT A party not long after I’d been ordained, I was introduced to another guest with this terrifying breakdown of character: “This is Fergus; he’s funny. And he’s a vicar.” Now, I don’t think either of these things is true. One is demonstrably false — as every assistant curate knows, there’s only one vicar (or in my case, Rector) who matters. Being called “funny” is more complex, but, at heart, I think those of us who enjoy making people laugh are constantly afraid that the run of luck will one day stop, as the funny stream runs dry.

One man who is indisputably funny is James Cary, author of The Sacred Art of Joking. If you don’t want to take my word for it, then head over to BBC iPlayer and watch an episode or two of his hilarious, and often quite touching, sitcom, Bluestone 42. Yet his book is not so much a book of gags (though there are those); rather, it is an insight into Cary’s theory, or — more accurately — theology, of comedy.

Cary has strong views about how a joke should be executed and, equally as important, how it ought to be received, in particular by Christians. The Sacred Art of Joking is part scientific treatise on the minutiae of comedy, part radical pamphlet urging Christianity to embrace its latent sense of humour. On the ride, we meet deliberately butchered jokes about Continental lightbulb-changers, Nazi pugs, the cast of On the Buses, and, of course, Jesus.

The range of references reflects the fact that Cary opens a vast number of doors: the book has less of the feel of a comedy script and more of a Lent course (though, these days, is there any difference?). Each chapter sparks questions and controversies about what is and isn’t funny, who gets to make jokes and who doesn’t and, in the midst of it all, where we might find a Christian vocation or, heaven forfend, God, in the midst of laughter.

There is reflective use of scripture throughout — though Judges 3.16, Philippians 3.8, and Luke 11.11 might not be the go-to texts for home groups, Cary makes a strong argument using precisely these texts that the equating of the “unkind” with the unchristian (and the concomitant shutting down of humour) is nonsense. Unlovely language is, as he says, “necessary. And comic. And Biblical.”

Cary, on his website and in his more autobiographical moments, makes it clear that he is coming from a very particular viewpoint (both in terms of comic theory and cosmic theology). This, perhaps, explains the particular view of the Church which comes across: for Cary there appears to be a dichotomy between a humour-filled Bible and the Church, as represented by Mary Whitehouse and Jorge, the laughter-loathing Benedictine in The Name of the Rose.

Indeed, Cary even goes as far as to advise clergy not to make jokes in the pulpit at all, mostly because they’re rarely funny (which, I suppose, at least answers the question about the accuracy of my party introduction). While I wasn’t expecting chapters detailing Anglo-Catholic winking campery, one can’t help but think that a Swift take on the generations of post-biblical Christians who were genuinely good at jokes might add yet more force to an already convincing argument.

This is less a gripe and more indicative of the marvellous potential that this book has for opening up conversations and avenues of thoughtful debate. Cary’s basic theological point is that God achieves his purposes “in spite of human help, not because of it”, and that, therefore, our insistence on taking ourselves seriously is farcical. He contrasts the mainstream Christian reactions to Jerry Springer — the Opera and Mormon reactions to the musical The Book of Mormon particularly effectively to demonstrate this point: when it comes to joking, do we really act as if we believe God to be in charge? Only a cursory look on to the silos of manufactured Christian outrage online gives a pretty conclusive answer.

Central to Cary’s analysis of a well-delivered joke are context and timing. This book could not be better timed (indeed, its examples are so up to date that I had to Google them, leaving my work laptop with evidence of Fascist pets on it). One can only hope that all those conversations potentially opened up here might be further developed by the wider Christian (and comedic) community.

The context is pretty spot on, too. As Western society looks set to suffer a massive sense of humour failure, there could be worse Christian witnesses than Cary’s summary of Easter, the ultimate cause of laughter, the risus paschalis, across the centuries: “The joke’s on all of us. And we might as well laugh.”

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is Assistant Curate of Liverpool Parish Church.

The Sacred Art of Joking
James Cary
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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