Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Religion and Humor

This morning I watched two television segments that raised the issue of the use of humor in addressing religious belief.

First, a segment on the Today show addressed the decision by some twenty-five newspapers, including the strip’s host newspaper the Washington Post, not to run last Sunday’s Opus cartoon. I didn’t realize that such a controversy existed because my local newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle, did run it. The Post syndicate sent an alert to the papers that carry Opus letting them know that the August 26 and September 2 strips might be objectionable to some. There were two concerns with the strip. First, it poked fun (rather gently, it seems to me) at Muslim fundamentalism and second, it contained some sexual innuendo.

I enjoy the Opus strip. The subjects treated and the humor used are more often than not more appropriate for adults than for children and one could probably make a good case for including it on the Opinion page rather than on the Comics page, as some papers have done with Doonesbury.

The discussion on the Today show included conservative radio talk show host Michael Smerconish who saw the suppression of the strip as political correctness run amok. He said that our fear of offending Muslims ends up making us less safe because it keeps us from taking the necessary steps to defend ourselves against attacks from extremists. In the same conversation, Hussein Ibish, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, said that those papers that did run the strip had the right to do so and those that did not run it had the right to do so, as well. He said that not running it was a legitimate editorial decision based on what he saw as the “provocative” and “incoherent” nature of the strip. I suspect that the truth is that the desire not to offend Muslims lay at the heart of most editors’ decisions not to run it. Does fear lie at the base of such decisions? Perhaps, given the riots that ensued following the publication a couple of years ago by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. It should be noted, though, that no such reaction has followed the publication of the Opus cartoon which did not show an image of Muhammad.

What really raises the hackles of some folks is that the previous week’s Opus strip poked fun at the recently deceased Christian evangelical minister Jerry Falwell and no warning was sent out about it and no papers decided not to run it. That raises the question of a double standard—is it ok to make fun of Christians but not of Muslims?

The other television segment I watched was an interview by Larry King with Bill Maher. Maher talked about a documentary film about religion that he and Larry Charles (Borat) hope to release next Easter. He said that he’s thinking about titling it Religulous, a combination of the words “religion” and “ridiculous,” which I guess tells you everything you need to know about the tenor of the film. While one should reserve judgment until the movie is viewed, I think we can safely assume that the humor directed toward religion will not be gentle.

What should we make of such things? First, it is important to be kind to one another. Christians and other people of faith should take care to be as loving and gentle as we can be. Personally, I’d rather tell a Baptist joke than a Methodist or Muslim joke because then I’m talking about my own tribe. We really should try to avoid hurting one another.

Second, it’s also important to be able to laugh even about very serious matters. When we step back and try to be objective, there’s a good bit of strange and unusual in all religious practices. That’s a good thing, because we are supposed to offer a counter-cultural and even otherworldly witness to those around us. There’s still room for smiles and laughs, though.

Third, we need to recognize that some humor about religion should be cutting because some ideas that are put forth in the name of religion deserve to be lampooned. Even then, though, some caution should be exercised because of the seriousness with which people take their beliefs.

Fourth, religion operates in many realms and among those realms are those of ideas and words. In a society where the free expression of ideas through words is a cherished freedom, any effort to limit speech should be avoided. In turn, if someone is offended, they have the right to say so.

Many years ago I saw a pair of Christian comedians doing a pretty funny shtick. It was during the period when Cyndi Lauper, Captain Lou Albano, and Hulk Hogan were involved in a professional wrestling storyline that was called “The Rock and Wrestling Connection.” These two comedians proposed something similar that would combine church practices with wrestling. They demonstrated some wrestling holds that could be used in such a scenario. One was a full Nelson, in which one wrestler grasps the other one in a manner that causes his arms to shoot straight up; they said that this would be a “Pentecostal hold.” The audience thought that was pretty funny. Then, though, the duo demonstrated another hold. It was a choke hold that they called the “fundamentalist hold,” which, they said, “cuts off the oxygen to the brain.” The audience groaned at that one. I confess that I was laughing at home. The comedians never seemed quite to get their audience back after that. Why it was ok to poke fun at Pentecostals but not at fundamentalists escaped me. Perhaps it was the content of the joke. The one about Pentecostals could be seen as a gentle jab at the known and accepted practices of Pentecostal worship while the one about fundamentalists could be taken as a swipe at their intelligence or at least their willingness to think. Of course, not all fundamentalists are thinking-challenged, but not all Pentecostals raise their hands when they worship, either. But some are and some do.

And therein lies the rub. Where does humor become hurt? Where do the lines exist? Such is the challenge.

I’m not kidding.

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