Friday, 19 September 2014

humour in religion

One characteristic that I don’t associate with religious fervour is a sense of humour. You only have to recall the fury generated in the Muslim world by cartoons allegedly poking fun at the prophet Muhammad that were produced by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005 to realize that for Muslims, depicting their prophet in any way other than complete reverence is blasphemous, although I would concede that the cartoons in question were not particularly funny.

However, you would have to search long and hard to find anything funny in the Bible, so I conclude that Christians share with Muslims a revulsion at the very idea of not taking their respective religions seriously. Nevertheless, I know of one passage in the Bible that had my son Siegfried in hysterics when I read it aloud to him many years ago (he was 12 or 13 years old at the time).

Chapter 19 of the book of Genesis relates how God conveys to Abraham his intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the licentious lifestyles of their inhabitants. Abraham queries whether this is such a good idea. The conversation that results may not match the incisive wordplay of Abbott and Costello’s ‘who’s on first’ routine or the Two Ronnies’ ‘fork handles’ sketch, but it does feature the same kind of incongruity that characterizes Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch, in this case the very idea of a puny, insignificant human who has the temerity to tell God that he’s wrong.

The passage below is based on the Authorized Version of the Bible, but when listening to someone reading it aloud, it is impossible to tell the difference between ‘He’ and ‘he’, so I’ve replaced these pronouns by ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ in the former case and by ‘Abraham’ in the latter. Do bear in mind that if you plan to read it to someone, any comedic effect will be lost if you stick with the usual po-faced solemnity with which any reading from the Bible is usually treated. Comic timing is essential.

23 And Abraham drew near and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
24 “Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that are therein? 
25 “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from thee! Shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?” 
26 And the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” 
27 Then Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon myself, which am but dust and ashes, to speak unto the Lord: 
28 “Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for the lack of five?”And the Lord said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.” 
29 And Abraham spake unto God yet again and said, “Peradventure there shall be only forty found there?” And God said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.” 
30 And Abraham said unto God, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall be thirty found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 
31 And Abraham said, “Behold now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: peradventure there shall only twenty be found there?” And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake.” 
32 Then Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but this once more: peradventure a mere ten should be found there?” And God said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.” 
33 And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
One can assume that, for the purposes of the biblical narrative, the required ten righteous persons were not forthcoming, so God destroyed the cities anyway, although I should add that there is no indisputable archaeological evidence for the existence of the two cities in the first place, let alone for the ‘fire and brimstone’ that God allegedly used to destroy them.

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