Or more precisely, why don’t the gods of the three great monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – ever laugh? Also, a corollary question: why don’t the spokesmen – they are always men – of the gods ever laugh? Why does no one – the gods or their spokesmen – ever tell a joke?
Well, actually that is not strictly true. God does laugh in the Hebrew Bible (Prov. 1:25-26a, NASB):
And you neglected all my counsel And did not want my reproof; I will also laugh at your calamity ...
And also Psalm 37:12-13 (NASB):
The wicked plots against the righteous And gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him, For He sees his day is coming.
There are also a few sparse examples of great biblical characters laughing, as when Sarah laughed at being told of the future birth of a son (Gen. 18:11-12, NASB):
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?
(I believe analogous remarks could be made about the Qur’an, but I will stick with biblical texts for reasons of familiarity.)
The only laughter in the Bible – either Testament – is either the laughter of vindictiveness in which God is said to laugh at someone’s calamity, or laughter like Sarah’s about something that seems too good to be true. (To stave off charges that I am taking the biblical text too literally, I guess I should make the obligatory disavowal -- for the I’ve-lost-count-how-many-th time -- that I do not take take the monotheists’ text literally. But I do take it seriously as accounts of the writers’ conceptions of God, much as I take the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s favorite cherry tree, not literally, but seriously: as a story about character, not factual history. Exercise for reader: practice writing "suspension of disbelief" 100 times on the whiteboard.) As for jokes … well … fuggid-about-it! Granted what is considered laugh-worthy and joke-worthy is very tightly culture-bound. Stage humor in Shakespearean England was notoriously crude, pertaining mostly to things like flatulence and rather clumsy sexual double entendres, so much so that we usually do not find it funny today. But even if I make generous allowances for cultural differences regarding what is considered humorous, and allow for the marginal possibility that, in their day, the authors of the biblical canon at times had ‘em rolling in the aisles and wiping tears for roughly 4,000 years … I still don’t see it. Even when we have taken into account cultural differences, the Bible remains an unrelievedly serious book.
I can suggest one salient reason: the tap-root of humor is a loss of control, or perhaps the discovery that control was never ours to begin with. I mean this in a double sense: (1) lack of control over language, and (2) lack of control over events. Herewith a few examples of each:
(1) Lack of control over language
Language can do odd things at odd times, and in the process violate our expectations by acting in ways we do not expect and cannot control. For example:
A horse walks into a bar. The bartender greets the horse by saying “Why the long face?”
That’s it. That’s all. That’s the joke. There is no more. If we ask that question of a human in identical words, we are asking about their emotional state. But when addressed to the horse, the same expression pertains to the horse’s facial physiognomy. The joke revolves around this ambiguity, and so frustrates our control and expectations by apparently – but not really – ending prematurely.
Speaking of ambiguity, ambiguity can also be induced by similarity of word-sounds:
Didja hear that the Snapple company has opened up a new tea-manufacturing plant in the little Outback village of Mercy, Australia? It's true! But instead of making tea out of tea leaves, the Mercy factory dips koala bears in water several times, then proceeds to bottle the resulting brew without filtering it. So … the koala-tea of Mercy is not strained.
Portia’s speech – or rather, the sound, the acoustics of her speech -- from Act IV, sc. 1 of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice gets merrily dragooned into a description of tea made from koala bears. This loss of control raises ambiguity to an almost sublime level.
And when you consider, e.g., Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s On First” routine, you can remove the “almost”: that is loss-of-control-through-ambiguity raised to the level of the literally and unqualifiedly sublime. (If you are a Vicar of Dibley fan, think also of the brilliant "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" routine by Alice Tinker [Emma Chambers] and Geraldine Granger [Dawn French].) In that case, we do not lose control – we know what is going on – but Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (or Alice and Geraldine) do.
(2) Lack of control over events
As examples of humor achieved through a lack of control over events, you can do no better than to point to any Marx Brothers stage production or movie from the 1930s: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, etc. But however chaotic events on stage or screen become, there is always a happy ending, improbable -- and most of all unpredictable -- though it seems at the start. In the genre of slapstick and physical comedy, similar remarks apply to any performance of The Three Stooges.
But an unambiguously happy ending, while nice, is not necessary. One of the funniest movies made in recent years is the screen adaptation of Steel Magnolias, with Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Darryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts. The lack of control here is ultimate: Shelby Eatonton (Julia Roberts) gives birth to a son, goes into a diabetic coma from the stress, and dies – and yet the post-funeral cemetery scene, especially the banter between Louisa “Weezer” Boudreau (Shirley MacLaine) and Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis), is a delicate blend of the tragic and the funny. (Says Clairee at one point: "Aw, Weezer, y'know I love ya more than my luggage!") Yet it is that very instability, that deeply comforting lack of comfort for any of the characters, that tendency for tears and laughter to mutually subvert one another -- I always laugh and cry simultaneously during the scene in the graveyard -- from which the cemetery scene of Steel Magnolias derives its depth and power and profundity. In fact, Steel Magnolias is one of the easily-count-'em-on-one-hand elite of religious movies to walk the fine line between mawkish sentimentality and preachy bombasticism -- and virtually the only one to do so with grace and seeming nonchalance. I am aware of no rivals.
What does all this have to do with the humorlessness of monotheistic religious texts and the gods thereof? Well … just about everything.
Humor always threatens any religious orthodoxy, but monotheistic orthodoxy most of all. For monotheism is about control. One god gives laws, one god establishes a covenant, and one god erects a moral framework within which human beings are enjoined to live and to act. (Prior to the middle 1600s and the end of the great religious wars, one would have been obliged to add “reveals one True Religion” to the above list.) Transgressions from this one scheme are believed to inevitably result in catastrophes, both temporal and eternal, something that goes under the technical term of “sin”. This conduces, cannot but conduce, to what can only be called hyper-seriousness, because literally everything, without exception, in the City of God as well as the City of Man is at stake. Add in the conception of God / Jesus as the Word, and lexical ambiguity is no less threatening: hermeneutics is a high-stakes game. Wars were fought -- optimistically 200 years' worth, but doubtless more -- in attempts to establish which is the one true interpretation of the Bible, and impartially accommodating multiple interpretations,something we have the luxury of oh-so-breezily taking for granted today, required from-the-bedrock-up cultural upheavals like the European Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and the creation of whole systems of religion-neutral politics. Beyond certain very narrow limits – the inevitable “play” in the “joints” of the human community resulting from history, culture, and sheer chance – ambiguity and lack of control are deadly threats. Yet ambiguity and lack of control are precisely the stock-in-trade of humor. For humor is, above all else, subversive. Hence the tendency of Puritans in 17th century England and the New World to emphasize soberness and seriousness and to regard belly-laughs as riotous excesses. Hence also H. L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan in A Book of Burlesques: “Puritanism -- the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy". And not just Puritans.
But, of course, things changed. Beginning with the Renaissance and progressing into the European Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Western world discovered that ambiguity and lack of control -- in other words, subversion -- need not be threatening, and can, in fact, be almost inexhaustible sources of creativity and joy. (Actually, I should say the Western world re-discovered the virtues of ambiguity and lack of control, since Aristophanes in the 5th century BCE had centered his comedies – The Birds, Lysistrata, Clouds, et al. – on just this insight.) We are tolerant of humor today, and even value it, because, beginning with the Renaissance and continuing into the Enlightenment, the sclerotic rigidity of monotheism was loosened up -- subverted, if you will -- and a place was made for the diversity, the multivalency of religious, philosophical, moral, and aesthetic opinions. No Voltaire could have existed in the 15th century, nor could he have written his Candide, even if he did. Ditto Jonathan Swift and Gulliver's Travels. Ditto Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Ditto Carlo Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters. And ditto most of all any of the plays of Moliere. A very formidable case could be made that humor, as we know and think of it, did not exist prior to the 17th century, and in its most mature form until the 18th.
The grim visage of pure, unmodulated, unmoderated, straight-up-not-on-the-rocks monotheism grimaces. But we learned to smile, because we learned not to take God -- or ourselves -- too seriously. The discovery of fire and the invention of movable type and the printing press were trivialities, bagatelles, mere trifles ... compared with finally learning to laugh.
James R. Cowles