Does Humor Have a Place in Religion? by Barbara Ardinger


Is there anything funny about the divine? Any joke-telling gods? From the days of Abraham until today, the gods and their preachers are a very earnest lot intent on saving us from our sins and building congregations.

Like it or not, we neopagans are still children of the society we’re endeavoring to change. Some of us seem to want to switch patriarchy to matriarchy, but that’s just swapping Big Daddy for Big Momma. It’s still a hierarchical arrangement with the deity at the top of the mountain. Immediately below the “arch” are angels, men, eagles, lions, and other superior beasts. At the bottom of the mountain are women, mud, and matter. (In case you don’t recognize it, this is the 18th-century Great Chain of Being.)

Any humor in spiritual and religious writing? The Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) is a collection of laws, canonically approved versions of history, prophetical preachings, and poetry. The Christian Bible (aka New Testament) give us different approved versions of history, plus further preaching, plus myth and mysticism. The writings of the medieval Fathers of the Church are famously grim and misogynistic. The Qur’an offers ethical guidance and moral preaching. In the Far East, the Tao is also profound, as are the preachings of the Buddha. The writings of Confucius present instructions for maintaining the correct social order (another version of that Great Chain). The great stories of Hinduism are filled with wonder, adventures, and philosophy. But they’re not very funny.

These are the standard texts of the standard-brand religions, and though I’ve greatly oversimplified them—no offense intended to anyone—I think it’s safe to say that while we can have conversations filled with humor, gentle or ironic, with followers of these religions, we are unlikely to discern anything funny in the holy books. From the beginning, spiritual writing has been unrelentingly and highly serious.

One of the blessings of the Goddess religion—spiritual feminism or feminist spiritualism—is playfulness. I know many neopagans who are extraordinarily creative. I’ve been to some truly inventive rituals. I have read hilarious jokes and postings in the social media.

Nevertheless, what I see in most of our books is that same old high seriousness. Perhaps we’re so busy inventing our new old religion—and so defensive in explaining to the standard-brand folks that it’s a genuine religion—that we seldom see anything to joke about. At least on paper. We offer highly serious theaology. Our Goddess studies and our zines are sober and thoughty.

The Charge of the Goddess tells us, “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Let there by … mirth and reverence within you.” We’ve found the love and we’ve found the reference. I think it’s time to find the pleasure and the mirth. It’s time to lighten up. It’s time to play with our goddesses. These are the days that call out of Found Goddesses.

We still honor the ancient and classical goddesses—the Willendorf Mother, Isis, Athena, Brigit, Green Tara, and all the other personifications of the Great Mother. The traditional goddesses are important to us. We build altars and shrines to them, create rituals around them, hang their likenesses on our walls, set their figures on our shelves. We invoke them for wisdom, love, abundance, courage, peace, healing, and anything we need or want. Often they reply, giving us what we need … if not always what we want.

But what about issues that don’t seem to be addressed by any of the traditional goddesses? Whom do we invoke for safety in freeway traffic? Which goddesses help us decide what to take to a potluck? Help us find proper healthcare? Who do we call when our computer crashes or our iPhone explodes?

In 1988, Morgan Grey and Julia Penelope, a witch and a linguist living “in extreme circumstances” in Nebraska, came to understand that the “underlying principles of language and magic are transformational.” They understood the basic principle of magic, which is that “new realities are created through radical transformations.” As they started “playing with the idea” of creating their own goddesses, the first one appeared. This was Asphalta, whose invocation we all know:

Hail, Asphalta, full of grace:

Help me find a parking place.

 

Another goddess Found by Grey and Penelope is Pedestria, goddess of footwear.

 

Fifteen or so years ago, when I was working on a Y2K project, I was inspired by Grey and Penelope’s Found Goddesses http://www.amazon.com/Found-Goddesses-Asphalta-Morgan-Grey/dp/0934678189/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325612864&sr=1-1 to start Finding my own modern goddesses. In 2003, they were collected in a book titled Finding New Goddesses. http://www.amazon.com/Finding-New-Goddesses-Reclaiming-Playfulness/dp/1550225243/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325612937&sr=1-1  Among my Found—made-up—goddesses are Acme, Goddess of High Tech (well, high in 2003); Caloria, the Triple Goddess of the Potluck; Fixorrhea, Goddess of Duct Tape; and Zombonie, Goddess of Taxes. Here’s my favorite, Verbena, Goddess of Wordplay and Really Awful Verse.

“I don’t get no respect,” Verbena complains, and it’s true. Worship of this inconspicuous but divinatory Goddess has been likened to addiction. Falling under Her spell is contracting an infectious disease. Once you start punning, they say, you just can’t stop.

Playing with words is a form of self-abuse that can start in childhood with little jokes picked up on Sesame Street. Or a child can be infected by an adult, who, finding an infant not wearing shoes, maliciously inquires, “Are you a barefoot boy or a boyfoot bear?”

Then it spreads. Some little ones are taken to Dr. Seuss, but instead of offering a cure, he actually makes it worse. It was Seuss, maker-up of words, who took the French verb grincher to name that green fellow who tried to steal Christmas.

The next stage is Muppetry, which is truly communicable, and if verbal frolic is allowed to grow, we reach the point where an apparently innocent child may announce—in mixed company, no less—that “transcendental” means “beyond teeth.”

 

Left untreated, the verbenized mind continues to disintegrate. It moves into limericks and doggerel. It falls into amphigory, psalmistry, and sonnetry. It can sink as low as vers libre (during the 1920s, free verse was so shameful that one such poet was transmogrified into a cockroach named archy). The verbal abuser may become a poetaster. He may spend his days writing rock lyrics. If sent to school, the punster may stumble into houses of dithyramb and epithalamia, by which time not even a strong dose of thesaurovaccine can help. Scholars in extremis have been known to resort to figurative language and literary allusion, and it is on record that a certain not-to-be-named graduate student once actually titled a term paper “Complex Oedipus.” Sad to say, such scholars often become professors, and professors are often anthologized.

The final stages of the overzealous worship of Verbena are sophistry and punditry. By then, it’s not funny anymore. But the sophists and pundits go on television. They judge, they argue, they split hairs, they bore, they earn big money.

Hail, Verbena, you’re the one,

Help me find just one more pun.

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16 replies

  1. I always thought the Goddess of parking was De-meter.

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    • Wonderful! One of the other Found Goddesses in my book is Roadesia, Goddess of Freeways, Country Roads, and City Streets. Another is Lady Goodspark and Ping-a-Ring-Ding, Goddess of Cars and Her Mechanical Companion. These are just two of the goddesses in Finding New Goddesses.

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  2. Brilliant. I’m sure the Goddess enjoys the Cosmic Chuckle, and instigates them, in fact.

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  3. If we just look around us, yes, we can see that she must laugh a lot. Thanks for reading my blog.

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  4. One of my professors wrote a book called Irony in the Old Testament. The Bible is not all laws and proclamations. There is a lot of irony in the way the authors of it view the human condition.

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  5. I didn’t know that about the OT. I’ve read it (though not recently), and I’ve never found anything humorous in it, but irony is not, of course, necessarily humorous. Sometimes, as in the works of Jonathan Swift (I’m thinking of “A Modest Proposal”), irony is quite bitter. But Swift wasn’t a very jolly fellow. Neither are the judges and other authors of the OT.

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  6. Two blind men falling into a ditch is very broad slapstick. Hiding a light under a bushel shows some sense of the ludicrous, and if the little children came to Christ they must have found something playful in him. Paul, on the other hand, no jokes at all.

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  7. I am surprised to see you refer to matriarchy as nothing more than the gender-obverse of patriarchy. You may be interested to hear that the studies of matriarchies, both past and present, reveal they are nothing of the sort. If the subject interests you, may I suggest Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s fascinating book “Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present and Future”?

    I confess, both when I was christian and now that I am a relaxed agnostic-spiritualist, I’ve always had a quiet snicker at one section of the NT bible. Consider: Simon Peter is originally a big, simple country boy; a fisherman. He is low-class enough that when he and Mary go to plead Jesus’ case, Peter is not even allowed into the high priest’s house — he is left with the servants in the courtyard while Mary goes in to speak. Unsurprisingly, Peter on several occasions displays his insecurity and jealousy of Mary — both in the Synoptic Gospels and in several of the Apocrypha.

    How unsurprising, then, that Jesus refers to Peter (in both Matthew 16:18 and John 1:42) as a rock! I always imagine Jesus saying, with a sigh and a rueful smile, “Peter… you’re a real brick.” :)

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    • There’s a significant difference between matriarchy and matriliny. In a matriarchy, Big Momma is in charge, and she probably acts a lot like Big Daddy. In matrilineal societies, men and women live generally peacefully together as equals. There are leaders, of course, but they not big bosses.

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  8. The story of God’s appearance to Moses also includes some humorous details. Moses keeps trying to tell God that no one will believe him, again and again. And at one point when he asks who he is speaking to, God replies, “I am who I am.” Now while theologians have spilled a lot of ink on what that could possibly mean, in context it is funny.

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  9. There are several examples both in the Hebrew Bible and Buddhism of humour and sarcasm. A few examples:
    Balaam’s conversation with his donkey is rather comical. (Numbers 22:28): Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
    When David found out that King Saul wants to kill him, he fled from Israel and went to Gath. Fearful that Achish, king of Gath, would have him killed, David pretended to be insane.. When his servants brought David to him, Achish said (I Samuel 21:15-16): “Why did you bring him to me. I have enough crazy people without your bringing another one here.”

    Buddhism – Om Mani Padme Hum
    A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student’s humility was far from perfect. A few years of teaching left him with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit, the opportunity was too exciting to be missed.
    The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. As they shared some tea, the meditator asked the hermit about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified!
    “What’s wrong?” asked the hermit.
    “I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”
    “Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?”
    The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.
    “It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.”
    Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.
    “Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?”
    “You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator. – Now the old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, as he walked back across the surface of the water.

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  10. I am both bemused and amused to see so many comments in defense of the OT. I still don’t see anything funny in the book (books), but I understand that humor lies in the brain cells of the beholder. It’s puns that make my synapses dance with glee. I’m very happy to see this conversation. Many thanks! Let’s all carry on in friendship!

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  11. I really appreciate the idea of finding humor in spirituality, either through goddess worship or otherwise. I agree, I have never found much to laugh about in religion (most of it is pretty dark and depressing). And I know for myself, there is no time that I feel closer to being my true self/communicating with a higher power (or whatever you would like to name it) then when i am laughing. I absolutely believe that we can find humor in these things without being disrespectful, and I believe that different types of spirituality would be more accessible for myself and others if there was more joyousness and laughter included within it. I’ll go out on a limb and say that most people I know love to laugh. Life doesn’t have to be so serious.

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    • Dianne, I think you’ve got it right. People love to laugh, and religion needs to be more fun. Pagans are very good at creating entertaining rituals that are also highly spiritual. I guess spirit lurks just about anywhere. thanks for your comment.

      Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. http://www.barbaraardinger.com. Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor! Nifty quotation: “A poem [or literary work] is never finished, only abandoned.” –Paul Valery Facebook page for my new novel, Secret Lives: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Secret-Lives/140993335978461

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  12. Barbara,
    I am so sorry it has taken me so long to reply!

    I have always enjoyed laughing throughout the OT. I find it to be more comical than spiritual but I guess we can associate that to my agnostic, non-religious side!?

    I never took any of it seriously because I always saw the individuals who did! I usually saw them holding up signs that said “God Hates Fags!” with biblical quotes from the OT supporting their claims as if that qualifier made it alright to use the OT to describe situations in the 21st century.

    What else are we supposed to do but laugh? People that take the Bible so seriously transform it from the sacred and into the form of spectacle.

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    • Many thanks, John. I remember the first time I participated in an AIDS walk and the horrible signs the “good Christians” held up. They also turned up a couple years later in Long Beach at a public ritual. And a couple of those same kind of signs were being walked around the Carpenter Center here in Long Beach when the Dalai Lama came to speak last year. I just cannot understand people who walk around with hate-filled signs. I don’t find the OT amusing, but I can sort of understand why you do.

      ba

      Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. http://www.barbaraardinger.com. Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor! Nifty quotation: “A poem [or literary work] is never finished, only abandoned.” –Paul Valery Facebook page for my new novel, Secret Lives: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Secret-Lives/140993335978461

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