Thursday, December 16, 2004

A meditation on mockery, Part I

This post is inspired in part by my friend Fearful Syzygy's linking to this story about the nativity scene at Madame Tussad's on his website, and our respective responses to it. I can't finish out the post tonight, but I did want to get it started before I forgot its opening, it being in my head and all.

Interviewer: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: I'm a mocker.
--A Hard Day's Night

Ringo's response seems like one pretty good way of defining "mocker," to me: The mocker is one who brings discrete traditions into contact with each other with the intent of bringing discredit on one or more of those traditions. (Full disclosure: I've not done any research on this tonight--I've just thought about it. Research will come no later than when someone points out to me where I've gone astray.) I'm not averse to mockery, not even when the subject is one's religious beliefs . . . if I suspect that person or institution's actions to be at variance with its professed teachings. But if you read my comment to f_s's post, you'll see that I have a line drawn somewhere inside me when the issue is iconic religious figures (and not just those from Christianity, either). Trouble is, I don't know where exactly that line is. Hence this post and at least one other to follow.
Consider this joke, one of my very favorite jokes (for reasons I'll explain later):

Jesus and His disciples entered a town and came upon a large crowd surrounding a woman. A man said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, and the law says she should be stoned for her offense. What shall we do?" Jesus turns to the crowd and says, "He among you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." After a while, the crowd drops their stones and disperses.
Then suddenly, a tiny woman carrying an enormous rock pushes her way through the crowd and hurls the rock at the accused woman, crushing her.
Jesus turns to the second woman and says, "You know, Mom, sometimes you really piss me off."

It is a cruel joke, yes--I do not deny its brutality. But it isn't mockery of Christ, or of Mary, or of Christianity. It's an edgy joke because it combines elements from two separate elements within Christianity itself--a well-known story from the Synoptic Gospels and the (Catholic) Church's teaching that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, was also without sin--and we find that they don't sit all that comfortably together in that particular pew. It's edginess lies within the complexities of Christianity itself--in those places where the Gospel, theology and denominational doctrine, and don't always mesh neatly and without friction. This is of course not at all a criticism of Christianity; rather, just as with the ancient question of the existence of evil in a world which God had created good, those moments of intellectual discomfort are ones we should be honest about and give serious, careful thought to. Such jokes keep thoughtful believers from becoming too complacent, too quick with easy answers. They are, in fact, salutary, even as they make us laugh uneasily.
So: why can't I laugh about the Nativity scene at Madame Tussad's? Right now, I don't really know. I just know I can't.
I'll try to stumble toward a better answer than that in my next post.


Anonymous said...

This has been a hot topic the last week here in the UK, with the ex-editor of the top-selling broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, writing an opinion piece that offended many Muslims. His carefully argued and philosophically rigorous point was that it's vital to our civil liberties that we be permitted to call the prophet Mohammed a paedophile. Make of that what you will. I tend to think that Moore’s ‘argument’ itself was rather facetious, but I do agree with him that the Muslim Association of Britain’s reaction was disproportionate. It’s difficult to interpret their comparison of this incident to the Salman Rushdie affair as anything other than a threat or incitement to violent retribution.,,1373009,00.html

On another point, I remember being told that joke (the one about Mary) at school by a Religious Studies teacher. This was a Catholic School, and it never once occurred to me that the joke’s subtext was a critique of a point of Catholic doctrine. Thinking about it now, I’m not at all sure what point the teacher was trying to get across by telling that joke.

By the way, your version of the joke is ever so slightly different from the one I heard: your description of the rock-throwing bit sounds very close to a certain scene from The Life of Brian


John B. said...

In response to your question about the joke I told being a criticism of Catholic doctrine: No--just, as I said, that in any belief system, no matter how outwardly consistent, one sooner or later will run into events or ideas that don't seem to square with each other; hence my image of them sitting together uncomfortably in the same pew. They both belong there, but there are moments when they aren't easy about it. Mary IS without sin according to the Catholic church (some Protestant denominations, I know, question that particular doctrine), but there's clearly a tension between that idea and its possible implications . . . especially if someone less inarguably without sin were suddenly to appoint him/herself as judge and jury over the sins of others.
Anyway: As I said, nothing needs fixing in that department; it DOES, though, need thinking about.

Perhaps Life of Brian shaped the punchline a bit; I plead ignorance. I just told it as it was told me--and my teller was an otherwise by-the-book Lutheran theology student.

Anonymous said...

You’re right of course, I should have called it a 'comment' on Catholic doctrine rather than a 'critique'. Still, it seems to me that if the joke is exposing some inconsistency or contentious point in Christian doctrine, then it’s potentially harmful to the authority of the Church and is therefore close to blasphemy. (NB: Americans might find this hard to believe, but we still have an active, enforceable 'blasphemy' law in this country) Jokes such as this seem to be the 'acceptable side of blasphemy': I’ve heard Catholics telling this joke, but I’ve never heard them mocking the infallibility of the Pope, for example. Is this because they provoke intelligent debate, encourage dialogue about contentious issues within the Church? Or is it because they actually preserve the authority of the Church and ensure the perpetuation of its power, by rendering harmless any real objections to Church doctrine? Perhaps these jokes are simply 'institutionalized' criticisms of the Church, paper tigers, there to disguise the fact that the real criticisms are never engaged with.


John B. said...

"Perhaps these jokes are simply 'institutionalized' criticisms of the Church, paper tigers, there to disguise the fact that the real criticisms are never engaged with."

Very possible. The idea is akin to the purpose behind the old Lord of Misrule or, as I've heard it talked about, how during Carnival in Brazil the streets are pretty much surrendered to the underclasses for that time so that they will be (more easily) pacified for the rest of the year.
Perhaps Catholics are more at ease with such humor. I've told the joke to audiences of conservative Protestants, and their response is something like real discomfort.

Ariel said...

For me, the Tussauds thing falls flat because it comes off as pretentious. Your joke, on the other hand, is hilarious...theologically, I guess I could justify my laughter by saying that it makes light of Mary's supposed sinlessness - something which should be made light of. Other then that, I don't know. It's just funny.

John B. said...

WOW! You really are reading the dusty stuff.

I don't really have a comment about what you've said, in part because I've not had much occasion to think back on this post. I mostly just wanted to say Thanks for reading something this old.