Humor and Religion: An Overview
HUMOR AND RELIGION: AN OVERVIEW
The topic of humor and religion poses a puzzle. As witnessed by notions such as Homo ridens and Homo religiosus, both humor and religion have been regarded as defining the human condition. Somewhat differently, both have often been held to be universals found throughout history and across cultures. Even if one questions their use to define the human condition or their status as universals, one must admit that both humor and religion do seem to be found almost everywhere. The relation of religion and humor, however, has not formed a central topic for reflection in the study of religion. Although a number of well-known instances of the conjunction of the two—such as that of tricksters or the Christian festival Carnival—have drawn considerable attention and theoretical reflection, both classic and more current theorists of religion rarely give the topic extended, if any, treatment. In addition, no prominent general studies of the topic exist. Introductory textbooks for the study of religion and encyclopedias of religion have also given the topic rather scant attention.
The puzzle might be stated thus: humor and religion seem to be ubiquitous, yet their relation is rarely treated. Two possible explanations present themselves. The first is that religion and humor represent two different modes of awareness, experience, or cognition that exist only occasionally in any significant relation to one another. This view can be seen, for instance, in the still rather commonly held idea that religion deals with serious matters and humor with the nonserious. A second explanation is that the relation of religion and humor is of more importance than has generally been recognized and deserves fuller exploration and reflection. This overview will attempt, through offering a provisional map of some of the ways humor and religion are related, to suggest that the second explanation is closer to the truth.
Humor and religion clearly share one thing in common. Discussions of the two terms frequently claim at some point that definition of the concepts is almost impossible. Rather than attempt formal definitions here, a characterization of the relation of religion and humor in terms of the interplay of congruity and incongruity will be offered as a means of orienting the discussion. Whether cast in terms of salvation, order, meaning, or redemption, religion frequently has been characterized as preoccupied with congruity, with bringing human hopes, expectations, actions, and longings into agreement with an ideal that may be described either as conformity with some form of cosmic order or as liberation from some form of oppressive order. Such characterizations of religion are of value as long as religion is not viewed solely in terms of a concern with congruity. A preoccupation with congruity must inevitably result in—perhaps even inevitably generate—an encounter with a range of incongruities including those of both a tragic and humorous sort.
Religion then may be conceived as a complex interplay of congruity and incongruity that inevitably entails humor. Humor here is understood in the most inclusive sense as embracing phenomena such as wit, satire, and comedy from which it is sometimes distinguished. Whatever form it may take, humor may be said to involve a perception of incongruity generated by the intrusion of an unexpected event, logic, or perception that calls into question, at least temporarily, some standard expectation, belief, or orientation.
Humor and religion share something else in common. Although the value of both has been questioned by many throughout history, there is still a widespread assumption at present that religion and, perhaps especially, humor are inherently good, healthy, and liberating. Both seem best approached, however, as morally neutral terms. Humor and religion may serve at times to free people from imposed conceptual constraints, overcome a sense of self-importance, and establish community, yet both may also function to denigrate others, enforce social hierarchies, and underscore the differences between communities.
Humor in Myth, Sacred Texts, and Literature
Although there are no comprehensive comparative studies, humor has played important roles in the central myths and sacred texts of many religious traditions. It has even been argued that a fundamental characteristic of mythic narratives is their humorous nature. In this view, myths in a variety of ways present humorous incongruities that serve to challenge the confines of normal, everyday patterns of thought (Bolle, 1968, pp. 35–72). Although only a few preliminary observations can be offered here, a comparison of the roles of humor in myths, tales, and sacred texts would seem to be a promising project: Are mythic narratives inherently humorous? What sort of sense of humor, if any, do the gods possess? What roles are accorded humor in the interaction of gods and people? What roles does humor play in bringing into being, maintaining, or disrupting cosmic order?
Humor has figured significantly in the mythologies, stories, and folklore of what have been variously termed savage, primitive, nonliterate, primal, indigenous, tribal, or traditional religions. Most attention here has been focused on figures known as tricksters, a term that seems first to have been applied to the often humorous, disruptive, seemingly amoral, and yet at times creative figures appearing in Native American myth and folklore. The term has been extended to mythological figures in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and well beyond. Trickster or tricksterlike figures have even been taken as a fundamental characteristic of traditional religions (Smith, 1995, pp. 1093–1094).
Tricksters usually are presented as having inhabited the world in mythic times when the world was moving toward its present form and a range of supernatural beings was active and present, though some figures identified as tricksters are active and present in this age. Tricksters often exhibit a combination of divine, human, and animal characteristics, and their actions contribute to shaping the world and human condition. They are also frequently preoccupied with their bodies, sexuality, bodily orifices and excretions, and boundaries and limits of all kinds. Tricksters' excesses and experimentation with the body often lead to comic situations. As their name suggests, they often play tricks, with their tricks sometimes backfiring and rendering themselves rather than their victims the objects of humor. Among the many functions and meanings attributed to tricksters is mocking and calling into question both human and divine solemnity.
The usefulness of the category of the trickster has been questioned, and the term has no doubt often been overextended, including applications to the Marx Brothers, Jesus, the Japanese media, and Thomas Merton (1915–1968). For the purposes of this essay, however, scholarship on the trickster clearly establishes a valuable point. Whether narratives of tricksters or tricksterlike figures form a part of central myths or whether they exist as separate narratives commenting on other myths, they clearly demonstrate that humor in a variety of forms has played a central role in the myths of many traditional religious communities. In other words, even if the trickster does not represent a coherent category or concept, the variety of figures gathered under the term at least testify to the importance, if not centrality, of humor in traditional religions.
The history of the study of tricksters is also of significance for reflecting on the relation of humor and religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when missionaries and anthropologists were encountering religious communities with myths, tales, and rituals containing humor linked with sexuality, scatology, and other "scandalous" elements, such myths, tales, and rituals were linked with savagery, primitiveness, and childishness. At work here of course were normative assumptions about the nature of proper religion, derived largely from Christianity as well as from the Enlightenment's preoccupation with rationality. The ensuing century or so, however, has seen some change; tricksters and the sensibilities they embody are as like as not to be viewed as positive, as possessing something modernity and Christian traditions have regrettably lost. The reappraisal in the last hundred years of what were deemed "primitive" traditions has at least partially hinged, in other words, on a reappraisal of the humor to be found in such traditions.
Humor has played important roles as well in the myths of religions beyond those once deemed primitive. The gods of Greek myth, whom Christians came to regard as immoral, are a case in point. While not infrequently laughing at and mocking humans, the gods also acted much like humans: they played tricks on one another, made foolish mistakes, committed adultery, and laughed at and made fun of one another. Being sexual beings themselves, at least some of the Greek gods also had an appreciation for the humorous dimensions of sexuality. As seen in the myth of Demeter, getting the gods to laugh was one way of restoring the world to order and fertility. Dionysos was a god of laughter linked with sexual excess and inebriation. In short it is difficult to conceive of the Greek gods and their relations to humans without taking into account humor.
There is probably no corpus of myth richer in humor than that of India. Though India has produced as refined, abstract, and sublime conceptions of the divine as anywhere, Indian deities, despite all the powers they may possess, share with humans most if not all of the elements necessary to generate a wide variety of humor: folly, ambition, excessive sexual appetite, curiosity, conflicting desires, a delight in trickery, and so forth. Humor is linked also to an important theme running throughout Vedic, epic, and Puranic myths: "the excess of anything, bad or good—such as the virtue of an ascetic—poses a threat to the balance of a closed universe" (O'Flaherty, 1973, p. 282). Mythic exploration of the consequences of excess frequently leads to comic situations, humor, and laughter. When confronted with Śiva's aim to overcome attachment to sexuality through ascetic practices, Kāma, the god of sexuality, commented: "If a man who is wise and intent upon release tries to slay me, I dance before him as he devotes himself to attaining the bliss of liberation—and I laugh at him" (Mahābhārata 14.13.16–17). Given Indian deities' explorations of the consequences of excess and the delight of at least some gods in trickery, a number of divine or semidivine figures in Indian myth such as Indra, Viṣṇu, Kṛṣṇa, and the sage Nārada have sometimes been identified as tricksters or tricksterlike figures. It has also been suggested that the Indian view of this world as māyā (illusion) in contrast to another level of ultimate reality sets up a potentially comic or humorous situation: suddenly seen from the perspective of a higher truth, the events of this world can take on the quality of a joke.
Given the influence they have had on the Western study and conceptualization of religion, the sacred texts of the Abrahamic traditions deserve special attention. The holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have frequently been characterized as being devoid of humor, particularly when satire and ridicule are excluded from the category of humor. This in itself, of course, is evidence of an important, if negative, relation between humor and religion and has done much to shape Western conceptions of the relation of humor and religion by suggesting that sacred matters and texts are or should be marked by an absence of humor. There has been a growing effort in recent years, however, to recover the humorous dimensions of these sacred texts.
Though conceived in various ways, the god of the Abrahamic traditions stands apart from the gods of many other Middle Eastern religions in not having, with some notable exceptions, what might be termed an active sexual life and in rejecting many of the sexual aspects of fertility rituals that were elsewhere a source of humor and laughter. Humor seems, for instance, to have been an issue in the confrontation between the cult of Baal and the cult of Yahweh. In the cult of Baal (as in many traditional religions throughout the world), laughter was associated with rituals of renewal and fertility that included sexual symbolism and practices; joy, sexuality, laughter, and fertility were often linked. The prophets of Israel opposed and ridiculed such practices as well as the gods associated with them.
Perhaps the most prominent mode of humor found in the Hebrew scriptures is the humor of mockery and derision. In Psalms 1 and 2, which are often held to serve as guides for reading the entire book of Psalms, mockery plays a central role. In Psalm 1 the righteous and those who scoff at their implausible beliefs are contrasted. In Psalm 2 the Lord "sits in the heavens and laughs" at those who oppose him. A number of the Psalms return to these themes, with the righteous being laughed at by the unrighteous and vice versa. The Lord is portrayed as a god who laughs at the unrighteous, knowing that they will come to ruin and eventually understand that what they took as implausible or incongruous is not so.
In addition to the aggressive humor of satire and ridicule, the Hebrew scriptures are marked by other types of humor. The most noted episode involving humor and laughter is found in Genesis 17 and 18 where God reveals to Abraham and then Sarah that they shall have a child. The initial response of both Abraham and Sarah is to laugh at the implausibility of the aged Sarah bearing a child. God upbraids Sarah for laughing at his pronouncement. In addition, God stipulates that the child shall be named Isaac, which means "laughter" or "he laughs," and Sarah exclaims that God has given her reason to laugh. Although the story has been interpreted in various ways, it is difficult to deny that humor based on a perception of incongruity is at the heart of this story of the interaction of God, Abraham, and Sarah. A crucial moment in the Abrahamic tradition is thus marked, in more than one way, by laughter and reflection on the appropriateness of laughter.
Arguments have been made for the existence of a wide variety of forms of humor in various parts of the Hebrew scriptures. Considerable attention has been given to humorous punning, verbal wit, and irony in a number of texts ranging from Genesis to Proverbs; Jonah has been treated as a parody of the standard prophetic narrative or, alternatively, as a satire of a prophet; and figures such as Jacob have been discussed as tricksters. Many of the Hebrew Bible's narratives, including Job, have also been understood as comedies—narratives resolving in a more or less happy ending and, at least in some readings, involving humor.
Considerable humor has also been found in the commentary on sacred texts found in the Talmud and in the Midrash. Included here are witty disputations, farcical animal fables, humorous stories about sinners as well as pious fools and rabbis, portrayals of God as being a bit of a trickster, and some joking at the expense of Jesus and Christians. The flavor of some of this humor is suggested by an encounter between Moses and God: "When Moses went up to God he found God weaving crowns for the letters of the Law. God said to him: Do men give no greetings in your city? Moses said: Does a slave greet his master? God replied: You ought to have wished me success. Then Moses said: May the power of the Lord be great, according as Thou hast spoken" (Jónsson, 1985, p. 54). There is also, of course, a rich literature of satire, parody, humorous tales, and jokes to be found throughout Jewish traditions which forms an additional "commentary" on sacred texts. In many traditions the understanding of more "serious" sacred texts has often been conditioned and qualified by humorous commentary on or alternative versions of sacred texts.
Though there is a long tradition denying that Jesus ever laughed (and thus also perhaps that he lacked a sense of humor), growing attention has been given to the question of humor in the New Testament. There has been considerable debate about whether the sayings, repartee, and parables of Jesus can be regarded as humorous. Some have pointed, for instance, to passages such as Matthew 19:24—"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God"—as evidence of Jesus' use of humorous incongruity in teaching. Even if the debate about Jesus' humor is unresolved, it is obviously of crucial importance in that it involves fundamental issues concerning the image of Jesus as well as the meaning of his pronouncements and the ways they were understood. Despite the immense progress which has been made in the study of the canonical Gospels, scholars are still uncertain as to whether Jesus was joking or serious and, if joking, uncertain as to how to understand his humor. One of the fundamental ways in which Jesus remains an enigma, in other words, concerns his relation with humor.
In the New Testament humor also functions to define the boundary between and relation of the righteous and nonrighteous or believers and unbelievers. Luke, for instance, has Jesus describing the coming of the kingdom of God in terms of a reversal of who will be able to laugh: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" and "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep" (Luke 6:21, 25). In the canonical Gospels, humor also plays a role in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, who is mocked and ridiculed as a powerless figure claiming to be (or proclaimed by some to be) a king.
Varying accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus also illustrate how the presence or absence of humor can signal radically different religious orientations. In the canonical Gospels, clearly there is little in the way of humor on Jesus' part during the Passion. However, in one of the gnostic gospels, the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus is depicted as laughing because his physical body is only an illusion and, despite what his persecutors may think, he is not really in pain. The joke is reversed, with Jesus now laughing at those who ridicule him, and marks a radically different conception of Jesus and the nature of his presence in the world than that found in some Christian traditions.
The Qurʾān is not usually thought of as containing much in the way of humor. Like the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, the Qurʾān makes much of the opposition between believers and unbelievers, with the unbelievers mocking the believers and taking them as fools. Allāh in turn will mock the unbelievers (Sūrah 1: 11–15). The Qurʾān also makes some use of irony, humor, and wordplay. Much of this dimension of the Qurʾān, however, is lost when the Qurʾān is interpreted into another language without detailed commentary on the original Arabic.
Though humor is not prominently featured in the Qurʾān, it would be a mistake to conclude that humor is thus of little importance in Islam. Though some Muslim theologians have expressed reservations about humor and laughter, this has done little it seems to curb the Muslim appreciation of humor, as witnessed by the numerous collections of jokes, anecdotes, and humorous tales to be found in Arabic literature from a relatively early date. Franz Rosenthal observes in Humor in Early Islam that "the otherworldliness of Islam did little to stop the actual enjoyment and literary appreciation of humor. With all his seriousness and the foreboding of impending doom, the prophet Muhammad himself possessed much cheerful humanity and his followers through the centuries have always preserved a good-natured love of jokes and pranks" (1956, p. 5). Indeed some traditions present the Prophet as a bit of a practical joker. As Rosenthal relates, "he told an old woman that old women were not admitted into Paradise, and when she was greatly upset by his statement, he quoted Qurʾān 56. 35–7/34–6 to the effect that all women in Paradise would be equally young" (1956, pp. 5–6).
Because it is difficult if not impossible to deduce the attitudes about humor to be found in a religious community based solely on an examination of its most central or sacred texts, attention should be given to the vast body of tales, folklore, and literature that, often from the perspective of both religious communities and scholars, lies outside the bounds of sacred myths and texts proper. Many of these stories and texts have humorous aspects and treat or comment on the themes of what are usually regarded as more sacred myths and texts. In Europe, Mexico, and the American Southwest, for instance, there is a rich body of folktales presenting Saint Peter as a tricksterlike figure (Hynes and Steele, 1993). How religious communities have understood and experienced their sacred myths and texts cannot be grasped without an appreciation of how they stand in relation to the less sacred stories and texts that often offer a humorous perspective on them.
Humor and Ritual
Humor plays important roles in both the central and more peripheral rituals of religious communities. It should be noted that, even when it is not present, humor is important for ritual. Many religious rituals are marked of course by seriousness and solemnity. In such cases the exclusion of humor is a major strategy for marking the sacred nature of the occasion.
When humor is present in ritual it often exhibits a range of related but not always present features: an at least seeming absence of social control; a reversal or inversion of norms, status, social roles, and conventional behavior; explicitly sexual and scatological behavior; mocking or burlesque of authority, sacred rituals and beings, and foreigners; the appearance of comic, ambiguous, and incongruous figures such as jokesters, fools, and clowns; and an appearance of disorder and chaos. Various meanings and functions, some compatible and some not, have been attributed to ritual humor: conflict resolution; the cathartic release of tension and emotion; entertainment; maintenance of order and social control; the establishment of community; the marking of boundaries between groups; subversion and the questioning of authority; the use of incongruity and ambiguity to facilitate ritual and symbolic transformations; and the use of humorous incongruities to reflect on religious, cosmological, and metaphysical concepts. In short, there is no theoretical consensus on the meaning of ritual humor, and the precise meanings and functions of ritual humor are often context specific.
Although some traditions contain clear charter myths for the use of humor and laughter in ritual, the roles humor and laughter may play in ritual cannot be deduced merely from an examination of sacred texts and theological pronouncements. The New Testament contains little to encourage humor explicitly and Church Fathers often cautioned against it, yet the presence of humor and laughter in Christian ritual is hardly unknown. Easter rituals in some Eastern Orthodox communities, for instance, have made use of ritualized laughter as part of the celebration of Jesus' resur-rection.
Ritual humor has formed a key component of both calendrical rituals and life-cycle rituals in traditional societies and has received considerable attention from anthropologists, particularly in their studies of Native American and African societies. In many traditional, agriculture-based societies, rituals linked with the start of the agricultural cycle often involve obscene joking, licentious behavior, or pantomimes of sexual acts. Such rituals of course parallel the fertility-related rituals rejected by Israelite religion and Christianity. Humor, often including scatological and sexual elements, may also be found in puberty rites, weddings, funerals, and a variety of initiation rituals. Humor is integrated into such rites in numerous ways and serves various roles.
The use of humor in some initiation rites illustrates how humor may play a role in encouraging reflection on religious concepts and practices. A famous example here is Victor Turner's analysis of an initiation rite for the cult of Chihamba among the Ndembu people of Zambia. At one point in the rite, initiates are ordered to strike with rattles an effigy of the deity Kavula hidden under a white cloth. The initiates are then told they have killed the deity. They are soon told, however, that they have not really killed him, and the white cloth is pulled back to reveal nothing more than a few everyday objects. Laughter results (1962, p. 87). The point of the joke seems to be the destruction of any simple-minded identification of the deity with a material object. Humor works here to free one from overly simple conceptions. Reflecting on such examples, Jonathan Z. Smith has gone so far as to suggest that many if not most initiations have the character of a practical joke (1978, p. 301).
Considerable attention has also been given to the role of ritual humorists or clowns (sometimes also referred to as fools or buffoons) in traditional cultures. Anthropologists have focused in particular on ritual clowns in the Americas and Africa, though examples can be found throughout most parts of the world. The role of ritual humorists in the Americas and Africa is at times but by no means inevitably linked to tricksters appearing in myth and folklore. Some have even regarded ritual humorists or clowns as a characteristic though not universal feature of the ritual life of traditional religions (Smith, 1995, pp. 1093–1094). If the category of ritual humorist is extended to include fools, buffoons, and jesters of various sorts, then ritual humorists can be found in many if not most religious traditions. Particularly noteworthy here are court jesters and fools who have played important roles in relation to kings and rulers in China, India, Mesoamerica, medieval and early modern Europe, and the Muslim Middle East.
The history of the study of ritual clowns and humor in traditional religions is instructive and parallels that of the study of the trickster. When initially encountered by missionaries and anthropologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religious ritual involving humor as well as often scatological and sexual elements were perceived as strange, exotic, and unusual. According to Mahadev L. Apte, one of the reasons for the attention given these rituals by anthropologists "may have been the 'exotic' nature of the rites, since they often involved scatological and sexual acts that appeared to be a strange combination of the 'sacred' and the 'profane' to the Western mind" (1985, p. 153). Observers were encountering dimensions of religion that Christianity had for the most part managed to exclude from the domain of the sacred. Such rituals were initially perceived by some as immoral and irrational and as evidence of the primitive and undeveloped character of such cultures. Interpretation of such rites has shifted over the course of the last century, however, to one of celebration rather than denigration.
Within the context of larger ritual systems, some rituals and festivals stand out as distinct because of the central role accorded humor. Two noteworthy examples are the Jewish Purim and the Holī festival of northern India. One of the most widely discussed examples of such ritual humor is the Christian festival Carnival, as exemplified by the medieval Feast of Fools which generally took place between Christmas and Epiphany. In the course of the festival a choir boy was elected King of the Fools to serve as bishop, a parody of the Holy Mass was staged, and revelry of various sorts took place both within the cathedrals and in the streets of the cities. Unlike the ritual humor found in many traditional societies which was generally accepted as a legitimate and even essential part of rituals and the ritual calendar, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church struggled, with limited success, for hundreds of years to control, temper, and do away with Carnival. Though the Feast of Fools eventually died out, Carnival has continued in Europe and throughout the Americas despite being modified, controlled, and restrained by both church and secular authorities.
Although the parody of the Mass in the Feast of Fools was not universally approved within the Catholic community, parodies or burlesques of religious rituals that seem to be generally accepted by the community are one notable type of ritual humor. The activities of ritual clowns in many cultures often include comic parodies of priestly figures and sacred rituals. In Japan many rituals are presented in both a serious mode and comic mode (known as modoki ), with the serious ritual usually being followed by a comic version. Such parodies of religious ritual may, however, reflect tensions and different orientations within communities. There are a number of studies which report on women engaging in comic imitations of rituals wherein men are the major actors. Kwakiutl women, for instance, have at times performed parodies of the potlatch ceremonies so important for determining male prestige and status (Apte, 1985, p. 160).
The interpretation of the role of humor in ritual requires a careful analysis of such factors as kin relations, religious hierarchy and status, and gender. Anthropologists of an earlier generation preoccupied with structural-functional theories of society devoted great efforts to the study of institutionalized kin-based (including extended kin, interclan, and intertribal) joking relationships, particularly in East Africa. Though the content of the joking was not necessarily of an explicitly religious nature, kin-based relationships were frequently if not characteristically understood in religious terms, and such joking relationships frequently impinged upon religious ritual. For example, in the utani relationship in some East African tribes, at funerals the joking partner of the deceased was allowed, if not expected, to make fun of the deceased.
The relation of gender, ritual, and humor, however, is a topic only beginning to be explored. It is important to note that there are few women who function as ritual clowns or humorists. There has been considerable research on women's cults and initiations in various religions, yet the issue of women's humor and the gender dimensions of ritual humor seem to deserve fuller exploration (Sands, 1999, pp. 442–444). Historical documentation for women's activities is not as great as that for men's. In addition it is only in recent decades that a growing number of women anthropologists have been able to gain access to settings in traditional societies in which only women are permitted (Apte, 1985, p. 78). There are also reports, particularly regarding wedding ceremonies and female rites of passage, of extensive mockery of men by women. Indeed a growing body of scholarship suggests that women have not always taken men's activities—often including religious activities—terribly seriously.
If the relation of women and humor has not received the full attention it deserves, the relation of children, ritual, and humor has received even less. Though there seems to be little research on the topic, there have been reports of children engaging in imitations of religious rituals in both a serious and comic mode. Ijaw children in Nigeria, for instance, have been reported to play by imitating sacred dances used to appease the spirits of the ancestors. Early in the twentieth century in France, sets of paraphernalia were available for children so that they could play at enacting their own versions of the Catholic Mass. It has also become common in some Protestant services to invite young children to the front of the sanctuary, usually prior to the serious sermon, to receive a more informal teaching from the minister. The children often find parts of this informal sermon amusing and funny; the adults almost invariably find funny moments to laugh at. A humorous mode of teaching, in other words, is used to instruct both children and adults; and the message is conveyed that a sense of humor is part of Christian identity. These examples suggest that the role of humor and play in the socialization of children into a religious life deserves fuller exploration.
One last extensive topic deserves at least mention in a discussion of ritual and humor. Even if one does not accept theories that understand drama as having emerged from ritual, one cannot deny that many forms of drama have been linked to religious ritual at some point and that often it is difficult to draw a clear line between ritual and drama. Many forms of drama of course are comic or humorous, and such dramas have played a considerable role in ritual and festival systems throughout the world. In addition to commenting often from a humorous or comic perspective on religious themes and topics, such dramas are often considered as offerings to the gods. Not a few religious communities, as well as the gods themselves, thus seem to be open and receptive to humorous reflection on the relations of people and gods.
The Dark Side of Humor
Religious traditions and communities have not infrequently considered humor to be a problem. At times this has resulted in a near outright rejection of humor. More frequently certain types of humor have been rejected or humor excluded from certain occasions and situations. Whether an effort is made to reject, critique, or control humor, the effort serves at least partially to define a particular religious orientation, moment, or mode.
Even in religious communities where humor is markedly present in myth, tales, or rituals, there is never a total embracing of humor. Even if humor is present in some rituals, there are other ritual moments and occasions marked by solemnity and seriousness. Even if some religious themes, rituals, gods, or religious figures are treated humorously in certain rituals, myths, or texts, they are not always treated humorously. In other words, efforts are frequently made to control the distribution of humor in the life of a religious community. Despite the appearance of chaos, disorder, or total freedom in humorous expression that sometimes occurs, humor is usually limited by rules as to who can make light of what and whom under what circumstances.
Aspects of what we might now classify as falling under the category of humor also emerged as a problem for philosophers and religious thinkers at a relatively early date. Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 bce) discusses laughter primarily as the laughter of ridicule directed at other people's ignorance about themselves. Aristotle (384–322 bce) also closely links laughter with the ridicule and derision of others. Both suggest that at least some aspects of such laughter and ridicule are morally questionable. Cicero (106–43 bce) and others throughout classical antiquity echoed similar concerns about at least some aspects of laughter and humor. Such doubts and concerns have continued throughout much of Western philosophy. Some have even read Western philosophical and theological traditions, with some notable exceptions, as basically rejecting humor (Morreall, 1989).
Humor has been treated with some suspicion outside of the West as well. In one of the first analyses of literature in China, Wenxin diao long (The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons ), Liu Xie (465?–520?) conceded the value of some forms of humor but criticized from a Confucian perspective other forms of humor involving jests, riddles, and puns as undermining the correct and proper use of language. Inappropriate forms of humor were also deemed misleading, possibly immoral, capable of disrupting social order, and not suitable to those of high social standing. An ambivalent and at times negative attitude toward humor runs throughout the Confucian tradition.
What have sometimes been classified as "otherworldly" or "world-rejecting" religions have at times considered humor and laughter particularly problematic. At times, though not invariably, the rejection of humor seems to be linked with the rejection of worldly entertainments and a rejection of or effort to control sexuality. The propriety of at least some forms of humor has been questioned, for instance, within Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
In reaction to the laughter of dancing girls attempting to entertain him, the prince Siddhārtha Gautama wondered to himself: "How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease, and death?" (Buddhacarita 4.59). After his enlightenment the Buddha repeated the question in slightly different form: "How can there be mirth or laughter when the world is on fire?" (Dhammapada 146). Within the Buddhist tradition, humor and laughter are also rendered problematic by the noble eightfold path, particularly the precept concerning right speech that can be read as inveighing against at least some forms of humor, laughter, and mirth. The rejection of sex by Buddhist monks and nuns also would seem to preclude humor associated with sexuality. Buddhism has, however, been anything but a humorless religion. The Buddha himself, at least as portrayed in some texts, seems somewhat to have recovered his sense of humor. There are also many well-known examples within the Buddhist tradition linking insight and enlightenment with humor.
Christianity presents some of the clearest examples of the rejection of humor. As noted, at least some within Judaism and Christianity rejected the humor associated with fertility cults. In addition the writings gathered together as the New Testament express little in the way of explicit humor, despite the best efforts of some to locate it there. The Church Fathers were generally suspicious of and often hostile toward humor and laughter. John Chrysostom (c. 354–407), for instance, made a point of noting that Jesus never laughed, raised the question of how Christians could possibly laugh when they thought of the suffering of Christ, spoke of laughter and mirth as leading to sin, and, like Jesus in Luke, predicted that those laughing now will be wailing in torment on the day of judgment. As Chrysostom also complained that members of his congregation were laughing when they should have been praying, not all Christians seem to have shared his views. Part of the rejection of humor by the Church Fathers also seems to be linked to the rejection of entertainments, theater, and rituals linked with pagan religions. The rejection of humor and laughter may also be found among ascetics, hermits, and monks. Christian ascetics "shared with Greek and Jewish ascetics the ideal of the perfect human who never laughed" (Gilhus, 1997, p. 64). Like Jesus, Saint Anthony (c. 250–356) has been regarded by many as a model who never laughed.
Those expressing an ambivalent or even negative attitude toward at least some forms of humor have a point. Although humor may serve to bring people together, humor in the guise of ridicule and satire has also been used to divide peoples, to mark others as somehow inferior, and to enforce social control. If the we/they distinction is a basic component of any group's identity, communities have frequently, if not invariably, partially established their identity by ridiculing others. This seems to hold true for religious communities as well. What is now referred to as "ethnic humor" frequently involves ridicule of other religions and does not seem to be a phenomenon of recent origin.
Ridicule, mockery, and satire of foreign gods, cults, and kings is not uncommon in the Hebrew scriptures. In 1 Kings 18:27, for instance, Elijah mocks the Baal prophets when their god seemed not to reply to their entreaties: "And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awakened." Prophets themselves of course were also subject to mockery and ridicule. Following Elijah's ascent, Elisha was mocked by young children saying: "Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head" (2 Kings 2:23). Mockery of prophets, however, is sometimes dangerous. After being cursed by Elisha, the children were eaten by two bears.
Even if the entire history of religions could not be written as a history of the ways in which different religions have made fun of one another, a good portion of it probably could be. A suggestive essay here is the unsigned article "Religions of Antiquity" included in The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (Smith, 1995). The essay provides an overview of religions of antiquity in which humor (along with death and magic) is a major theme. Humor is examined in terms not only of how it functions within a religious community but also of how it functions with regard to competition and rivalry between different religions or between different communities within the same religion.
The way in which ridicule can shape religious identity is clearly illustrated by examples drawn from the history of Christianity. Early Christians were frequently subject to ridicule because many people found some Christian beliefs laughable. Some Christians such as Paul responded to ridicule by embracing the role of "fools for Christ's sake." In turn Christian figures such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) and Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) made fun of pagan religions. So-called heretical Christian groups were also ridiculed by those of a more orthodox orientation. Conversely some gnostic texts have been read as making fun of or being parodies of more orthodox texts. In his later years Martin Luther (1483–1546) penned satirical portrayals of Catholicism and the pope which made free use, in "primitive" fashion, of scatological themes. As illustrated by the designations Quakers, Shakers, and Methodists, the names of some Christian groups derive from terms of ridicule often initiated by fellow Christians of a different persuasion.
Religions frequently have been subjected to ridicule, mockery, and satire not only by those of different religious orientations but also by those who might be described as unbelievers. Satirical treatments of religion appear at a relatively early date in India, China, Japan, and the West, though determining whether a rejection of all religion is entailed is often difficult. Some satirists in late antiquity, such as Lucian of Samosata (120–c. 180), seemed to be making fun of most if not all religions. As for modernity, it is difficult to conceive of it without taking into account satirical treatments of religion. Although the United States is often described as the most religious of modern nations, a truly American literature was initiated, according to some, by an author whose works are replete with satires of Christianity as well as religion in general: Mark Twain.
In some instances it is possible to argue that ridicule of religion has a profound impact on the development of some religions and the surrounding culture. An example here would be the 1925 trial of John Scopes (also called the "monkey trial") that pitted Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), representing a modern scientific orientation, against William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), representing a Christian perspective embracing a literal reading of the Bible and its account of creation. Although Darrow initially lost the case (the ruling was eventually overturned), he effectively defeated Bryan by exposing, at least to many, Bryan's position to be a foolish one. Much of the press at the time joined in the ridicule of Bryan and the views he represented. Some have suggested that this event had a profound effect on segments of the conservative Christian community, causing them to withdraw from mainstream public life until resurfacing, decades later, when they had regained their confidence.
Religion's use of ridicule and the ridicule of religion are deeply connected to contemporary studies of religion. Introductory textbooks on religion almost invariably state that the purpose of studying religions (and especially religions not one's own) is to gain sympathetic understanding of others so that we no longer see them as strange and, though this is rarely explicitly said, funny. In North America what is called political correctness has repeatedly reminded us that we should not make fun of others. Scholarly studies of groups perceived by some as odd and funny not infrequently remind the reader that we should not laugh at or make fun of these people (though it is hard to imagine that the readers of such books need to be reminded). Although at least some of this effort is no doubt well and for the good, it is possible that this mission to rid the world of negative humor also blinds us in some aspects. It is difficult to find a book on religion that clearly makes the point that religions have sometimes defined themselves by making fun of others.
There is yet another way in which humor plays a role in distinguishing peoples and defining the other. Other peoples can be made to seem strange and alien either by denying them a sense of humor or attributing to them a strange, inappropriate, or inferior sense of humor. As noted many Westerners have found the humor of "primitives" to consist of a scandalous mixing of the sacred and the profane that was taken as evidence of childishness, a lack of civilization, or even immorality. In similar fashion, Lucien Lèvy-Bruhl judged the humor of "primitives" to be inferior to that of Europeans because it was lacking in rationality (Chidester, 1996, pp. 230–32). For much of the period after World War II the Japanese were widely perceived as being without humor or, just as disturbingly, given to laughing and giggling at inappropriate times. In the culture and literature of the United States a common characterization of the religious or "overly religious" is that they are without a sense of humor. At present it is difficult to locate studies on the relation of humor and Islam. Either Muslims are humorless or Muslim humor has simply not been explored. The latter alternative is no doubt closer to the truth. The image of Muslims as humorless of course fits well with the image of Muslims as fanatical or overly religious in some way.
Celebrations of Humor
Humor has also been celebrated as possessing particular religious value within some religions or movements within religions. In such cases humor may be regarded as a teaching tool, a way of awakening religious realization, or a sign of a holy or enlightened state, or a fundamental aspect of the structure of the cosmos; it may also relate to the basic functions of certain religious specialists or even help define the basic orientation of a religious community.
The study of the celebration of humor within religions is closely related to scholarly evaluations of humor and might indeed be linked to a growing celebration of humor within Western thought. As already noted, Western philosophical and theological traditions, from the Greeks through the Enlightenment, have expressed at best an ambivalent attitude toward humor. Humor was considered suspect on a number of grounds. The cruelty of humor, as expressed in ridicule and other forms, was rejected on moral grounds. Humor too closely connected with sexuality, the body, or the emotions was also frequently questioned as undermining either spirituality or the dictates of rationality. Whether considered from the perspective of Christian theology, Enlightenment rationality, or the demands of modern civilization, humor was something more to be controlled or constrained rather than celebrated.
There has been, however, a growing reappraisal of the importance of humor. Amid increasing doubts about the values of modernity, Enlightenment rationality, and traditional Christian theology, not a few have concluded that their costs are too high and that one of these costs is the loss of traditional forms of humor. This loss has been traced to a variety of sources, including Christianity in general, Protestantism in particular, Enlightenment rationality, bourgeois sensibilities, and the modern bureaucratic state. Humor in this reappraisal is accorded a positive, liberating value both emotionally and cognitively. Some have linked this revised view of humor with postmodern sensibilities. Whether or not the West has somehow been lacking in humor and whether or not the cause has been rightly identified, such views are of importance for the ways they have shaped scholarship.
At least some of the roots of this recent reappraisal of humor can be found within Western traditions. The Praise of Folly (1511) by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536) anticipates later celebrations of folly and medieval Carnival from both a Christian and non-Christian perspective. Thinkers as diverse as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746); Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first earl of Shaftesbury (1621–1683); Immanuel Kant (1724–1804); and Jean Paul (1763–1825) all treated humor in terms of a perception of incongruity and attributed to it a cognitive value. Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was preoccupied with irony throughout much of his work and linked the comic with a perception of the contradiction or incongruity between infinity and the finite. For Kierkegaard such a perception was regarded as the precursor to religious insight or faith.
In the twentieth century a number of thinkers also granted importance to humor and related ideas. Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) defined the human condition in terms of play, an activity closely related to humor, and inspired many in their reflections on the importance of humor. In a similar fashion Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation (1964) placed humor at the center of human thought and culture. Another widely influential work is Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World (1965), a celebration of medieval Carnival which argues that the modern world is impoverished in comparison to the fulfilling and liberating culture of laughter existing in the medieval period. Umberto Eco's best-selling novel The Name of the Rose (1983) at least implicitly makes a similar argument, with readers being asked to contemplate the cost of the church's supposed suppression of Aristotle's work on comedy. Scholars with orientations based in Marxism, postmodernism, or cultural studies have also come to focus on humor whenever it might be viewed as somehow "subversive" of Enlightenment rationality, social hierarchy, or the political, economic, and cultural hegemony of the West.
Humor has also served to define basic orientations of and within various religions. Saint Paul's presentation of Christians as being "fools for Christ's sake" (1 Corinthians 4:10) indicates a recognition that Christian belief and behavior were perceived as folly, if not madness, when viewed from other religious and nonreligious perspectives of the time. At least some Christians in early Christianity willingly embraced the role of the fool. Although this embrace of folly was not inevitably humorous in itself, it was grounded in a willingness to accept mockery and ridicule for embracing what seemed like folly to much worldly and religious wisdom. Jesus himself, indeed, had been subjected to mockery and ridicule. The embrace of folly and acceptance of ridicule and mockery, however, was accompanied by the expectation of reversal: the foolish would be shown to be wise and the wise foolish.
Once Christianity established itself, became a religion of empire, and came to wield considerable political power, Christians were no longer as widely regarded as fools and perhaps less inclined to welcome the designation of fool. Within both Eastern and Western Christianity, though, some continued to embrace the role of fools for Christ's sake. However, many Christians seemed to regard these fools as merely ordinary fools rather than holy fools. There are a number of celebrated holy fools to be found in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions, with the Orthodox traditions more clearly recognizing and celebrating holy fools. Though the list is extensive, prominent examples from the Catholic and Orthodox traditions include Theophilus and Maria of Antioch and Saint Symeon of Emesa in the sixth century, Saint Andrew the Fool of Constantinople in the tenth and eleventh centuries, Saint Isaac Zatvornik of Kiev and Saint Basil the Innocent in the eleventh century, and Saint Francis of Assisi in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Among the range of behaviors embraced by such fools were nakedness, self-humiliation in a variety of forms, association with sinners, radical poverty, an itinerant existence, and engaging in joking and parody. Such figures, it should be noted, frequently set their folly in opposition not simply to worldly wisdom but also to the wisdom of the church.
Within Christianity, mention should be accorded to Meister Eckhart, considered by many to represent the pinnacle of Christian mysticism for identifying, if in somewhat cryptic fashion, laughter as playing a crucial role in the genesis of that most mysterious of Christian mysteries, the Trinity: "Indeed I say, the soul will bring forth Person if God laughs to her and she laughs back to him. To speak in parable, the Father laughs into the Son and the Son laughs back to the Father; and this laughter breeds liking, and liking breeds joy, and joy begets love, and love begets Person, and Person begets Holy Ghost" (Pfeiffer, 1947, p. 59). The genesis and nature of the relation among the persons of the Trinity and people is imagined in terms of laughter.
Within Islam, Ṣūfī traditions have also at times granted a special place to humor. Throughout at least part of the history of Sufism, Ṣūfī communities have existed outside of or in tension with more orthodox orientations, and Ṣūfī figures have rejected some of the local strictures of daily behavior as well as questioned the adequacy of orthodox formulations either to communicate or to express union with the divine. All of these factors have led Ṣūfīs to be sometimes regarded as fools. The name itself, meaning "wool-wearer" in reference to the ascetic garb of early Ṣūfīs, may well have originated as a term of ridicule. Ṣūfīs are also well known for the use of humorous tales in their teaching, as witnessed by considerable use of tales concerning Khezr and Mullā Narsruddin, who both make use of humor and who are at times seemingly willing objects of humor themselves. While closely linked with Sufism, tales of these two figures have been appreciated more widely throughout much of the Muslim world. Some Ṣūfīs have also clearly linked laughter and humor with the highest of religious experiences. The Ṣūfī Rūmī (c. 1207–1273) is reported to have observed: "If you want special illumination, look upon the human face: See clearly within laughter the Essence of Ultimate Truth" (Shah, p. 5).
Within Asian religious traditions a range of religious specialists and movements might be viewed as embracing foolishness and humor. Throughout the region a variety of Indian gurus, wandering ascetics, Daoist sages, and Buddhist monks are well known for their use of humor and embrace of folly. The Chan or Zen school of Buddhism has frequently been singled out for special attention here. In addition to pointing to the wide use of humorous tales and teaching methods in Zen, some have even defined the basic Zen orientation as humorous or comic. This celebration of the comic orientation of Zen, however, is much more prominent in the West than in Asia, suggesting that Western images of Zen as particularly humorous perhaps represent in part a fantasy concerning what is sensed to be missing in the West.
In the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, some in certain parts of the world have come to identify Judaism as a religion that is fundamentally comic or humorous in orientation. At least in English and in the United States, there has been an endless stream of mostly popular books celebrating Jewish humor (though at times the humor relates more perhaps to questions of Jewish identity than to Judaism itself, though the two of course cannot be clearly separated). There seems to be, however, relatively few scholarly works on Jewish humor that clearly relate the Jewish humor of the modern period to the history of the Jewish traditions. Even if Judaism is not inherently more humorous in orientation than other religious traditions, the modern perception of Judaism as a particularly humorous religion is of interest and importance in itself.
Mention might also be made of a reappraisal of the importance of humor in popular Christian theology which seems to have begun in the 1960s and is exemplified by works such as Elton Trueblood's The Humor of Christ (1964), Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Feast and Fantasy (1969), Cal Samra's The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor (1986), Conrad Hyers's And God Created Laughter: The Bible of Divine Comedy (1987), and Earl Frank Palmer's The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible (2001). All of these works are united by the notions that Christianity, somewhere along the line, lost its sense of humor and that properly valuing humor is central to the Christian message. Although some of these works have served to raise interest among scholars and theologians in the topic of the relation of religion and humor, none seems to have generated enough interest among Christians at large to engender new Christian movements or orientations embracing humor as a central Christian value. Within some charismatic movements in recent years, however, hysterical or uncontrolled laughter in worship services has come to be taken as a sign of a visitation of the Holy Spirit. It is possible that the perception of the importance of humor in religions such as Judaism and Zen has influenced this reappraisal of the role of humor by some Christian theologians.
The Humor We Have Missed
The importance of the various relations of humor and religion seem to have been overlooked for a number of reasons. Despite all the critical reflection, in the last one hundred fifty years or so, devoted to the study of religion, assumptions concerning the "holy" and the "sacred" deriving primarily from the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity still seem to haunt Western conceptions of religion. Most obvious of these assumptions is that religion is somehow fundamentally connected with what is serious and solemn rather than with what is humorous.
The failure to connect religion and humor might also be traced to the tendency of many Enlightenment philosophers to draw essentialistic distinctions between phenomena such as religion and art by linking them with essentially distinct faculties, epistemologies, or modes of symbolization. Some Enlightenment philosophers, such as Kant, treated humor under the category of the aesthetic and thus neatly separated it from religion. Undoing such essentialistic distinctions has taken time. It is only in recent decades, for instance, that scholars have begun to explore more fully the connections between religion and the arts.
Vastly different conceptions of religion might have arisen if other sacred texts and other philosophical traditions had formed the starting point for (or had truly been given equal weight in) reflection on religion. For instance, if Japanese myth had formed a starting point for the study of religion, it would have been difficult to form a conception of the "holy," "sacred," or "divine" that was not closely connected to humor. In the myth of the heavenly cave, a central narrative episode in Japanese myth, the gods employ humor and laughter to restore order to the cosmos as well as to establish the basic forms of ritual by which people should relate to the gods.
An additional reason for the neglect of humor in the study of religion is the social location of much humor. Humor and religion have been given scholarly attention most often when humor is institutionalized in myths, texts, rituals, or formal joking relationships. As many have observed, there is a great deal of humor that exists in noninstitutionalized spaces: humor often emerges in informal interactions that comment on the more institutionalized aspects of life. Much of this humor is ephemeral, unrecorded, and often unnoticed.
Historians have access to such moments only when they happen to be recorded in texts, the visual arts, or archeological remains. Although such sources allow us to reconstruct, with varying degrees of certainty, the rituals, myths, and beliefs of the past, we have precious little indication, for example, of what peoples of the past were doing and saying before, after, and perhaps surreptitiously during rituals. If we assume that people have always had recourse to humor and humorous commentary on "serious" matters, then we are perhaps missing an important dimension of the religious life.
Though anthropologists have had direct access to moments of informal humor, they have done little better than historians in bringing the significance of these moments to light. Anthropological theory has not often attuned anthropologists to the importance of such moments, documenting informal interaction is difficult and time consuming, anthropologists have often lacked the near native command of a language required to appreciate and understand humor, and much of the informal joking anthropologists are able to observe is humor provoked by the presence of a strange being—the anthropologist (Driessen, 1997). In addition, not a few have suggested that, even with a command of the language, informal humor is often the most difficult part of a foreign culture to fathom and understand.
What we have lost here is well documented and illustrated in Samuel C. Heilman's Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction (1976). In addition to an account of the ritual activity occurring at a synagogue, Heilman also offers an analysis of the joking that takes place at informal moments, such as the coffee hour, at the synagogue. Some of the joking makes use of or comments on the more serious and solemn moments of ritual activity. Such joking is obviously an important part of the participants' experience of ritual and religion. The lesson here is a simple one: we cannot get a serious sense of people by looking only at serious, formal moments. If we can assume that such moments of informal joking have been ubiquitous in human experience, then we have perhaps seriously misconstrued the degree to which and the ways in which people have been "serious" about their religion.
As suggested above, the history of the study of religion in the last one hundred and fifty years might well be written in terms of a gradual and not yet complete coming to terms with the various ways humor has formed a part of the religious lives of many outside the West. This can be seen in the shifting attitudes to tricksters and ritual clowns. Initially treated as evidence of childishness, primitiveness, a lack of civilization, or even immorality, tricksters and ritual clowns now tend to be celebrated as representing a sensibility and insight into the human condition which many in the modern West have lost. It can also be seen in the ways some religions, such as Zen, have come to be celebrated in the West as possessing an appreciation of humor lacking in Christianity. To an extent at least, the European encounter with the humor of others has led to changes in Western notions of religion, has played a not unimportant, albeit often overlooked, role in the development of the study of religion, and has even entailed a rediscovery of the humor to be found in Western religious traditions.
Although no classic studies of humor and religion exist, several recent works provide good starting points for exploring the topic. Peter Berger's Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (New York, 1997) is a sociological and theological reflection on the various ways religion and humor might be related. Though focused on the symbolism of laughter rather than humor in the strict sense, much of Ingvild Sælid Gilhus's Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion (London and New York, 1997) might be read as relating to the study of humor and religion. Despite their titles, both works are focused on Western traditions and exclude Islam from consideration. Both works contain useful bibliographies. John Morreall's Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion (Albany, N.Y., 1999) deserves mention for directly addressing the question of the relation of religion to comedy and humor and for including Islam as well as Asian traditions in the discussion.
A brief but important discussion of the role humor played in the encounter of Western missionaries and colonialists with "savages" and "primitives" may be found in David Chidester's Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville, Va., 1996), pp. 226–233. Chidester highlights here the ways indigenous peoples satirized some Christian teachings and behavior they found to be funny, and he argues that such a response constitutes a form of comparative religion. Chidester's book as a whole suggests indeed that Westerners and indigenous peoples finding each other to be strange, ludicrous, funny, or ridiculous was an important part of the emergence of the notion of religion in the modern period.
A relatively early and still useful effort to focus attention on the relation of religion and humor is Holy Laughter: Essays on Religion in the Comic Perspective, edited by M. Conrad Hyers (New York, 1969). Hyers's essays in this volume offer still interesting efforts to give a phenomenological account of the relation of religion and humor. Among Hyers's subsequent works on the topic are The Laughing Buddha: Zen and the Comic Spirit (Wolfeboro, N.H., 1989) and, more theologically oriented, And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy (Atlanta, 1987).
A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day, edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Cambridge, U.K., 1997) contains a number of essays treating the relation of humor and religion in the West. The essays are important for the ways in which they complicate many set ideas, such as Bakhtin's analysis of Carnival, and the notion that Protestantism is humorless. In addition an argument is made that humor has been a topic at least relatively neglected by cultural historians. The collection also includes an excellent bibliography. Anton C. Zijderveld's Reality in a Looking-Glass: Rationality through an Analysis of Traditional Folly (London, 1982) explores the causes and consequences of the loss of folly in the course of modernization in the West.
An excellent introduction to anthropological studies of humor is Mahadev L. Apte's Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach (Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1985) which offers an overview of the relevant literature, an extensive bibliography of English language studies, and chapters on religion and tricksters. Henk Driessen's "Humour, Laughter and the Field: Reflections from Anthropology" in the previously discussed A Cultural History of Humour, pp. 222–241, provides a more recent guide to discussions of humor in anthropology. Both Apte and Driessen lament the lack of attention given to the study of humor thus far in anthropology. Clowns & Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture, edited by Kimberly A. Christen (Denver, Colo., 1998), is valuable not only for the range of examples brought together but also for the bibliographic references provided for each entry. Christie Davies' Ethnic Humor Around the World: A Comparative Analysis (Bloomington, Ind., 1990) is a thorough survey of studies of ethnic humor, much of which is related to religion. An influential and often cited essay on humor is Mary Douglas's "Jokes" in her Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London and Boston, 1975), pp. 90–114.
Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany, N.Y., 1982) and The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (Albany, N.Y., 1987), both by John Morreall, are good introductions to discussions of humor in Western philosophy. Morreall provides an argument concerning the rejection of humor in Western philosophic and religious traditions in "The Rejection of Humor in Western Thought," Philosophy East and West 39, no. 3 (1989): 243–266. John Lippitt's Humour and Irony in Kierkegaard's Thought (New York, 2000) is an excellent study of Kierkegaard, whose work is perhaps the most profound of Christian reflections on humor.
Discussions of humor in the Hebrew scriptures may be found in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, U.K., 1990), and in J. William Whedbee's The Bible and the Comic Vision (New York, 1998). A good introduction to the possible types of humor in the New Testament is given by Jakob Jønsson in Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Leiden, 1985). The essays grouped under "Humor and Wit" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 3 (New York, 1992), contain discussions as well as bibliographies for the Middle East in ancient times, Hebrew scriptures, and the New Testament.
A good introduction to the topic of Jewish humor is Jewish Humor, edited by Avner Ziv (New Brunswick, N.J., 1998). An engaging critique of the notion of Jewish humor is Dan Ben Amos's "The Myth of Jewish Humor," Western Folklore 32 (1977): 112–131.
Though limited in historical scope, the best introduction in English to Islam and humor is still Franz Rosenthal's Humor in Early Islam (Philadelphia, 1956). A good introduction to the Qurʾān's relationship to humor is Mustansir Mir's "Humor in the Qurʾān," The Muslim World 81, nos. 3–4 (1991): 179–193.
Motivated by his skepticism regarding scholarly opinion that there was little humor or satire to be found in Sanskrit literature, Lee Siegel offers an extensive and enthusiastic exploration of the wealth of humor to be found in India in Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India (Chicago, 1987).
Mention should be made of a number of works which provide suggestions for developing a theory of religion in which humor plays a central, if at times implicit, role: Helmuth Plessner's Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, translated by James Spencer Churchill and Marjorie Grene (Evanston, Ill., 1970); Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation (London, 1964); Kees W. Bolle's The Freedom of Man in Myth (Nashville, 1968); and Jonathan Z. Smith's Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago, 1978). Though Smith makes only passing reference to humor here and in other works, his approach to religion as an interplay of congruity and incongruity is well suited to developing a fuller appreciation of the relation of religion and humor. For a suggestive essay discussing play and humor in relation to Smith's approach to religion, see Sam Gill's "No Place to Stand: Jonathan Z. Smith as Homo Ludens, the Academic Study of Religion Sub Specie Ludi," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66, no. 2 (1998): 283–312.
Other Relevant Works
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, 1950.
Hynes, William J., and Thomas J. Steele, S.J. "Saint Peter: Apostle Transfigured into Trickster." In Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms, edited by William J. Hynes and William G. Doty, pp. 159–173. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1993.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Myththology of Síva. London and New York, 1973.
Pfeiffer, Franz. Meister Eckhart, translated by C. de B. Evans, vol. 1. London, 1947.
Sanders, Barry. Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History. Boston, 1995.
Sands, Kathleen M. "Humor." In Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, edited by Serinity Young, vol. 1. New York, 1999.
Shah, Idries. Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humor. London, 1977.
Smith, Jonathan Z., ed. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. San Francisco, 1995.
Turner, Victor Witter. Chihamba, the White Spirit: A Ritual Drama of the Ndembu. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1962.
Richard Gardner (2005)