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The Hunt for the Joker

Imagine you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist.

You’re really good at science. So good, you were knighted and made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. You’d think you’d be most known for your big breakthrough, wouldn’t you?

Cyclin, C-terminal domain (not to be confused with Cyclin, N-terminal domain!)

In your case, you discovered a family of proteins called cyclins. Nice one! (You called them ‘cyclins’ as a joke, because you were into cycling at the time. Ha ha.)

You might hope that the vast majority of your Wikipedia page would contain a lengthy explanation of your discovery and how it teaches us a lot about the mysteries of cell division.

But no. You made a joke.

And it wasn’t a joke about cycling. It was a joke in 2015. About girls. In an improvised speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, you said that the trouble with having girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

People decided that it wasn’t funny. They either didn’t know about the context, in which you framed your comments by saying self-effacing things like “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists” and that “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Or, more likely, they didn’t care.

Hunting for the Joker

The next day, it was decided that what you said wasn’t just unfunny but grossly offensive to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t interested in the context. And that’s pretty much everyone.

So you were forced to resign from your position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. You were reinstated to that committee a while later, but let’s face facts. You won’t be known as Sir Tim Hunt FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, MAE but ‘that guy who made that sexist joke’ for a long time.

And here’s the real kicker, and perhaps why it was so offensive. What you said is factually and scientifically true. People do fall in love with each other in the workplace, and women are much more likely to cry at criticism than men. You might think scientists and science journalists would be able to process those facts rationally and understand the joke. Apparently, they can’t.

Instant Meltdown

None of this should be a surprise. It is possible to set fire to your career and reputation in the blink of an eye, or the refresh of an app. It just takes a few words and a hitting ‘send’. Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett caused her successful comeback sitcom to be cancelled. That one lousy joke might have cost her tens of millions of dollars.

You don’t even have to be famous to be disembowelled by the twitchfork mob. Justine Stacco only had 170 followers when she tweeted a very dubious AIDS joke before getting on a plane to Cape Town. She thought she was among friends, but apparently not. Unaware, high in the air, she became a global sensation. Nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind of rage that greeted her when she landed. There was even a hashtag for that moment: #HasJustineLandedYet Jon Ronson wrote about her in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

And here’s the kicker for Justine Stacco. Her joke wasn’t nice, but it was considerably nicer than similar AIDS jokes in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed, Broadway smash-hit show, The Book of Mormon. But that was written by the creators of South Park and Team America: World Police, so everyone was expecting jokes in poor taste. So that makes it okay, right?

Holy Writ

The Book of Mormon is an interesting case of how to take a joke well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could have had a serious sense of humour failure over this commercially-successful broadside attack on their faith. Instead, they smiled (Mormons are good at that), took it on the chin and suggested people read the real book for themselves. That was the suggestion in the adverts the church took out in the official show programme. Nice move.

This pragmatic and gracious reaction of the Mormon church is surprising because it’s so rare. Religious people are not known for their sense of humour. One immediately thinks of Mary Whitehouse counting swear words in TV sitcoms, or the painful discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about The Life of Brian in 1979.

More recently, consider the reaction of mainstream Christians to Jerry Springer: the Opera, which attracted over 50,000 complaints for its BBC broadcast in January 2005. Most of these were received by the Corporation before the performance was even transmitted. There was legal action and a private prosecution for blasphemy. This is not a surprise. Christians often fail to see the funny side.

All of the above is nothing compared to the reaction to cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The deaths of 12 people and the injury of 11 others in broad daylight on 7th January 2015 was a distressing reminder that jokes can have very serious consequences.

The Sacred Art of Joking

I’m a comedy writer. And a Christian. And I love jokes. What’s more, I think Jesus was funny. The Bible is full of comic moments, images, stories as well as a talking donkeys and bushes. Christians should be laughing more, both at themselves and the idiocy of the world around them. After all, God laughs at us (Psalm 2:4), so we might as well join in and see the funny side. (It’s pretty basic advice: When the boss laughs, you laugh.)

All this is why I’ve written a book called The Sacred Art of Joking. In it, I explain how jokes work, how they can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion, and what Christians can do about it. You can pre-order a signed copy from me HERE (UK Only), or Amazon if you’d rather.

But this is the internet, so I have to write a list.

Here’s one about extreme measures you can take when navigating the potentially fatal waters of making a joke anywhere other than inside your head.

  1. Before you make any joke on Facebook or Twitter, assume everything you write publicly online will be available to all people across the universe for all of eternity. Seriously.
  2. Before you send a mean-spirited joke on a private message or email, read it back to yourself. And then imagine how it would sound when read aloud in court.
  3. When making an off-the-cuff speech, remember it might be recorded on someone’s phone. So think about what you’re saying and imagine how it will sound when a Newsnight presenter reads a transcript back to you in the least funny way possible, in front of a member of a lobby group who is professionally offended. How’s that speech looking now?
  4. If you go ahead with the joke, and it causes wide-spread offence, and your motives were good, consider not apologising. An apology will never be enough for the twitchfork mob. They don’t really care about the joke. They are lonely keyboard warriors looking for someone to bully. And the pundits are using you to virtue-signal for their own ends. It’s not about you. It never was.
  5. If you’re a celeb or a politician and you torch your career with a joke, there’s always I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

This list sounds drastic. But it’s actually excellent advice.

But you won’t follow it. And nor will I, because we instinctively know how important jokes are. They are too precious to be handed to the shrieking mob and the Thought Police. We were made for jokes. We were made for joy. We were made for laughter by the God who laughs. So Keep Joking, Carry On and Buy My Book.

I will also be performing part of the one-man show based on the book at The Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, alongside Paul Kerensa and Simon Jenkins, on 19th October at 6.30pm. Come on down! You can hear a sample of The Sacred Art of Joking show here.

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It Got A Laugh

Did you hear the one about the preacher who wanted to be funny? James Cary looks at the downsides of starting sermons with jokes.

A basic rule of preaching seems to be that no matter how long your sermon is, you’re allowed to take up a minute or two at the start telling a joke.

Sometimes it’s an anecdote snipped from a local newspaper, or a personal story about a humorous calamity. Maybe it’s a holiday disaster, or a funeral that went hilariously wrong. Ideally, that joke should, in some way be linked to the text or topic of the sermon. But the overall intention of that comic introduction is to do one thing: get a laugh.

This is a problem.

Why? Am I just being too hard on jokes? I’m a professional comedy writer and have been since, well, I failed to get any other job. Normally in a church context, aversity to jokes isn’t associated with professional pride or comedy snobbery. It’s normally down to an over-inflated sense of holiness. Being down on jokes in church makes one sound like Jorge, from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.He was a monk who (NB: spoilers) was prepared to murder and set fire to a whole precious library in order to suppress laughter, given that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christ laughed.

Jorge may be misguided, but his point cannot be denied. In the gospels we see Christ being angry, hostile, sad and enigmatic. But laughing? No. Is it that comedy has no place in the pulpit? Is it un-Christlike to tell jokes?

By no means! True, there is no ‘Jesus laughed’ verse, there are many verses in which Jesus says things which can only really be described as jokes. The most obvious examples would be his use of hyperbole with specks and planks in the eye, and swallowing camels. This is undoubtedly intentionally comic.

The Comedy of Jesus

From there, is not much of a leap to imagine Jesus impersonating the Pharisees who twist their faces with hunger in their public show of fasting. One can also imagine gasps and sniggers as Jesus called his powerful haters ‘vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’.

Was Jesus a comedian? Perhaps, in the sense that he didn’t laugh at his own jokes. That’s bad form. But no, Jesus wasn’t a comedian. But he used comedy. And he was funny. His very incarnation as the God-Man is inherently comic, for reasons I go into in my forthcoming book and hint at here. But to present Jesus as a comedian would be going too far.

Even so, the pulpit should not be a laughter-free zone. So what’s the problem with starting sermons with jokes? After all, if you want to reach your audience, you have to show you have a sense of humour, right? We Brits think it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Comedy is now a common currency on television, radio and even the realm of politics. Boris Johnson, for example, has side-stepped numerous political storms thanks to well-turned comic turns of phrase. And a willingness to look like an ass.

Comedy is regularly used in teaching, to make it more fun and memorable. My children now know an awful lot about history because it’s presented in comic form in Horrible Histories books and TV shows. Comedy is the lingua franca.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the sermon is a culturally very odd phenomenon. When does one listen to one person speaking uninterrupted for 15-30 minutes? For most people, the only other time they would do that would be watching a stand-up comedy set, either live or on TV. Isn’t it helpful to nod towards that in sermon, making it more palatable for the average Joe in the pew?

Given that comedy is everywhere, it should be no surprise then, that lots of people don’t enjoy speaking in public, including gifted preachers. It’s because they feel that they have to be funny. That’s what the people want, and that’s what they mostly get from the culture. The pressure is on. (This is why there is a secret speechwriting industry.)

Getting a Laugh

The desire to start a sermon with a joke and get a laugh, then, is entirely understandable. But it is misplaced. A congregation who spend their whole week listening to secular radio and watching secular television are hungry for God’s word. Surely, every second of the sermon should be trying to give them just that? Why waste time on indulging in jokes?

Many preachers long to preach for more than their allotted time, bemoaning the attention span of the average Christian. What preacher doesn’t long to share the riches of the scriptures with the assembled faithful for longer? So why do the same people cheerfully give away a couple of minutes of their limited time for a bit of Songs-of-Praise-meets-Live At The Apollo? Is this time well spent?

In a few cases, it might be. A joke at the start of the sermon may be entirely pertinent to the sermon, and lines up exactly with the main point being made. But. Any preacher with their hand on their heart will know that is rarely the case. They might find themselves telling a joke about a disastrous wedding, and then say ‘Well, the wedding in our passage in John 2 went wrong, but in a very different way.’ The gulf between the anecdote and the passage of scripture has been made, and mostly people didn’t spot the join, or even see the need for one.  But we should be able to do better than that.

The desire to use comedy in a sermon is not a bad one. All techniques and forms of rhetoric should be employed in the preaching of the Word, as the text or the topic demands. The preacher should use humour as well as changes of pace and pitch, dramatic pauses, emotional appeals and stark warnings. Some of these techniques fit better with different personality types. A naturally serious preacher probably will not tell jokes well, but used sparingly and carefully jokes can be very surprising and effective. Likewise, a naturally comic speaker can make good use of silence and seriousness as a counterpoint.

Never Preach Like Your Heroes

CH Spurgeon (1834–1892)

When preachers aspire to preach like their heroes, they are in danger of becoming clones of that hero. Perhaps it might not seem so bad to have 500 cloned Spurgeons or Whitefields, or even a dozen Evangelical Frank Skinners. But preachers are to preach using the gifts and abilities they have been given, not to seek to ape the gifts of others. Moreover, every preacher has been placed in a specific pastoral situation. There’s no point trying to preach like much-renowned Manhattan church planter, Tim Keller, in a rural Devon parish or the Highlands of Scotland. In fact, it would be wrong to do so. This would be either misusing your gifts or disrespecting your congregation by speaking in a language that’s broadly alien to them – for your own satisfaction.

Telling jokes is a little bit like importing someone else’s rhetorical style. A joke works for the comedian who wrote it, and for his or her audience in a secular setting on a Saturday night, but it is likely to be inappropriate when copied, pasted and then retold in church on a Sunday morning in a sermon about the Wedding at Cana. It’s not that it’s not funny. Lots of jokes are funny in many contexts. It’s that it’s inauthentic. It’s fake. The preacher is not giving of themselves and their gifts in pointing their congregation in their care towards Jesus Christ. The preacher is telling a joke. Why?

Why not? Maybe the odd joke here or there is fine, but here’s what happens when you do it a lot. If one consistently imports comedy one will eventually persuade the congregation that God’s word is not surprising, vibrant and comic, when it is all of those things. The Bible is not a dull book that needs to be jazzed up with some jokes.

Why tell a passable wedding joke you found on the internet when the story in John 2 is already inherently comic? Because John 2 probably won’t seem so in your Sunday service. This is for a variety of reasons. One is that your congregation might be very familiar with the story, and therefore any kind of comic surprise evaporated years ago. The bizarre events of that wedding could be re-presented much more humorously if the passage is read aloud with feeling and empathy.

The Public Reading of Scripture

The chances are, however, the lesson was read at best mechanically or audibly by someone with no desire, training or encouragement to do the task well. Reading from the lectern is often seen as a way of ‘involving people in the service’. You wouldn’t let anyone lead the music on this basis. It seems odd to allow God’s word to be treated in this way.

Bear in mind that scripture is a script. For most people in history, scripture was not something they absorbed in private study, but was read aloud, even on one’s own. The Bible doesn’t need rewriting to be dramatised. It is already dramatic, as well as inspired by God. Beat that. Scripture just needs reading properly. This takes time, preparation and effort. But reading scripture aloud well will often surprise a congregation. What always strikes people when this happens is how funny the Bible is.

Meanwhile, In Cana

Read the wedding story in John Chapter 2 with fresh eyes. Jesus’s mother drags him into this embarrassing situation. He says that his time has not yet come. Mary completely ignores this and tells the servants to do whatever he says. Thanks, mum. They fill the jars with water as instructed even though they must have thought Jesus was mad. Only in recent times has water been fit for human consumption. And since when did water just become wine? That’s not how it works. And to make matters worse, some poor fellow has to take some of this water to the master of the banquet. In a cup. To drink. He would be cringing as it is tasted. At best, he will have the water spat into his face. Why is Jesus asking him to do this? It’s insane, surely? Imagine the sigh of relief and euphoria when it is revealed that the water has become wine.

Why not talk about this in a sermon, rather than scrabbling around for jokes written by someone else about weddings that look nothing like the one in John 2? Even stories about your own wedding, or weddings you’ve attended, are of limited value. Why not marvel at the true events of the wedding in Cana, which point to the great wedding feast of Christ and his bride, the church?

If we take the text of the Bible seriously, we will find all kinds of humourous, incongruous and bizarre moments. Expectations are confounded. Down is up. Black is white. The blind are given their sight and forced to explain themselves to the spiritually blind religious people. Jesus proves his power over death by calling Lazarus from the tomb, and the priests and scribes decide it would be best to kill him. Why replace all this with a joke about a life-long golfer at the pearly gates or what happens when three men walk into bar? The Bible contains stories about the Supreme Being walking into a world. Why not start with that one?

James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK, which will be available from January 2019. Join the mailing list (right) for further information.

You can listen to James talk to Barry Cooper and Glen Scrivener about this on the Cooper and Cary Have Words podcast.

You can also listen to James talk to comedy legends like Paul Merton, Graham Linehan, John Finnemore and Barry Cryer on the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

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Springtime For Pug Dogs

One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”

When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”

Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.

That Belongs In A Museum

Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.

That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?

A Dog Called Buddha

Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.

Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.

But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.

Indy Meets The Fuhrer

One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.

If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.

The Producers

The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.

But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.

In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?

Who is Who

The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.

Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.

With Friends Like These

Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.

The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.

An Odiuous Criminal Act

The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.

The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.

I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.

But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?

 

A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.



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What’s So Funny About Easter? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about the comedy of Easter, with Easter Day being on April Fools Day in 2018. Read the first post here.

Crucifixion is a cruel and painful punishment. It is literally excruciating. That’s where the word comes from. It would therefore seem hard to describe the brutal execution of any man – let alone the God-Man Jesus Christ – as funny. It isn’t funny, despite the age old saying that tragedy + time = comedy. But the Passion of Christ is comic.

What does ‘comic’ mean? What is comedy? I’m not about to posit a grand unified theory of comedy akin to the physicist who wish to explain everything in a one simple equation. Many august philosophers have tried that with comedy. But no matter what your theory, you encounter jokes, routines and formats that just don’t fit. Comedy is like that. It is subversive and anarchic. And yet based on truth – but we don’t really have time to get into that. (You’ll need to read my forthcoming book coming out in January 2019. Sign up for my mailing list on the right).

In A Nutshell

The most compelling explanation for comedy is incongruity. It’s placing two things next to each other that don’t belong together. The artistry of comedy is revealing or creating that juxtaposition in an elegantly surprising way. Man walks down the road. Not funny. Man falls down manhole. Funny. Man sees manhole and walks around it. Not funny. Man sees manhole cover – and manages to fall in anyway. Very funny.

If we look at the Passion narratives for incongruity, we see it everywhere. Because the story unfolds with such a sense of inevitability, and those taking part have no idea how it appears, and how it fulfills prophecies going back centuries, the incongruity is also highly ironic.

There is, of course, a point at which irony stops being funny. There’s a sense of symbolism in the Passion narratives that are more dramatic and didactic, rather than funny. For example, the arrest, sham trial and crucifixion of Jesus takes place at Passover, the memorial of the release of Israelites from Egypt, during which time an innocent lamb was sacrificed. Jesus is that Lamb.

Much Ado About Lazarus

But the idea that Jesus can be killed is comic. That’s one of the more subtle themes in John 11. After Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, some Jews reported back to the Pharisees and a meeting of church elders was called. The reason for their dismay is not disbelief of the miracles, but what the miracles point towards: trouble. They complain that Jesus is performing these signs of his power, but that If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him” (v48). Ha ha! Wouldn’t that be awful? Everyone believing in the GodMan who clearly has power over life and death? You want to nip that in the bud, guys.

They then show that they are still more afraid of the Romans who “will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (v 48) Then the High Priest, Caiaphas pipes up with a statement dripping with irony, “You know nothing at all! (ha ha! Really? THEY know nothing?) You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v49-50) The gospel writer, John, points out the irony, but the joke is in v53. From that day on, they plotted to take his life.”

Erm, excuse me? So far in John’s Gospel, Jesus has turned water into wine, fed five thousand people, walked on water and healed a man born blind. And now he’s just raised a man from the dead. You’re planning to kill that man. Who raised a man from the dead. Good luck with that.

False Sense of Security

Killing Jesus, however, proved worryingly easy. For a man of such apparent cosmic power, he seemed curiously easy to beat up, whip, mock and torture.

They should have seen the signs. That’s another huge comic irony of the story. God becomes man, and we kill him. But who kills him? Religious people. The people whose job it was to know and teach the scriptures, many of whom will have memorised the prophecies with which the Old Testament is riddled.

The religious people rush a trial through, but the crowd are also implicated. They had been cheering Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then when he was arrested, they demanded a murderer and a terrorist to be released by Pilate, instead of the Prince of Peace, the one who can raise the dead. Jesus wasn’t the king they were expecting, when he turned up riding a comically pathetic donkey. What a ludicrous sight. It is almost as comic as the young man running away from the scene of arrest in Gethsemane Mark 14:42 who was so desperate to get away that when his coat was caught, he wriggled free and ran away stark naked.

Even though Pontius Pilate knew this man was innocent under the law, and washed his hands of it, he allowed his soldiers to do their worst. Luke also points out that Jesus’s trial united Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:12) which is not the kind of peace or kingdom that Jesus was talking about.

Black Friday

In the blackest and bleakest day in human history, all of the above mocked and jeered as  Jesus was forced to drag his own cross to the top of a hill, where he was nailed to it and hung between two common criminals. One of the criminals, despite being near to death himself, used his dying words to join the mockers, by sneering at him. They mishear Jesus quoting Psalm 22, saying ‘He is calling Elijah’, when he was giving more clues to his identity and the awful mistake the religious leaders had made. But they just taunt Jesus, telling him come down from the cross, which he could do, but chose not to. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” (Matthew 27:42) He is, of course, saving others at the cost of his own life.

The ironies abound. Above Jesus is a sign saying that this is the king of the Jews, which is funny because it’s true. Peter, the sturdy fisherman, Jesus’s rock, is denying Christ to a young girl. Jesus tells a common criminal that he will join him in paradise. (Luke 23:43). A centurion, the despised Roman occupier, could see that this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, healer of the sick, God’s chosen, prophesied king, has been killed by priests. It doesn’t get more incongruous than that.

James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK. To keep updated on that, do sign up for the mailing list on the right of the page.

He also discussion of this subject with Glen Scrivener.

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What’s So Funny About Easter?

Let’s be honest. There’s nothing funny about April Fools’ Day. Media organisations and large corporations collude to create stories that seem ludicrous but plausible. Then they have a good chuckle to themselves that some people were tricked. But given we live in a world in which the daily news seems to be a catalogue of the implausible, and some is already fake, how are we supposed to discern what stretches credibility and what is real?

In 2018, April Fools’ Day takes place on Easter Day, another day not known for its humour. Sceptics would be tempted to describe it as another day of implausible stunts. But let’s not get into that. Many books have been written on the subject, like Norman Anderson’s Evidence for the Resurrection or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter.

What’s less documented and written about in modern Christianity is the comedy present in the Easter story. On the surface, the death of Jesus doesn’t seem like a comic tale. The church certainly rarely presents it as such. But it used to. The phrase Risus Paschalis can be found in Easter celebrations in previous centuries. It means “the Easter Laugh”.

Easter Laughter

The origin of the phrase is obscure. Some attribute to the phenomenon to early church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa. But these early Christians weren’t known for their sense of humour. In 390, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) preached “This world is not a theatre in which we can laugh, and we are not assembled in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins.” Clement of Alexandria and Augustine were also suspicious of humour, just as the church is today.

But comedy did become associated with Easter somehow. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote for hymns for Good Friday and Holy Saturday with the stanza,

Grant us, Lord, so to suffer with you

that we may become sharers in your glory,

to spend these three days in grief

that you may allow us the laugh of Easter grace.

Curiously, no reference to bunnies or chocolate.

What’s the Joke?

To those outside the church, and plenty inside, it may not be easy to say what the big joke is about Easter. In bald terms, the gag is that God tricked Satan into letting him kill Jesus. But in so doing, Satan achieves God’s purposes, Jesus saves everyone with his death and Old Nick is humiliated by Jesus’s resurrection on the third day. Jesus 1. Lucifer 0.

This is pretty niche comedy, in today’s secular age, at least. Biblical knowledge and church attendance has declined in the West, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Risus Paschalis is no longer a thing. Ask the man in the street what Easter is, and he might not even know that it’s Jesus related. In order for comedy to work, to ‘get it’, you need shared information. As a society, basic Christian doctrine is no longer known, let alone understood or believed.

The Devil In The Detail

The Risus Paschalis tradition may also have fallen by the wayside because of theological shifts in the last 500 years. The habit of telling jokes in Easter sermons attracted criticism from Luther’s contemporaries, Oecolampadius and Erasmus who were shocked by the bawdiness and tone of the gags. But the Reformation, for Protestants at least, shifted the understanding of what exactly was happening at Easter, which perhaps tracks with the level of fear that the West has for the devil: virtually none. Read the CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters  for how that’s not exactly progress.

The idea that God tricked the devil by allowing him to have Jesus killed arguably inflates the importance of Satan in the overall biblical story. There are some verses in 1 Corinthians 2 in which Paul writes that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age (Demons and the Devil) understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:7-8) Demons are not omniscient and therefore were as blind to the consequence of the crucifixion of Christ as anyone.

But as theology grew and developed from the 1500s onwards, the role of the devil in the Easter story is sidelined. The reformers were clear that the Devil is not the piper who needs to be paid, teaching that it is God himself who demands satisfaction for sin. Justice is his realm. Jesus does not save the Christian from everlasting punishment by the Devil. Hell is the place in which the Devil is also punished. He is thrown down. Read Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Oh, and the Bible.) Misery loves company. (That’s not in the Bible). Satan is grabbing as many souls as he can on his way down. But the point is this: Satan is not the one who punishes sin. That would be God who is utterly and ineffably just, unpalatable for some as that doctrine may be.

Getting Tricky

In the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7), Eve may have been tricked by Satan, but the promise in 3:15 is not that Satan will have the tables turned on him, and that he will be merely tricked when he’s least expecting it. The implication of the promise is that his head will be crushed. God is the one offended by the sin of Adam. It can only be undone by a second Adam. And the only one who can provide that Second Adam, untainted by sin, is God, in his Son Jesus Christ. And he does that because he made us and he loves us. People much prefer hearing that bit.

So, is Easter not funny after all?

It is, actually. It is certainly very comic in ways that we will explore in the next post HERE.

If you can’t wait, have a look at a discussion of this subject with me and Glen Scrivener.

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The Professor of Awkward

When a half hour interview from the Channel 4 news team gets 800k views in a couple of days, you know that something strange is happening. Another 45k people watched it the time it took for me to write this blog post. This sort of thing is normally the slow televised death of a political career. But not this time.

People are rubbernecking the interview of clinical psychologist and professor Jordan B Peterson by Cathy Newman, who is promoting his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. On the Spectator website, Douglas Murray calls the interview ‘catastrophic’. That may be pitching it rather strongly, even though the interview comes to an actual stand-still at 23 minutes when Peterson risks a ‘gotcha’ at Newman’s expense. It’s fair comment, given she’s just spent 23 minutes try to ‘get’ him.

Good On You, Channel 4

It is to Channel 4’s credit that they showed Cathy Newman’s embarrassing speechlessness at that point rather than cutting back Peterson. And it is further to their credit that they put up this interview on Youtube in full. It seems that they’ve taken this one on the chin. If one impugned their motives, like Newman repeatedly does during the interview, you could say that they can’t take the interview down now, since it would look even worse. And given the video will probably get another million views in the next 24 hours, and be ripped and reposted, the toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube.

Catastrophic-ish

Maybe Channel 4 don’t think the interview is all that bad, and here is why I hesitate to use the term ‘catastrophic’ about the interview. Newman approached this interview and asked the same sort of questions that she would a politician. Every question is heavily slanted and loaded with preconceptions that relentlessly assume the worst of the interviewee’s motives and character.

This is rather brutally known as the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ approach. The interviewee is then stuck with the dilemma to defend their character or make a constructive point. If they refuse to allow the character slurs to pass by and defend themselves, they’ve normally used up too much time and breath to make the point – and the interview moves on to the next phase of the character assassination. The Left should classify such relentless questions micro-aggressions, but of course the rules are different if it’s a Channel 4 Journalist saying them.

The big difference here is that Newman is not interviewing a politician who doesn’t know what they think from one day to the next, who, for example, voted to Remain and now has to defend Brexit negotiations. This is not a camera-shy bumbling academic who is grateful for and embarrassed by the attention. She is interviewing a steely professor of Clinical Psychology who knows his stuff, and has had far worse thrown at him with far worse consequences for him than public embarrassment. Newman’s interviewing him cat-and-mouse style as if she knows what he must really think, but he’s playing a completely different game in which he turns out to be the cat.

So here’s the interview. I highly recommend watching all of it. It’s a slow-burn but well worth your time. And here are few thoughts on it below.

 

The Breakdown of the Breakdown

Let’s just break things down briefly as a few of Newman’s questions popped out at me when I was watching the interview. At the very beginning, Newman asks an open question.

“You’ve said that men need to grow the hell up. Tell me why.”

She lets him speak. Her tactic may be to give himself enough rope to hang himself, since he’s clearly written a book that she finds objectionable. He doesn’t seem shifty or repentant, but confident and well informed for a couple of minutes.

1m53: She sticks with the plan and asks another open question about the male crisis that Peterson is putting forward.

“What’s gone wrong then?”

2m32: Newman asks:

“Does it bother you that your audience is predominantly male? Isn’t that bit divisive?”

This question assumes that having a predominantly single-gendered audience for a Youtube Channel is regrettable in some way. This is an odd question given there are plenty of TV shows, books, industries and celebs that veer towards one gender or another, including many TV shows on Channel 4. They sell advertising partly on that basis.

But it is odd that Newman can’t take a book seriously unless it’s aim squarely at both genders. This seems a bizarrely proscriptive approach, but this becomes very much the motif of the interview.

2m45: When informed that YouTube is used more by men and Tumblr more by women, for which I’ve seen no evidence but I’m happy to take Peterson at his word (Pinterest I would have no problem believing is predominantly female), Newman says:

“So, that’s the way it is”

She says this as if internet platforms should all aim for a 50/50 gender split of usership. This fits in with what comes later. Newman is after equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. At this point, she seems unwilling to make that distinction. Perhaps she’s never been required to before. Let’s keep going.

3m08 Newman says:

“So you’re saying women have some sort of duty to help fix the crisis of masculinity.”

Watching the interview for the first time, this was the first comment from Newman that really jumped out at me. It’s not a huge logical leap she makes, but a subtle, disingenuous hop that Peterson’s theory of the crisis of masculinity needs to be solved by women (as if they didn’t have enough to do). Peterson has not said that at all. He has said that if women want men who aren’t overgrown children, they might like to take some action. In response to Newman, Peterson doesn’t jump on the word ‘duty’ but again, pushes things back to free choices. We are the product of the choices we make. I wonder if, fundamentally, this is what Newman can’t accept.

The interview moves on to some deeply awkward issues of male and female gender dominance, low expectations of relationships and general dysfunction.

4m17 Newman says:

“But what gives you the right to say that? Maybe that’s how women want their relationships, those women. You’re making these vast generalisations.”

Actually he’s not. He used the phrase ‘there’s a substantial minority who do that’ (4m07).

“I’m a clinical psychologist”

This is Peterson’s reply. Credentials stated. Newman replies (4m27):

“You’re saying you’ve done your research and you’re saying women are unhappy dominating men.”

Peterson replies:

“I didn’t say they were unhappy dominating men. I said it was a bad long term solution.”

These differences are very minor, but significant and Peterson is showing that he’s not going to have words put into his mouth. That’s very much going to be the pattern of the rest of the interview.

Five minutes in, they start talking about the toxic issue of the gender pay gap, and Peterson will not give an inch of ground. Peterson flatly refuses to over-simplify and Newman clings on to her assumption that there is only equality when everything, every single thing, is 50/50.

6m06 Peterson start to talk about uni-varied analyses. Uh oh. This is complicated whereas the 9% figure that Newman repeatedly returns to is much simpler and more TV-friendly. She knows this. But again, we return to Newman’s unwillingness (or inability) to see that Peterson is trying to describe the world as he sees it, evidentially. And that his descriptions and explanations are not necessarily approval. Newman must be assuming that he can’t possibly bring himself to describe the Gender Pay Gap in this way unless he must, in some way, be in favour of the gap, impossibly sexist or just callous. This is reflected thus:

6m18 Newman says:

“But you’re saying basically it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top because that’s what’s skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying ‘Well that’s just a fact of life. Women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.'”

Peterson replies:

“No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it that aren’t being taken into account.”

Newman goes on:

“Why should women be content not to get to the top?”

Peterson replies:

“I’m not saying saying they should put up with it. I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multi-varied analyses have been done. Let me give you an example-“

Newman doesn’t let him. And she talks about how unfair the 9% gap is, and his attempts to say that she should be interested in why the gap exists is irrelevant.

Earlier in the interview, Peterson acknowledged that the gap looked unfair but you have to dig deeper. Newman doesn’t seem interested in doing that, which is a pity because this is meant to be an interview. But it isn’t really an interview any more. It’s an interviewer with opinions telling an interviewee with data and analysis why he simply must wrong.

And then we hit a point at which demonstrates why Peterson has shot to fame in the last year, and we’ve seen hints of it already in this interview. And how he rose to prominence in the first place. He simply will not say the little thing someone wants him to say in order to avoid confrontation. It’s a tactic that normally works very well, especially with agreeable people. But Peterson is not agreeable. And nor, as he discovers, is Cathy Newman. That part of the interview (16m53) is rather delightful.

But this earlier salvo is revealing:

7m08 Newman is still clinging onto her killer 9% pay gap stat, regardless of Peterson’s interrupted presentations of multi-varied analysis, and says:

“But do you agree that it’s unfair if you’re a woman?”

She is hoping for at least a hint of compromise. Peterson’s already said it looks unfair. She’s got to come away from this is something.

But she’s out of luck. Peterson replies:

“Not necessarily.”

And so it goes on. He just will not say the thing that she wants him to say.

She shouldn’t be surprised at this. This is the man who made his name for his refusal to use legally required gender pronouns because he argues the state of Ontario has no right to insist that he do this. He has studied how this process played out in his book and lectures called Maps of Meaning. He is the Professor of Awkward. That’s his power.

That’s why this interview plays out as it does, and why Newman is continually set back on her heels. Her techniques, which are no different from those of many interviewers, normally work.

Not this time.

For more of this sort of thing, you might like to by Death by Civilisation by James Cary, a series of articles about politics, media, faith and culture. Available here.

You can also listen to James Cary talk about church, culture, media and everything in between with Barry Cooper on the Cooper and Cary Have Words Podcast.

Since this article was written on 18th Jan, some people have kindly corrected my error with univaried/univariate – but I left it incorrect as I don’t want to rewrite history. And also someone has edited the interview and gathered up every single time Cathy Newman tells Jordan Peterson what he’s saying. Worth a look.

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Merry Christmas, Sir David

The Living Planet (1984)

I was eight when The Living Planet arrived on BBC1. I remember looking forward to it all day at school and being able to stay up to watch in the evenings. You had to watch things live back in 1984 when video recorders were not common. It was thrilling to see the natural world as it had never been seen before. On TV, at least.

Somehow, Sir David Attenborough’s team have managed to repeat that trick every three or four years, wowing us with nature. Last year it was, Planet Earth II. This year it was Blue Planet II, which I watched with my daughters who are about the same age as I was when I watched The Living Planet. We are able to watch in installments throughout the week, thanks to Sky+. Unsurprisingly, the pin-sharp jaw-dropping footage has created gasps from our sofa, and across the nation. These programmes have been a ratings smash. The only thing that British people want to see in greater numbers is amateur bakers making cakes.

What does these shows have to do with Christmas? Two things.

The first doesn’t sound all that Christmassy at first, but it is. And it’s this: the most exciting and gripping bit of each episode is the hunt, on land or at sea. Every week, there’s always some poor animal running the gauntlet.  A giraffe trying to escape from a pride of hungry lions. A Cayman crocodile being grabbed by a jaguar. A poor lizard, only minutes old, running the gauntlet of those nasty snakes.

In these hunt sequences we see beauty and brutality. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ as the poet Tennyson puts it in his poem, In Memoriam. Red blood, flowing from the wounds made by the teeth and the claws of the wild animals.

Many of us will only ever see this kind of visceral physical conflict on television. But for the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we read about in Luke Chapter 2 (see? I told you it would get Christmassy), this brutal side of nature was part of their daily lives. It still is for many animal herds across the word. Shepherds watch their flocks to keep them safe from wild animals that would happily help themselves to a woolly lamb.

But we have to ask the question:

Following the birth of Jesus, why does Luke tell us about these shepherds?

And why does God choose to bring the news of Jesus’ birth to lowly keepers of sheep?

Okay, that’s two questions, but there’s a clue back in the Old Testament, in another firm favourite Bible story that’s told to children. The great shepherd, David, turns up in 1 Samuel 17, visiting his warrior brothers, only to find they are scared of this nine foot Philistine, Goliath.  David fancies his chances. King Saul suggest that this is not such a good idea, and doesn’t give David a hope. But David tells Saul that as a shepherd, he is used to dealing with ferocious beasts and wild animals.

“When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

David can handle himself. Or at least, God has form in rescuing him from lions and bears. Why should Goliath, an enemy of Israel, be any different? You’ll know how the story ends. David slays the Philistine giant – and goes on to be a truly great King, the Shepherd King. From Bethlehem. That should sound familiar.

About a thousand years later, in the City of David, a new king is born in that family line. A king who will look after his sheep, go searching for lost sheep, and will lay down his life for his sheep. In so doing, he will slay the great enemy, Satan himself, and Death itself.

We can’t be sure, but that’s probably why the angels announce news first to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem.

The second observation about Planet Earth II and The Blue Planet II is this. They’re not just some of the best programmes on the BBC. They’re also the most religious. More so even than Songs of Praise or The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. The images of the natural world and the beauty of the creatures in their splendour are just astonishing. But of course, it’s not a natural world. God made it. God designed it. God sustains it.

Whether you believe in an earth that’s 6000 or 6 billion years old, or whether you look out from a mountain top or the bottom of the ocean, whether you observe the smallest insect, the most beautiful bird, or the sleekest big cat, you get a sense of awe and wonder. It takes you outside of yourself. We see, we experience and we know that there’s a God. Some don’t, of course. But many do. Historically, most have. We shouldn’t be surprised at this.

In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul writes:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

God’s fingerprints are all over the so-called ‘natural’ world. But Sir David Attenborough doesn’t see it that way. When asked in a TV interview if he ever gets ‘a sense of God’s pattern in creation’, he replied:

 “Well, if you ask…about that, then you see very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things, [like]… tapeworms or the parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it’s common, turning people blind…. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that.”

Sir David says that it’s one or the other. You can have a divine creator who made all the beauty. But that he also made the brutal bugs and the devastating diseases that cause so much pain and suffering. It’s a common sceptical conclusion for many, especially from those who have seen so much pain first hand.

But Christmas is good news for Sir David. Except it’s not news really. It was written about in the book of Isaiah about 2700 years ago. Chapter 11 says this:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father];

    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him…

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

  with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

    and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,

    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”

They are very striking images. Wolves and lambs together. Cows with bears. Lions eating alongside oxen. A Clinton Cards classic.

What’s going on here? Is this what a descendant of David will bring?

Anyone with small children will know how brilliant they are at finding trouble and danger. I’m sure my youngest would find a viper’s nest given the chance, and plunge her arm down it. But in the new world that Jesus will bring, she will be quite safe. Pain, eminity, brutality and death will have passed away.

Sir David is right to question the suffering in the world. It doesn’t seem fair. It seems brutal and wrong. The good news is that if we have a problem with all the suffering in the world, so does God. If we think that God isn’t doing anything about the brutality of the world, or hasn’t, or won’t, or can’t, then we’ve not understood Christmas. We’ve not understood who this baby is. We don’t realise what this baby will do.

Jesus, God’s shepherd king, will bring peace when He returns. That’s what we should be thinking about in the season of Advent. Jesus will defeat the giants of death and suffering. In that world, shepherds will no longer wrestle with lions and bears. People won’t be given malaria by mosquitoes or blinded by tapeworms.

Sir David, “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” The God you want is the God we have.

Why not hurry off to Bethlehem to see this Saviour that’s been born?

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We Need to Talk About Harvey. And Mike.

The revelations about Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, are shocking and appalling. All the details and allegations are easily accessible so there is no need to repeat them here. But how did this happen? A powerful man abused his position, authority and sheer physical size to do things he has publicly admitted he should not have done.

Many women seeking the help or approval of a powerful man in a private closed meeting are made to feel nervous. My Facebook feed is littered with horrible #MeToo stories of women in such situations with creepy men who did, said or implied vile and inappropriate things.

(Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

How could these situations be prevented? There is one way of sensibly avoiding many them. So can we talk about Mike Pence?

Now, many reading this might already have made up their mind on Mike Pence, because he’s an evangelical Christian, or a Republican, or because he is a consort to Donald Trump. Click here for the latest character assassination by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. It’s a long article but you can probably tell what she thinks about him from the title: The Danger of President Pence Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks.

Pick your reason to hate him. And the mainstream media were utterly delighted to find a new one back in March. It was revealed that he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. This was from a dredged up interview with Mrs Pence from fifteen years ago. (Note: What was Harvey Weinstein doing 15 years ago? Oh yes.) And, according to the New Yorker:

… if he attends an event where alcohol is served and “people are being loose,” he prefers that his wife be present and standing close to him. The recent Washington Post piece that resurfaced these details quotes Ken Blackwell, one of President Trump’s transition-team advisers, on Mr. and Mrs. Pence: “You can’t get a dime between them.”

Pence clearly adores his wife and doesn’t want anything to compromise that. In the view of the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, that makes him a sexist pig. Jessica Valenti agreed in the Guardian where she wrote:

Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone.

Twitter and social commentators all joined in, gleefully pouring scorn on this right-wing jerk who is living in another century. And it’s not just Pence who adopts this code of conduct, rules that were conceived by the popular (in some circles) evangelist, Billy Graham. Olga Khazan, in the Atlantic, explains that this is more widespread:

An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal in 2015 found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” One told the reporter Sarah Mimms that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed door meeting with me. … This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.”

So, how do we feel about all this now? The first person to publicly point this out post-Weinstein was a Trump/MAGA staffer, Sebastian Gorka who Tweeted: “THINK: If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence’s rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.”

Gorka is, of course, tarnished by his association with Trump (who am I not, for a moment, defending) and so Vox immediately went out of its way to shriek at this entirely reasonable observation about Democrat donor, activist and friend of Hillary and Obama, Harvey Weinstein. If you want a lesson in defensiveness and weapons-grade impugning of motives, I’d have a look at it (you’ll love the bit about Caesar’s wife, which is obviously a parallel here) along with those articles from the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.

VP Pence with Linda McMahon. Make of that what you will. (Official White House Photo by Myles D. Cullen)

In all of those publications, Pence’s motives for his rule are always portrayed as entirely self-serving, to avoid suspicion and “that upstanding, honorable men avoid creating situations that might be misinterpreted by supposedly hysterical, unstable women”, according to Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Are you sure about that, Tara? Is that how you’d describe genuine victims of Weinstein, as opposed to imaginary victims of Pence? I guess not.

The downside of Pence’s rule is obvious. It appears to exclude women from private access to the Vice President in certain situations. It could perpetuate an old boys’ network. You would hope that Pence would go out of his way to grant greater one-on-one access to women on other occasions. I have no reason to suspect he doesn’t do this. He must realise that his ‘rule’ has a cost, and it must be deeply inconvenient to live by – and frustrating for female colleagues at time. But he is clearly willing to pay that cost in terms of being pilloried in the press for days.

As usual, we need to have a grown-up debate. This time it’s about the differences between men and women, which is clearly made difficult by the agenda of those who insist that gender is fictional, a construct or self-determined. And it’s about the trade-offs that have to be made over certain policies and practices. Such a discussion is sadly not possible in the deafening echo-chambers of vociferously stated public opinions.

Meanwhile, my Facebook feed continues to fill up with #MeToo stories of women (and men) who were victims of powerful people abusing their position for their own carnal gratification. It’s all very sad.

 

For more of this sort of thing, pick up a copy of my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.

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A Rare Limerick

It is often said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. This is not true. It is the limerick. It is a form popularised by Edward Lear, and his versions were painfully unfunny, given the lack of punchline. The final line was a close variant of the first line. So there’s not really a joke there. For example:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’

Told you. Dismal.

Even at the time, it’s hard to believe that anyone was falling about over this kind of material. Perhaps Lear’s limericks lack the punch because the were apparently folk poems that were only ever intended to be filthy. That would certainly explain why one of the few funny limericks is the one about the lady from Devizes. (Google it). Presumably Lear was prevented from printing such bawdy verse, or it was considered beneath him. The limerick has thus always been the Pete Best of comedy formats, lagging even behind the almost-as-dismal Knock Knock joke.

I mention all of this because there is a funny limerick which is suitable for work, rather pleasing and curiously theological. I stumbled across is many years ago and has been locked in my mind ever since. And I remembered it this afternoon. It appeared in a book of verse in 1924 and is attributed to Ronald Knox.

The first limerick encapsulated Berkeley’s philosophical principle that “To be is to be perceived”, philosophically related to the hack student conundrum of whether a tree falling over in the forest makes a sound. (I wrote a joke about this in 1999, in which some people set up an experiment to prove this one way or the other. They went back to find the tree had fallen on the recording equipment).

Knox’s limerick however goes thus:

There once was a man who said: “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”

Witty, but not hilarious. But here’s the reply, also attributed to Knox, is as follows:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God.

Lovely, isn’t it?

For future reference, I plan to write a book about how comedy works (and often goes wrong), currently entitled A Good Sense of Humour. Do join my mailing list (on the right) for news on developments of that, and to be kept informed of other blog posts and activities. Or pick up my book Death by Civilisation.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

A Belated Book Review

Despite being a music lover, I don’t listen to music radio. Maybe that’s why I don’t listen to music radio. The inane chat, the adverts and the incessant travel news just get in the way. I find new music in two main ways: Spotify and Shazam. The latter of these two usually involves standing in Starbucks or a retail shop holding my phone up to one of the speakers because I’ve heard a tune I really like. Once I find out the name of the track, I find it on YouTube. At this point, I normally discover the song is a year or two old and has already been listened to 750 million times. And the name of the artist is incredibly well known. And I realise that I am the probably last person in the West Civilisation to hear this song. Essentially, I’m eternally playing cultural catch up. (Also, hot tip: I hear Breaking Bad is really good.)

I mention this because I feel like I’m still playing catch-up with books like The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I got a whiff of this American book a couple of years ago soon after it was published in 2012, but didn’t realise that it was a big hit, or at least a big hit among people who read non-fiction. I should have read it before. We all should. It would have helped all of us when it comes to talking about politics, a subject on which we could all use some help.

The book is about how we form our political views and end up sharply disagreeing with each other. Using his own research and drawing on the research of others, Haidt puts forward a very convincing thesis that dispassionate moral reasoning is not the way in which we formulate our moral or political views. He argues that we react to moral situations with gut feelings, and then, when pressed, use moral reasoning to justify that decision. Not only does this ring true in my experience, he presents compelling evidence to, erm, rationalise his gut feeling on this.

So far, quite interesting. But it gets better. How can we explain our instincts on moral or ethical questions? What makes us rush to the judgments we like to think are based on facts or sound philosophy? In examining this question, Haidt has stumbled on something that explains one of the most tiresome political frustrations of our age, which is: The Left thinks the Right is evil. But the Right does not think the Left is evil. The Right tends to think the Left is stupid.

Haidt has some helpful insights into the way in which people form their political opinions. Those on the Left tend to base their views on perfectly decent criteria, mostly a desire for equality and empathy for those who are suffering. Those on the Right, however, consider these criteria, but balance them with other ones, like the realm of the sacred and the good of the existing community (rather than some speculative utopia).

For example, Haidt points out that conservatives tend to see things that the Left sees as self-evidently positive, like the welfare state and feminism, as threats to personal responsibility and the importance of the family. Despite being a leftist himself, Haidt can see how the Right takes the broader view and how the Left mistakes that for moral deficiency or lack of empathy.

Based on those last two or three paragraphs, you might already be shouting at your screen or scrolling down to the comments section, which is understandable. You’re reacting emotionally, which is what we all do. But the book is carefully nuanced and well argued. If anything he takes a little too long over it. It’s probably 60-80 pages too long, and I confess I skimmed most of the material on the role of evolutionary biology. But The Righteous Mind is worth every penny for the first hundred pages and the last thirty.

To his credit, Haidt is refreshingly open about his own politics, those of academia and the students participating in many experiments. These disproportionately bright and liberal student are highly unrepresentative of the population as a whole and skew the test results accordingly. Haidt also talks about having confronted his own leftist biases and move towards the centre.

Pic by Marc Falardeau via Flickr

But there is an unacknowledged irony that for all of his fair-mindedness and self-awareness, Haidt just cannot bring himself to say anything positive about Republicans. When he talks about the Right, he always specifies that he is positive about certain aspects of conservatism, and is at pains to point out that he is not praising or endorsing anything to do with the GOP. Presumably, he has already enraged his fellow Left-leaning academics enough with the very idea of searching for balance and considering other points of view. The overall effect of this to me, at least, demonstrates that even those with the greatest insights into political opinions succumb to the prejudice of party politics.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is published in the UK by Penguin. And can be purchased here.

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