Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Humour in the Bible 2.1: Humour in narrative texts – Introduction

cybergedeon-warning-banana-skin

Beginning by considering humour in narrative texts is an attempt to deal with what is probably the most straightforward case first. In everyday life we perceive certain events as funny. When recounting such events we tell them in ways that highlight their humour.1 There is little or no difference between the manner of such recounting if the event is real or fictional.

However, different cultures regard different sorts of event as differently humorous. Translation can also introduce unintended humour, for example “false friends” often cause problems. When Parker entered the Mexican market, its regular advertisements claimed their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Rendering this as”No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo“, meant they were actually saying something like “It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant”.2 So, it is not enough that a modern reader finds an event in a biblical narrative funny, we need also some reassurance that this humour was intended or might have been recognised by the ancient audience. Thus even in spotting possible narrative humour we need to establish that several of the criteria discussed in the previous section are present.

Humour in narrative texts is potentially of two kinds:

  • Telling events which are considered humorous (I will claim below that several of the events described in the book of Jonah are examples)
  • While the events themselves may not be funny they can be told in ways that are humorous (the killing of Eglon by Ehud is an example discussed below)

Rather like the difference between irony by a speaker and “dramatic irony“, humour in narratives may also be either recognised, or not recognised, by characters in that narrative:

  • Both centenarian Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12) spot humour in God’s announcement that they will have a child. That this laughter is not the sign of some other emotion like sadness3 is clear from the presence of several of our criteria in this text (see future post).
  • However Jonah never seems aware of the humour in his situations (though perhaps God does, which is at least a possible understanding of his last word in 4:11).
  1. Almost always – except when for some other rhetorical or social purpose we wish to deny the humorous nature of the event. For example, slipping on a banana skin is widely thought to be funny, however if a distinguished person so slipped, or if the person injured themself, we might wish to recount the event in a “straight” and non-humorous way. []
  2. Sandy Serva, Language Translations for Global Research, 26, 1, 2003, 51.

    There are many such stories, not all of them true, like the tale that GM had trouble selling the Nova in Spanish speaking countries, because the name sounds like “won’t go”, which is debunked nicely at Snopes. []

  3. See Culturalsavvy for laughter as a sign of sadness in Japan. []

Humour in the Bible 1.4 Introduction: Signs a text contains humour

From  zebedee.zebedee on Flickr

The attempt to investigate humour in the Bible is even more impacted by the differences of time, place and above all culture that make most biblical interpretation less than straightforward.

For recognising, let alone understanding, humour across cultural difference is always difficult. Anyone who has lived in a culture other than their own (or perhaps one that is very similar to theirs), or even has watched “foreign” TV, will be aware that the sense of what is funny differs from culture to culture. A common sense of humour is not shared by all humans. The contexts in which humour appears and what is considered funny differ between cultures. Even between two cultures with a shared language, much shared experience, and who share many cultural artifacts, like Britain and the USA, or France and Francophone Belgium, the sense of humour can differ markedly.

When watching “foreign” TV one can attune one’s sense of what is funny and learn (at least to some extent) to appreciate the foreign humour. But TV is not writing – there are cues in speech that are not available in a plain text medium. As well as the now nearly ubiquitous “canned” laughter (that tells us when we are “supposed” to find something funny) the behaviour of the participants offers other cues (which may be as simple as a raised eyebrow, or as subtle as a change of tone or pace). None of these paraverbal cues are present in text.

Nor have ancient writers1 left us descriptions of humour, or treatises on the theory of wit, which might assist our evaluation of the presence of intentional humour in Scripture.

In terms of humour in modern writing there is a new but growing academic discipline studying humour. These studies are weighted towards the senses of humour in Anglophone Western contexts, though the cultural backgrounds of the writers are not entirely homgeneous. We will be making use of these resources, and of the comments of ancient writers. Some Biblical scholars have begun to use these studies and I will make significant use of this growing literature in particular.

F. Scott Spencer in his chapter “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.”2  Provides perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of how we may distinguish humour intended by the authors, or that might have been perceived by their audiences, from things which merely seem funny to us in particular Bible passages.

Spencer began by discussing some earlier attempts to identify the signs of humorous genres, starting with Ovid and ending in the 20th century, before moving to produce his conclusions about the clues that humour is present. His list of criteria started from Greenstein’s article in the ABD which claimed that incongruity, lighthearted mood and surprise were hallmarks of biblical humour.3

He added to that short list and split Greenstein’s “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “imperceptibility or hiddenness” (I prefer “surprise” and will retain that term).4

  • incongruity – this characteristic is very commonly mentioned in modern discussions of the theory of humour, and indeed can be traced back to classical authors particularly Aristotle5 and Cicero6
  • lighthearted mood – Spencer links the prevalence of feasting and other signs of such mood with the ancient definition of comedy as a U-shaped plot with a happy ending.7
  • surprise – Aristotle linked incongruity with humour by way of surprise8 Spencer separates “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “hiddenness”, however I prefer to list “disguise” as a separate item (see below) and not claim that spontaneity indicative of humorous situations apart from the element of surprise.
  • ingenuity – as noted just above surprise, ingenuity and incongruity have been recognised as closely related and as each related to humour since Aristotle at least.
  • inferiority – again, since Plato and Aristotle,9 what is now called the superiority theory of humour has been much discussed and the presence of inferiority is its flipside10
  • inelasticity – which Spencer borrows from Henri Bergson11 who recognised how often a human acting in a mechanical way (and so reduced to something less than human) is found to be funny. While Bergson’s theory may not be a complete description of all humour, his recognition that human inelasticity is funny deserves recognition. I have been unable to connect this idea with ancient sources and would welcome anyone who can point me to possible material.
  • puncturing pretension – a great deal of modern humour serves to puncture pretension and arrogance. This notion also relates closely to the “superiority theory of humour” that is traced at least back to Plato and Aristotle.12
  • hyperbole – in discussion around my early posts on this topic David Ker suggested adding hyperbole. Exaggeration, things being bigger, brighter and more cartoon-like is also often a sign of humour in the modern world. While clearly much exaggeration in the ancient world, as in ours, serves to highlight the importance of what is said, it seems likely that in the ancient world as in ours it may also mark humorous intent.  In the case of Jonah, the exaggerations do not all seem intended to mark importance, though the size of the city does. Hyperbole is also evident in several ancient Greek and Latin comedic works.

If we can agree this list of characteristics likely to be found in humorous texts we have the means of assessing the possibility of humorous intent that is not dependent on our own appreciation of the “joke”. They will rarely all be present, but that the presence of several of them together might provide a strong suggestion of humorous intent.

While the list is drawn from modern discussions of the theory of humour they have been linked back to the earliest recorded thinking on this subject in ancient Greece and Rome (though sadly not to the Ancient Near East) which may give us some confidence that in sum they will serve us as we move back into the worlds of the Bible.

[I am especially interested in anyone with cross-cultural experience who can comment on how these work in different contexts. FWIW they do not seem to contradict my experiences…]

PS: In a comment on Facebook, Mark Simpson suggested that the temperament of the author impacts the likelihood of humour in their texts. This is true but we have no access to the authors of Bible texts except through their texts so, this means that if there are several places in a text where we identify humour already, then the next one becomes more likely…

  1. At least, from the primary cultures of most of the Bible authors, for as we have noted and will see again below there are Greek and Roman texts that tell us something about their understanding of humour. []
  2. F. Scott Spencer, “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy,” in Are We Amused?: Humour about Women in the Biblical Worlds, ed. Athalya Brenner (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 7–30. []
  3. Greenstein. “Humour and Wit: Old Testament.” In The Anchor Bible dictionary, edited by David Freedman, III:330-333. New York: Doubleday, 1992. []
  4. See below for my explanation. []
  5. Rhetoric III, 2. []
  6. On the Orator, 63, “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (( See both John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/ and Aaron Smuts, “Humor | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  7. Spencer, 11. []
  8. He also mentions punning in this connection (see below) “[t]he effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose.” See Smuts for more on this. []
  9. Smuts. []
  10. As Spencer,11-12, notes. []
  11. Spencer,12. []
  12. See Smuts. []

Ex-megachurch star’s new job

Dieter Zander was on top of the “Christian world”, pastor and music minister at Willow Creek. A stroke ended all that, unable to speak clearly, Dieter now works as a janitor at Trader Joe’s.

Here’s his new story:

Humour in the Bible 1.3 Introduction: Locating humour

The simplest useful definition of humour has to be: “Humour is present when people laugh”.

However, this simplicity masks real problems. For a start as we saw people laugh for other reasons than just that something is funny, embarrassment and being tickled are obvious (and pretty cross cultural) examples. But also sometimes people ‘laugh at’ rather than ‘with’, laughter then is not a sign of humour. There is also unintended humour.

Worse still for us this definition is useless as a help for readers of ancient texts, since the audience is not available to test.

Perhaps though we might still say: “Something is humorous when its author intended its audience to laugh (or at least smile?) as they receive the text.” This avoids the ‘laughing at’ problem, but still the biblical authors are no more accessible than their audiences.

It also does not allow for unintended humour, or at least unconscious humour (that is humour that the author was not aware of generating, but which they would recognise after the event if it was pointed out to them).

Cutting a potentially long and complex discussion short perhaps we can agree that somehow, like ‘meaning’, humour exists in the interface of authors, texts and audiences. In the next post I’ll suggest a series of criteria that might be used to get an idea if a text is likely to be intended (author) to be funny, or at least recognised by an audience (at the time of writing) as funny. These criteria will come from both theories of humour (see Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour), recent scholarly writings on humour in the Bible, and in one case a suggestion from a reader that struck me as eminently sensible.

Humour in the Bible 1.2 Introduction: Theories of Humour

Sigmund_Freud_1926cropped

Theories of humour are generally classified under three approaches1

  • Superiority
  • Incongruity
  • Relief

Superiority

Perhaps the majority of classical philosophers who considered humour at any depth had the cutting humour of satire and the like significantly in mind, so it was perhaps natural to suspect (intellectuals are good at suspecting) that a sense of superiority was at the heart of the phenomenon.

Hobbes is frequently cited as the typical example of this approach:

The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.2

That humour can have at its heart such a sense is evident. However, often humour seems to work in reverse as we laugh at ourselves or with a character, for example when a downtrodden or bungling character surprisingly succeeds.

(When, in part 3, I present my “criteria for discerning the presence of humour” this approach will be reflected in the suggestion that a marked sense of inferiority and superiority can signal humour as well as sometimes in surprise, incongruity or a focus on human pretentions.)

Incongruity

Currently the commonest approach sees humour as located in a sense of something or someone out of place, or unfitting. This incongruity associated with surprise produces laughter.

An early example of this approach is found in Aristotle3 and the theory was given classic expression by Kant:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.4

Although this linkage of humour with incongruity seems to fit a wider selection of what today we would classify as humorous, again the theory is less than entirely satisfying. It does not well describe precisely those examples that the superiority theory best accounts for.

It will be reflected in the criteria of ingenuity, surprise, incongruity and perhaps disguise.

Relief

Although theories that link humour with the relief of tensions or energy that have previously been accumulated may help to understand the physiological phenomenon of laughter, and despite beoing promulgated by such luminaries as The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Herbert Spenser, John Dewey and Sigmund Freud relief theories are generally depreciated today as descriptions of humour (as opposed more narrowly the mechanisms of laughter), and this attitude is reflected in the absense of influence from these theories on the criteria I will be proposing.

  1. For summary statements of most oif the ideas in this section see the encyclopedia entries:
    John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/.
    Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  2. Thomas Hobbes, The Moral and Political Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury: Never Before Collected Together : To Which Is Prefixed, the Author’s Life, Extracted from That Said to Be Written by Himself, n.p.: London, 1750, 20.
    Cited by e.g. by:
    Arthur Asa Berger, An Anatomy of Humor, Transaction: New Brunswick, NJ, 1993, 2.
    Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  3. Aristotle, Rhetoric, III, 11, in e.g. Dover: New York, NY, 2012, 139. []
  4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Cosimo: New York, NY, 2007, 133. []

Humour in the Bible 1.1 Introduction: History and definition


Humour’s bad rap

Humour has not been popular with intellectuals in the Western world. From Plato and the Bible until quite recently their focus seems to have rested more on sharp cutting humour than on gentler wit. The overpowering loss of control that extreme laughter can produce also made it suspect. The critical probing nature of much humour seemed to make it inappropriate for nobler, gentler souls.

Plato’s Laws were particularly scathing:

Yet one can’t create in both ways if one is to partake of even a small portion of virtue, and indeed one should learn about the ridiculous things just for this reason – so that he may never do or say, through ignorance, anything that is ridiculous, if he doesn’t have to. The imitation of such things should be assigned to slaves and to strangers who work for hire. There should never be any seriousness whatsoever about these things, nor should any free person, woman or man, be observed learning these things; in fact, these imitations should always manifest something new. Let the play that provokes laughter, the play we all call “comedy,” be thus ordained in law and in argument.1

The Bible seemed to confirm this negative evaluation as (almost) every mention of laughter involves mockery.

The history of attitudes to humour in Christianity seems to continue negative up to and beyond the Puritans (whose popular reputation as killjoys might lead us to expect this attitude. Indeed as recently as the middle of the twentieth century this attitude seems to have obscured the possibility that Scripture could contain (or at least contain more than a little) humour.

An unusual measure of critical agreement has been realized in descriptions of the Bible’s lack of humor. Yet the opinion represented by such statements as [Alfred North] Whitehead’s that “the total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature” relies on evidence which is the best equivocal.2

By contrast with this surprisingly univocal history this series will argue that humour is widespread in Scripture and will attempt to begin classifying and organising it to enable clearer discussion of its presence and function.

What is humour?

It is useful to begin consideration of a topic with definitions of the key terms. Humour is surprisingly difficult to define helpfully. Perhaps the commonest sort of attempt delineates humour by its effects: Humour is what makes us laugh. Yet laughter can have other causes, for example tickling, and humour may produce smiles or even little outward sign in its audiences.3

The difficulty of producing a satisfactory definition that is not circular (something is humorous if we find it funny) or false (humour is what makes us laugh) is perhaps made evident by the failure of authors to offer such definitions. For example neither the article “humor” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy4 nor that in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy5 offer a definition.

Dictionaries by and large favour the circular approach, humour is “the quality of being amusing or comic”.6 Perhaps given this unhelpful start I can be forgiven for hoping that we can work from the, admittedly unsatisfactory, starting point of understanding that a text is humorous if it was intended to be funny or amusing.

  1. Plato, The Laws of Plato, trans. Pangle, Thomas L. (University of Chicago Press, 1980, 208). []
  2. Dov B. Lang (Judaism, 1962, 249) cited in Alex Preminger and Edward L. Greenstein, The Hebrew Bible in Literary Criticism, New York: Ungar, 1986, 81. []
  3. See e.g. Provine, R. R. (2000). “The Science of Laughter.” Psychology Today, 33 (6), 58-62. []
  4. Aaron Smuts, “Humor” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  5. John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/. []
  6. e.g. Oxford Dictionary of British and World English http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/humour []

New series: Humour in the Bible

humourWriting the post yesterday on Jesus’ humour drew my attention to the way (with the exception of a couple of posts early in the project) I have not here really provided my long-running1 series of podcasts on humour in each book of the Hebrew Bible with a solid foundation.

Such solid foundations are better laid in text than in audio or video (which is better suited to persuasive or motivational tasks), so I will do it here rather than on 5 minute Bible. I currently plan a series of posts under four (or five) main headings:

  • Introduction: Setting the scene
  • What is humour?
    Probably just one post covering the location of humour – in the speaker/author or hearer/reader or text – and theories of humour
  • Identifying humour in ancient texts
    A post (or a few posts) that will fill out, explain and justify the criteria listed in my “Distinguishing humour: signs that a text is intended to be funny
  • Some examples of humour from the Bible
    • Narrative humour
    • Prophetic humour
    • The humour of poets
    • Jesus’ humour
  • Categorising biblical humour
    A post (or posts) seeking to pull together and order what has been said.

That’s the plan…

  1. Begun in April 2011 and currently at Jonah so nearly finished though I still have not done Lamentations. []

Did Jesus have a sense of humour?

Dr Jane Heath (Durham University) wrote a piece “Did Jesus Christ have a sense of humour?” In it she suggests that the question might be broken into two parts: “[o]ne about the way Jesus taught during his incarnate life, and another about the way it is proper for followers of Jesus, who seek to share in his risen life, to behave today.” I intend to respond here to what she wrote about the first of these.

Heath begins by noting that the synoptic gospels “[d]o not depict him making people laugh and they do not describe him as ‘witty’, let alone ‘funny’.” This is true, but then descriptions in biblical narrative is commonly sparse, perhaps less so in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible but nevertheless the gospels do not describe Jesus as ‘serious’, ‘sober’ or ‘solemn’ either.

In a similar way she erects another straw man to conveniently demolish. When those around him do something silly, she says: “Jesus does not make a joke of their silliness.” Well, no, but then to present Jesus as a sarcastic snob who makes fun of the mistakes of others would hardly fit with the Synoptic Gospels intentions in presenting Jesus. Even if the historical Jesus did make fun of such slips, the gospel writers might well not have reported this.

Moving beyond this trail of successfully demolished straw men, Heath has to admit that: “Some of the things he says in parables might seem to invite us to read them as if told with a twinkle in his eye.” She follows this with a couple of weak examples of such possibly humorous parables, but recognising the difficulty of accurately spotting humour accross cultures concludes: “In general, humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life. The evangelists were not writing satire.” The second sentence is true, but entirely irrelevant. Jesus might have been a stand up comedian and the gospel writers would still not have been satirists if they reported his jokes accurately! The question Heath posed is not, are the gospels satire (or even comedies) but rather, did Jesus have a sense of humour?

The other claim: “humour is not a useful tool for interpreting the gospels’ account of Jesus’ life” is more difficult to argue (either for or against). But I would suggest that the fact that it is difficult to picture Jesus’ parable of the man with the log in his eye (Mat 7:3-5, Luke 6:41-42) without smiling may provoke us to look to see if the signs of humour are present in these texts.

The criteria I have used in the past, are drawn from a number of previous studies by others, and most are present in these texts:

  • incongruity – surely evident!
  • lighthearted mood – this is a subjective criterion, but what do you think?
  • surprise – if you had not heard the parable before would you expect Jesus’ punchline?
  • ingenuity (cleverness is often a mark of humour think of puns) – this one may be missing here…
  • inferiority – the main point of the parable?
  • disguise or something or someone pretending to be something else – the “friend” is pretending to be superior and helpful
  • “inelasticity” (following Bergson) – perhaps not…
  • human pretension revealed in all its lack of glory – oh, yes!

My conclusion: This saying seems evidently intended to be humorous. What do you think? On the basis of this saying alone1 The correct response to Dr Heath’s question is a clear “Yes, Jesus did have a sense of humour!” (At least the Jesus who is presented in the Synoptic Gospels did.)

PS: I omitted “hyperbole” which I earlier added to the original list at David Kerr’s suggestion – the hyperbole in this passage is obvious!

  1. Though I can’t help also remember Jesus’ fondness for camel stories! []

Otagosh goes soft?

It is pleasant to have some reliable comfortable regular experiences in this troubling world. One of mine in recent years has been the stream of tart yet gentle posts on Otagosh that pillory sloppy thinking on “Biblical” matters.

But today Gavin’s gone soft. He links to a Yahoo! News report titled ‘Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”.’

Now, it’s true, the find does add to the, already significant, weight of archaeological evidence suggesting that Ancient Judeans commonly worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh (presumably therefore thought of as a god).

Shock, horror! The Bible tells me so, just read II Kings (or to save time do a search for ‘Asherah’). What please about this discovery is new? Where is the academic novelty that excites? Only for “Biblical” Fundamentalists (of the sort Otagosh usually reliably skewers) and trendy “critics”, neither of which class of idiot seem to actually bother to read the Bible, find this sort of “Biblical” discovery strange or really new.

Sexist language hobbles scholarship

For decades I have battled with students who insist on using “he” to mean “she or he” and “Man” to mean “men and women”, even “a man” to mean “a human person”. I’ve explained to them, as patiently as I can, that research shows that such language slows comprehension, even among people like them who believe they are comfortable with such “generic” use of gendered language.

I’ve also more generally tried to show students, not just the unrepentant sexist ones, that different perspectives offer richer readings of a text than one monotonous one.

Michelle Fletcher of King’s College, London, in a guest post “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism” on James Crossley’s blog offers a neat powerful example of how such “generic” language, by its unexamined sexism blinds scholars and hobbles their search for truth.

If you haven’t already, go and read her post. Even if her reading of Mark 7:14-23 were wrong, the very fact that this possibility has not been considered demonstrates how sexist language hobbles schlarship.