From Faith to Fun: The Secularisation of Humour

April 8, 2010

Faith and fun would not seem to share much. Faith suggests seriousness, fun lightheartedness. Faith seems to fit the tragic more than the comic. The exemplar of the opposition between faith and fun is Jorge the monk in Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose. Jorge seeks to rid the world of laughter, which for him is the work of the devil.

Russell Heddendorf is not the first to juxtapose religion with comedy, or more generally to link seriousness with comedy. Aristophanes' comedies score political points. In Homo Ludens, historian Johan Huizinga so emphasises the dependence of adult culture on the "play element" as to efface the line between play and reality. By contrast, in Playing and Reality, child psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott differentiates "play" from "reality", yet still takes play most seriously. Adults need extensions of children's play to live contentedly in the world. For Winnicott, religion is a form of adult play.

Within the field of religious studies, the celebrated sociologist of religion Peter Berger published Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience in 1997. Decades earlier, in A Rumor of Angels, he had discovered what he calls "signals of transcendence": those experiences of hope, humour and order that entail, because they presuppose, the existence of the transcendent. In Redeeming Laughter, he focuses on humour. Because humour breaks with the ordinary - "I am only joking" - it carries one from everyday reality to another reality, which is often religious: "The experience of the comic does not miraculously remove suffering and evil from the world ... However, perceived in faith, the comic becomes a great consolation and a witness to the redemption that is yet to come." If you already believe in God, comedy confirms your faith.

Also a sociologist of religion, Heddendorf depends considerably on Berger, whose Weberian sociology roots higher religion in the finding of meaning in life. But where Berger's typically graceful book is filled with jokes, Heddendorf's dull effort offers few examples of humour. His overworked favourite is Sarah's laughter at God's promise of a child at the eventual age of 90. He does not seem to realise that only Sarah, not the reader, finds the promise funny. While Heddendorf does recognise that Sarah initially laughs out of scepticism, he argues that her subsequent joyous laughter upon the birth of Isaac somehow shows that humour abets faith - and not merely, as one may assume, expresses it.

Heddendorf's style consists of short, undeveloped pronouncements that make more distinctions than tax codes. At the same time he runs together concepts that are plainly distinct. Fun is different from play, which is different from happiness.

Worse, Heddendorf, like Berger, cannot keep straight just what the link between religion and comedy supposedly is. For both, comedy and religion are sometimes merely akin in that both break with everyday life. More often for both, comedy is a vehicle to religion, but still just one vehicle. Most boldly, for Heddendorf, comedy is identical to religion, as in his hackneyed examples of shopping and sport as enjoyable, therefore comic, therefore religious activities: "Sacred meaning is bestowed on secular life." Here we have the "secularisation" of fun, which is still religious because still fun! Neither Heddendorf nor Berger ever clarifies how comedy can lead to religion when "signals of transcendence" surely reach only those who already harbour faith.

This book is consistent in one respect: everything it says is either illogical or obvious.

From Faith to Fun: The Secularisation of Humour

By Russell Heddendorf. Lutterworth Press, 220pp, £17.50. ISBN 9780718891862. Published 26 February 2009

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