Saturday, October 23, 2010

Humor and religion

The Atlantic article "Blue Like Jazz: The Quest to Get Christians to Laugh at Themselves" describes how difficult it was for author Donald Miller to secure funding from either Hollywood or the evangelical community to turn his memoir into a film. Hollywood couldn't see the commercial appeal in Christians who weren't gross stereotypes. Miller thinks evangelicals have an institutional aversion to self-criticism and compares this to how other religious groups deal with unflattering portrayals of themselves:
"In Jewish culture, Jewish people can criticize themselves and it's endearing," he says. "They do it all the time—Woody Allen's a great example. In Catholic culture, it's sort of the same thing—you can make a major motion picture and have some priest be a bad guy. And for some reason, those communities don't rise up and get angry."

But that's not the case in the evangelical community, according to Miller: "There's an incredible sensitivity to self-criticism...It's a community that's unable to be balanced and have an objective view of itself, which is extremely unhealthy."
(By the way, the Atlantic's correspondent, Eleanor Barkhorn, uses "Christian" throughout this piece, even though Miller explicitly limits his own comments to evangelicals. For a moment I found myself wondering if Catholics weren't Christians because of Barkhorn's imprecision.)

Miller's barking up the wrong tree if he expects self-criticism of any religious group. Jews don't criticize or mock Judaism, they make fun of the Jewish condition (which extends well beyond religion). Catholics can shrug off a villainous priest as an anomaly that doesn't threaten their religion. (It's not self-criticism anyway.) Religious people take religion quite seriously. Their souls are at stake, after all.

No, what Miller praises is the ability of most of Judaism's and Catholicism's adherents not to take themselves too seriously.

I don't see anything in evangelical Christianity per se that precludes its adherents from having the same sense of humor about themselves. However, being an evangelical Christian at this point in time means that you take your religion much more to heart than most do. It virtually defines who you are. And that's why evangelicals don't have a taste for self-mockery: laughing at oneself is tantamount to laughing at Christianity, which is intolerable.

I also think evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians have a deep sense of insecurity. They feel like the rest of the country is laughing at them, which, to be fair, it often is. If they were absolutely convinced of their rightness, they wouldn't care what the rest of us thought. They wouldn't mind humorous looks at themselves, the way Mel Brooks mocks Judaism or Dave Chappelle mocked African-American culture (although Chappelle eventually concluded that his audience wasn't getting his jokes as he intended). Until evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians come to terms with their own doubts, they won't be ready for the kind of humor Miller champions.

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