Friday, April 27, 2012

The Bible just isn't funny

My regular ABC column is up today, 'The Bible just isn't funny'.

There's a curious lack of humour in the bible (particularly when compared to pagan myths). I'm discussing why. A sample:
There is nothing wrong with sober virtue, of course. As Whitehead points out, the ancient Jews were gifted at conveying the "beauty of holiness". One cannot snigger or cackle constantly: there is, as Ecclesiastes 3:4 puts it, "a time to weep, and a time to laugh."  
But what is so very striking about the Judaeo-Christian Bible is that the hour for guffaws and tittering never really arrives. There is civic kindness, base lust, vengeful violence, sublime awe – but no jokes. "The Hebrews had a most intense ethical perception," Whitehead said to his friend Lucien Price in conversation, "though within a very limited range." The Judaeo-Christian holy books have myth, parable, heroic stories, satire and so on – but no jokes. The pagans seemed to laugh more – or, at least, they were happy to see laughter in their divine stories. 
Take the Norse-Icelandic Poetic Edda. In 'Harbard's Song', we find Thor by a fjord. The god of thunder commands a ferryman, Harbard, to give him passage across, not realising that he is actually Odin, Thor's father, and the king of the gods. Thor threatens the ferryman, but Odin simply takes the mickey out of him, mocking his clothes, courage, marriage. For all his strength and ferocity, Thor comes off as a baffled oaf. "Where did you find," he complains, "such despicable words?"  
Another good example is a feast, from 'Loki's Quarrel'. The j├Âtunn Loki, Thor's adopted brother, turns up – he is persona non grata, and he knows it. But this does not stop the trickster from ribbing the gods – and being ridiculed in turn. The goddess Freyia calls Loki a liar, and he spits back: "... you were astride your brother, all the laughing gods surprised you, and then ... you farted."  
Importantly, the Norse myths and legends were not all gags. There was sublime cosmogony, thrilling epic, sour tragedy, and rudimentary moral advice. ("The slumbering wolf does not get the ham, nor a sleeping man victory.") The point is not that the Vikings were comedic geniuses, but that their sacred or hallowed stories were richer than their Judeao-Christian equivalents. They laughed with, and at, their gods and heroes – and in this, they painted a more faithful portrait of the human condition.

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