If I had a quid for every time I heard the joke ‘A Christian without Christ is just Ian’, I might have enough money to bribe Ian back to Church again.
Ok, so one big rule in The Sacred Art of Joking is not to start a sermon with a joke. But this isn’t a sermon. So, hopefully, I’m off the hook.
Even if you have only the slightest experience of UK comedy, you have probably come across James Cary already. He has written comedy for radio (Think the Unthinkable, Hut 33), comedy for books (Writing That Sitcom), and comedy for television (Miranda, Bluestone 42, Citizen Khan). As well as a Comedy Writer, he is a member of the General Synod for the Church of England for the Diocese of Bath & Wells and holds a degree in Theology. With one foot in comedy and one foot in Christianity, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spends his whole life doing the splits.
His new book, The Sacred Art of Joking, couldn’t be more of a timely release. Much has been made about Christians boycotting, protesting and picketing jokes where Christianity seems to be the butt. They were seen as the outliers, the wacks and kooks who gave the world a view of Christians as dour and humourless. But now offence has become de rigueur in the digital world. With identity becoming a protected status, Cancel Culture has grown to a mass shouting-down of anyone testing the bounds of what is deemed acceptable. Tasteless jokes from years ago are dredged up, leaving this year’s Oscars with no host, for example. Aside from providing a backlash of extremely provocative humour in response, this new culture seems a near-direct descendant of Mary Whitehouse’s infamous protestations.
Comedy, it seems, is a minefield. Yet, the lack of a sense of humour looked down upon. So how can Christians go forward?
The Sacred Art of Joking, in part, provides a manual of sorts for any Christians who want to navigate the ins-and-outs of comedy. Part One of the book is jokes 101: taking you through how humour works (rest assured, no frogs were harmed in the writing of this section), why context is king, what happens when jokes go wrong, and why we need humour in the first place. Here James Cary opens his toolkit, rummages through what is and isn’t funny, and leaves you with a better grasp of why jokes are more than the sum of their words.
But this isn't just comedy class for aspiring comedians. In Part Two theologian James Cary steps in and explores the Church’s uncomfortable relationship with Comedy. From bawdy Bible tales to the Reformation's notoriously humourless character to the ways the Bible is brandished to police jokes (who knew there was a name for it, the ‘Philippian 4 manoeuvre’?) James Cary traces humour and reactions to it through the ages, right up to 2005 with the drama that was The Jerry Springer Opera and the backlash that followed. This takes us to Part Three: Advanced Joking.
Some jokes miss, some jokes go wrong, some jokes go so spectacularly wrong that a man making a video of a pug dog performing offensive salutes can find himself behind bars. Advanced Joking takes a deep dive into some examples of jokes that backfired, or in some cases set out to provoke. Most surprisingly, though, is that the group who best responded with grace and wisdom in the face of jokes aimed squarely at their beliefs. There is a lot we could learn from how the musical The Book of Mormon was received by the very people it lampooned.
But this isn’t all humour gone wrong. There is, in fact, a lighter side to Christianity that sits beneath the surface. Throughout the Bible, there are stories that are funny, ironic, satirical and filled with characters who could’ve been pulled straight from a sitcom. And the greatest joke of all can be found in the Easter story, as Jesus’ resurrection takes the setup of humanity’s failings and flips it on its head - not to mention the highly comedic reactions Jesus gets from his followers after his death.
The Sacred Art of Joking couldn't come at a better time. We all need a laugh, and few Christian writers are better equipped to shows us that than James Cary.
February 27th, 2019 - Posted & Written by Aaron Lewendon