Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sure, God has a sense of humour. Shame about some of his followers
When I was 14, my entire class converted to Jesus freakery. It was an experience no less scarring for being triggered by a charismatic, pelvis-thrusting boy, the lead singer in a Jesus-rock opera, and being therefore as much hormonal as theological. Overnight, this group of smart, argumentative young minds became a swirling sea of god-bothering glossolalics in which my two friends and I formed the last remaining rock of scepticism.
Suddenly, class debates on abortion, drugs, apartheid or indeed religion, having once generated hours or weeks of thought and re-thought, were over in moments. Everyone knew where they stood, which was together, Bible in hand, end of story. They pitied any dissenter and wielded their faith as the final and (in both senses) club-like solution to all logical argument. In place of the old sunbathing-and-gossip sessions they held lunchtime prayer meetings and in place of humour they had condescension.
The avalanche of complaint triggered by my last column – “Did Jesus make us fat and greedy?” – took me right back to that rock. I was accused of knowing too many words and too few facts; of being stupid and anti-Christian – many assumed these were identical; of being overly subtle and of laying about me with a blunt instrument. Of not having read the Bible, of having read but not understood it, of having got the wrong Jesus (easy to do), of being one of the chosen (are they serious?), of misunderstanding history (no doubt), of misquoting Brian Houston (no way), of being insulting (I do try) and of showing off (well, natch).
The missives were of the highest quality. “God became human in Jesus and stated [sic] life among us in NEEDY (materially) circumstances,” was a typically elegant example. Another critiqued my “mordent [sic] treatment of individuals, cruelling them with the duplicity an opinion piece can hide behind”.
Yet another insisted that “the only good hypocrite is a dead (and brutally tortured) hypocrite”. Further sage advice: I should “stick to girly mag editorials”. I stopped reading when it started feeling like the dialogue of some Stieg Larsson idiot misogynist.
But the aggression, illiteracy and general dopiness isn’t the most disturbing aspect of this “Christian” blowback. Not by a long way. The weirdest thing about the new Christianity’s prosperity gospel (and yes, I have seen Brian Houston’s book You need more money – Discovering God’s amazing financial plan for your life!) is how taking up religion seems to involve having your humour gland surgically excised.
There’s no obvious explanation for this. Comedic failure is generally a sign of class insecurity. Feminists, for example. Cyclists. (And let me add, before another avalanche of snarky emails is loosed upon me, I count myself a member of both minorities.) So I am resolved henceforth to mark each joke with an asterisk. Just so you know.
Also for the record, I reckon Christianity has produced lots of really good stuff. It ended slavery – although not before building an empire or two from it (one notes here the absence of a sorry, much less any attempt to make good). It facilitated the spirit of scientific inquiry – although not before offing in excruciating manner any number of “heretics”. (And when I say any number I mean any with more than half a dozen noughts). Further, I’d argue, the principle of universal love gave rise to our idea of the universal franchise, aka democracy.
But this was another focus of complaint. It is a widespread – not to say cliched – misapprehension that both Periclean Athens and old Scandinavia developed democracy without Christ. But in fact both relied on slaves – the “thralls” of Viking culture – and both restricted the right to vote or even speak publicly to an oligarchy of highborn males. Hardly comparable.
Christianity has brought good (see above) but also evil (crusades, witch-hunts, child abuse, homophobia, Iraq and McMansions). This mix – if I really have to state the bleeding obvious – has nothing to do with God and everything to do with humans.
Further, although we live, thank God, in a mixed and secular state, the ethical roots of what we fondly call our “civilisation” (now largely discarded, bar the overarching equality principle) are profoundly Christian. So the question for us, as we watch Cardinal creep ever closer to State, is how to shape this treasured heirloom for the coming century, a century we can expect to test our moral muscle to the limit?
My favourite biblical quote, as a devout un-Christian, is Deuteronomy 10:16. “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiff-necked.” Universal love, aimed not just at each other, but at nature, God and the planet, is the revolution we have to have. And I don’t mean hugging the person next to you.
But I tell you what. The idea of Yahweh as some sour-faced bullyboy who won’t be queried or laughed at is patent nonsense. I have two proofs for this: one, God is not a member of the NSW Labor Right. And two, if God had no sense of humour, and a pretty wild one at that, we humans wouldn’t even be here.*