I believe that laughter is an important element of crossing any divide. But beliefs—of any creed—are often deeply serious. When is it okay to laugh about religion? Obviously, jokes designed to discredit a tradition or its adherents are not helpful or appropriate for interbelief settings. They are not appropriate anytime, but especially in interbelief settings. What jokes, if any, are appropriate? Jokes about beliefs? Jokes about practices? About religious and historical figures? Are bad jokes like pornography (You know it when you hear it)? And who is the arbiter of which jokes cross the line?
Even though laughter lightly crosses great belief divides, the laughter must come from a mutual and respecting source. This is tricky in an interbelief context. Amongst ourselves we—by and large—know the lines. We know what is jokeable and what is just too sacred. When we encounter others, those assumptions cannot be made. As part of Open Party—an atheist, agnostic, multifaith, and interfaith group at Yale Divinity School—I helped put on the Taylor House Lecture Series. These are lectures where professors parody themselves in a kind of roast of other faculty members so that students, faculty, and staff can have an evening of levity as finals week approaches. My first Taylor House was titled “Searching for the Yachting Jesus.” The event was a huge success—if I do say so myself. The professors were very funny and most of the school was in attendance. And the vision of Jesus cruising in luxury brought tears of laughter to many of the dedicated Christians and Christian scholars in the audience.
After the event, a Muslim friend of mine approached me. Especially because she is from the Middle East, she wanted to talk to me about how amazed she was that an event like this happened at all. Taylor House would be illegal in her country. More importantly, it would be culturally unacceptable. “Religion is serious business,” she said. Jokes about religion, even told by the very people who follow that tradition, are never okay. My friend was not telling me this to chastise me or any participants in the event. She was telling me to share a moment of interbelief tension. She was curious how common joking about faith was in the US or in Christianity. Her comments started a long conversation about the differences between the West and the Middle East, between Islam and Christianity, and among different kinds of Christianity. And we laughed as we shared with each other. We crossed the belief divide. Together.
I come back to my original question. What kind of humor, if any, is appropriate for interbelief encounters? Is humor about religion simply too dicey to be included in interbelief work? Humor is so individual that 95% of an audience may laugh while 5% is turned away from the interbelief endeavor all together. Perhaps the lesson of the parable of the lost sheep is appropriate here. Is the reward of border-crossing laughter in the majority worth the risk of alienating a minority?