Disruptive Narratives and the “Funny” in Religion

By Philip L. Tite

In the most recent issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Catherine Caufield (Athabasca University) offers a fascinating analysis of several modern fictional accounts of the life of Jesus. She looks at Nikos Kanzantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, Fyodor Dostoyevski’s, “The Grand Inquisitor” (from The Brothers Karamazov), D. H. Lawrence’s, “The Man Who Died”, and Vincent Leñero’s The Gospel of Lucas Gavilán. In exploring these fictional works through the theoretical lens of Ludwig Feuerbach and Paul Ricoeur, Caufield draws out a fascinating rhetorical motif in all of the works she studies; specifically, a disruptive narrative in which the source text (= the New Testament gospels) are somehow inverted or disrupted by the new narration from what might be expected by a modern context(s) of reception.

As I read this article, I was reminded of my teaching and research on humor and religion (for more on this topic, see my PowerPoint presentation). In his classic treatment of what causes laughter, John Morreall outlines the three classical theories of humor or laughter (Taking Laughter Seriously [SUNY Press, 1983]). The first is superiority theory (with a focus on the emotional side of humor, where one establishes or reinforces their superiority over another):

The oldest, and probably still most widespread theory of laughter is that laughter is an expression of a person’s feelings of superiority over other people. This theory goes back at least as far as Plato, for whom the proper object of laughter is human evil and folly. What makes a person laughable, according to Plato, is self-ignorance. The laughable person is the one who thinks of himself [or herself] as wealthier, better looking, more virtuous, or wiser than he really is. (Morrell, p. 4)

For Hobbes [in the early modern period] the human race is a collection of individuals in constant struggle with one another.… Laughter, then, is self-congratulations. (Morreall, pp. 5-6)

The second classic theory is incongruity theory (where the focus is on the intellectual side of human interaction, so that contrasting concepts or conceptual shifts predominate):

… amusement is an intellectual reaction to something that is unexpected, illogical, or inappropriate in some other way…. We live in an orderly world, where we have come to expect certain patterns among things, their properties, events, etc. We laugh when we experience something that doesn’t fit into these patterns. (Morreall, pp. 15-16)

Third, and finally, Morreall describes relief theory (focusing on the physiological side of laughter; Morreall sets Sigmund Freud against Herbert Spencer in this discussion):

There are different versions of this theory, but they all have in common a more or less physiological point of view in which laughter is seen as a venting of nervous energy” (Morreall, p. 20)

… and thus is a type of “release” of pent up energies.

Although useful in describing laughter or humor, Morreall’s work fall short in that it does not go further into explaining the function of humor. He limits his analysis to what humor is rather than what humor does. In teaching a special topics course at the University of Washington the other year on religion and humor, my students and I began by looking at these classic theories in regard to religious humor. For example, the following cartoon that a student found on the Internet nicely illustrates superiority and incongruity:

Jesus and Moses1

The first panel illustrates the superiority (and succession!) of Christianity over Judaism. After all, Moses is really cool, but he can’t walk on water like Jesus; Jesus literally walks beyond him, offering a spatial articulation of a historical narrative in favor of Christianity over its competitor(s). While this is ideologically illustrative, it is not funny, at least not yet. The joke is fulfilled in the second panel, where Jesus is “one up’ed” by Moses, who doesn’t need to walk on water – he just points and the water parts for him (and does this now put Jesus – and thus Christianity – in the role of Pharaoh and his army?). The narrative of the first panel has been undermined and replaced by the narrative evoked by the second panel, leaving us not only with a shift in narrative but also a good laugh.

Or consider the following t-shirt design:

Loki Charms

Yes, that is me holding my own t-shirt in front of class. I actually own a “Loki Charms” t-shirt. The incongruity here is the weaving of two complimentary but different narratives that, thereby, stand in harmonious tension: we have a character  (literally) drawn from Norse mythology (via the Marvel movie franchise for its hero Thor) and a (when I was a kid at least) popular cereal, “Lucky Charms”. The more one knows about the Thor movies and the cereal’s leprechaun character, the more amusement arises from the clashing tension of the two narratives standing beside and interwoven with each other.

The same is true of the Youtube video where the Terminator goes back to “year 0” to save Jesus who has been marked for termination. The “it’s part of God’s plan … I’m supposed to die” self-sacrifice reading of the New Testament gospels is set in tension with the “if you want to live, come with me” theme pervading the Terminator films. And so also with the Moses/Steve Jobs humor in this cartoon:

Moses and Steve

In these examples, the reader/viewer expects one thing, but, either due to a twist at the end or the weaving of contrasting narratives, receives a very different “ending” or presentation. The tension disrupts expected narrative meanings (given a particular or dominant interpretative history directing such expectations) and thereby facilitates the humor. The incongruity makes the religious humor … well … humorous.

But this approach only takes us so far in studying our data – in this case religious humor in popular culture. Unless we are comfortable with just a simple phenomenological re-presentation of humor (a view that some in the discipline may wish to embrace, but, for me at least, I think is far less interesting than explanatory analysis), then I think we can ask the more analytically insightful set of questions: what does humor do? To what end do social actors create, use, counter, and claim “ownership” of religious humor?

In my own research, I’ve identified at least five discursive functions of humor, where the humor is designed to position and empower/disempower particular social actors in relation to other social actors. In a sense, humor becomes a medium for the exchange of social capital. The humor itself is often viewed as benign or harmless and thus seems to carry greater impact potential than didactic arguments. We don’t see the “serious” and thus we more readily accept the “message”. The five functions include:

(1) apologetics/polemics (e.g., much of the anti-Muslim cartoons on the Internet, especially those portraying Muhammad as a pedophile, evoke Islamophobic attitudes that are pro-Christian and pro-American in their rhetoric; or portrayals of New Religious Movements as “cults” with deviant behavior or medical problems [and here I’m thinking of the excellent work done by Joseph Laycock on medicalization, deviance amplification, and convergence in his study of NRMs in popular media]);

(2) conflict resolution (the use of humor to overcome stereotypes and create cultural proximity; e.g., the Canadian television show Little Mosque on the Prairie, where we find stereotypes of various Muslims and non-Muslims taken to the level of the ridiculous with the potential effect that the fear of the stereotype might be lessened or eliminated, with people rendered as just people dealing with everyday people stuff)  (thus, an attempt at establishing inter-group relations);

(3) reinforcing group identity, where humor is directed to the in-group and playfully strengthens group ties by making fun of shared group motifs (e.g., see Jewish Central Humor, such as in this delightful example intersecting modern social media with the Exodus story, posted during Passover) (thus, an attempt at establishing intra-group relations);

(4) political satire and social commentary (e.g., a 2008 Youtube clip where Jesus visits President George Bush in the White House and is seen by the president as a terrorist due to being middle eastern; he then shoots Jesus, who, in turn, heals himself only to stop the cycle when he transforms into a blonde, blue-eyed European Jesus that President Bush accepts as “real” declaring, “I thought you were an Al-Qaida vampire”; or, to look at more US domestic humor, note the commentary on the socio-economic exploitation of Hispanic Americans that has been floating around the Internet, including, of course, on a social media site such as Facebook);

Thank you Jesus, meal


and (5) the critique of religion in the public sphere (largely through “parody religions” such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Neo-American Church, where the privileged legal status of “religion” is challenged within the public sphere via parody; again, Joseph Laycock offers an excellent analysis of parody religions in his, “Laughing Matters: ‘Parody Religions’ and the Command to Compare,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 42.3 [2013]: 19-26 ).

Church Flying Spaghetti Monster1

Boo Hoo Bible









To return to Caufield’s discussion of disruptive narrative, I think that the incongruities in much of religious humor (at least within various North American contexts) are designed to potentially provoke or “trigger” a disruption to the “received” or “normative” or “authoritative” narrative that one would expect. Such disruption not only generates possible laughter and enjoyment, at least for some in the audience, but it also allows deeper power dynamics to be played out within a range of social engagements. Note, for instance, that many of the functions I’ve listed above shift the centers of power from what might be the hegemonic or “mainstream” reading of a tradition or text to another, alternative center of authority. We are dealing with ownership of traditions here, specifically the transgression and counterclaim to ownership (and here I am appreciative to Russ McCutcheon for sensitizing me to such issues in his various works).

It is in such disruption that I found much resonance with Caufield’s treatment of fictional Jesus stories among modern authors (and her examples could easily be extended to graphic novels, films, etc.). The extra-textual referent (as Caufield puts it) in such humor effectively produces “an incongruence between the world of the reader and the world of the texts [thereby] result[ing] in a surplus of meaning” (Caufield, 26-27). It is with such a surplus of meaning that religious humor – as religious humor (note the importance of the taxonomic move for social actors) – interweaves religion, politics, economics, geopolitical conflict, social stratifications, and (inter- or intra-) group relations to affect target audiences within moments of reception so as to shift power relations that seem dominant or threatened. Like any other aspect of “religion”, a study of religious humor needs to be more than just determining “what is funny” (at a descriptive, structural or substantive level) and, instead, needs to engage “to what ends and for whom is this humor constructed?” (i.e., the explanatory, dynamic and material level).

Of course, if we really want to understand and explain religious humor, we could just watch Eddie Izzard.


[Eddie Izzard on Religion]


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).

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2 Responses to Disruptive Narratives and the “Funny” in Religion

  1. Great post, Philip! It’s total coincidence, but the other day I noticed that my religious joke and meme collection had gotten big, so I made a quick tumblr, Funny or Religion, to share them. I’ll be adding a bibliography eventually. Mind if I add your post to it? If you’ve got items in your collection that are shareable, you can also submit them to the site at http://mcconeghy.tumblr.com/submit/

    • Philip L. Tite says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the kind comments and yes of course you can share this post. I hope it helps to spark some insightful conversations on the topic. By the way, in 2013 we published an entire issue on the topic of religion and humor (Bulletin for the Study of Religion 42.3 [2013]). It includes (after an introduction by Kelly Baker) articles by David Feltmate, Jennifer Caplan, Joseph Laycock, Jerry Jaffe, Douglas Cowan, Ken Derry, and an interview between Matt Sheedy and Dave Feltmate. Dave Feltmate also prepared a very useful “Religion and Humor: A Bibliography” for those wanting to do further research. This issue of the Bulletin might of use for you.

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