Thursday, September 21, 2006

Religion and Comedy

Religion and Comedy

Nik Peachey, teacher, trainer and materials writer, British Council writes that one of the most under exploited and neglected areas within language learning is humour, and I fervently agree with him.  The comedian has a captive audience, so does the teacher.  He quotes various experts and researchers on humour as a teaching tool insofar as it helps the students to relax, to cope with stress and consequently be more open to learning.  Also he points out that it is important to teach our pupils to learn to laugh at their mistakes, and even at one another’s mistakes, without laughing at the people who made these mistakes.  There is much wisdom and sound humanity here.  Thanks, Nik, for making your thoughts and ideas available to others like me out here in cyberland.  You can access Nik and other scholars at this link:

Think of all the things a teacher can explore when treating of the topic of humour or even in using humour as a method in teaching, e.g., prejudice and bias in jokes (and hence in society), as a way of coping with the problems of life, as a way of seeing things (problems, reality) from a different perspective.  It has always struck me that humour allows us to exaggerate, to use hyperbole, to say ridiculous things, to make small things big and big things small, to redefine the limits of problems and even, in the words of the guru Edward de Bono, to think laterally.  All good things indeed.

It has also struck me over the years how intelligent comedians are.  It takes a very clever person to make other people laugh.  So let’s not get too snobbish and dismiss this marvellous comedic tool in our armour for coping with life.

Why, then, are all these thoughts about comedy in my mind?  Why also have I entitled this post as Comedy and Religion?  Well, my friends, the reason is really rather simple.  I was at a marvelous one-man show at the theatre fringe festival last evening.  The title of the show was Jesus: The Guantanamo Years: written by and starring Abie Philbin Bowman and which is currently playing at the Spirit theatre in 57, Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, 1.  

Abie Philbin Bowman’s one man show parallels Jesus the preacher and Jesus the comedian. Observing that laughter is the ultimate celebration of life, creation and human intelligence, Philbin Bowman asks the question ‘So why does no major religion encourage laughter?’  It would seem from my last two posts that religion encourages disagreement, angry debate, no debate, hatred, contempt for others and finally murder and war rather than laughter and consequent happiness and positive feeling.  All of this mayhem caused by religion as witnessed over the history of humankind, of course, is so far removed from what the founders of religions wished to do. Expect plenty of laughs, some songs, a bit of audience participation and a Pythonesque puppet-show in this performance of Jesus: The Guantanamo Years.  It has already won favourable reviews at the Edinburgh Festival and has played a few times elsewhere in Dublin.  This hour-long show is alternatively silly and disarmingly serious. One minute Bowman tells how after three inmates killed themselves, the Pentagon declared the suicides an act of "asymmetric warfare", and the next he breaks into song, with 'Villain Killing Dylan' being a particularly amusing number- "Hey Mr Laryngitis play a song for me..."

While he describes to us what is going on in Guatanamo Bay, he manages not to clog up his act with too much information. As well as being a strong attack on US foreign policy, the show is also just as much about religion. I think that Bowman manages to raise good questions about religion and the purpose of religion in this comedy with has such a serious purpose.  He raises deep and disturbing questions about the policies of Mr George W. Bush, about the so-called democracy we have in the West, about human rights or rather the lack of them, about our treatment of prisoners, about how we really have corrupted the message of Jesus which was, of course, a message of Good News, about liberation from self-deceit, about treating others well and about non-violence.  We get all of this in an hour which really is a tour de force by a really smart and intelligent young man, who essentially wears his heart on the sleeve of his orange prisoner suit to reveal a marvelously sensitive soul.  It is encouraging to know, as Shakespeare put it, that we have a possible brave new world that has such people in’t.” (Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act V, Scene I).  With a little help from each other and with the guidance of the likes of Mr Bowman, we might just about get there.
Above I have appended a picture of Abie which I downloaded from his Beebo site which can be accessed at

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Beyond Religion 2

Beyond Religion 2

I chose the title “beyond religion” purposely, obviously.  In choosing it I mean the title to be positive.  This and the previous entry are in no way meant to be derogatory of religion.  Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that my intentions and motives are good – that is I wish to deepen the debate, disabuse our minds of simplifications, encourage any readers there may be out there in cyberspace to bring the debate deeper and further.

Of course, any social commentator can see the good points in most religions: promoting social cohesion; promulgating ethical stances of great importance; helping humankind to come to grips with life – giving it some meaning and direction; marking all those great moments of life namely birth, coming of age, marriage and death; allowing humankind an appreciation of the symbolic; encouraging people to live better lives; helping the less fortunate; highlighting injustices; rooting out famine etc.  The list of the good points are long and worthy of note.  One cannot deny any of these factors.  Good religion quite simply is good and provides a great service to humankind.

The negatives are also legion and do not belong to any one religion more than another.  Christianity has a history of much violence behind it, not just Islam.  In fact I’m sure if we were to look at most religions we would find that this was the case.  I won’t go into the history of Christianity here, but will just mention the sorry saga of the Crusades, the persecution and execution of heathens of all religious backgrounds, the despicable and execrable massacres by the Conquistadores of hundreds of thousands of innocent Central and South American Indians (all in the name of religion, but really for gold and land and booty of all types) and the Holy Roman Inquisition.  Need I go on?  All the gory facts are there for all to find out.

I return again and again to one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoyevski and to one of his great books, The Brothers Karamazov, a wonderful read for those of a philosophical turn of mind.  My favourite scene in that book is where the historical Jesus returns to meet the Grand Inquisitor.  Jesus does not recognize anything about the Church he was supposed to have founded.  There is no freedom and people are put to death for heresies of one kind or another, just because they do not tow the party line.  The Grand Inquisitor informs Jesus that people are really only like cattle – they possess a herd mentality, they cannot handle freedom, they need to be told what to think as well as what to do.  Read this section for yourself, even if you never get around to reading the whole book.  Is that the way our “official church” is today?  Being brought up in a Catholic ethos I am referring to the Roman Catholic Church here in its official or hierarchical sense.  This is a question you can answer for yourself.  Questions are always more important than answers.  This question and related ones can be asked of any Christian Church indeed.

Any religion worth its salt must improve humankind – it must be a leaven in society.  If it is worth its salt it must critique society and bring it further on the road to righting injustices.  When any religion begins to sow division and hatred of others then really it is hardly worthy of the name religion.

Without a doubt Pope Benedict XVI made a huge faux pas with his recent comments about Islam.  Being too much the scholar (and like our own dear Cardinal Connell: both scholars in the Casaubon mode of Middlemarch I like to imagine) showed himself to be all too unmindful of the power of the media and the sheer ability of sound bites, often misquoted of course, to flit from one side of the world to another.  The late Pope John Paul II was far too shrewd and canny an operator to make such a mistake.  He always left it to the likes of Ratzinger (now the present pontiff) to promulgate the harsher parts of his message.

So Ratzinger, wearing the fisherman’s shoes, has incited Islam by quoting an ancient text by a medieval emperor.  To see effigies of the Pope being burned by extremist sections of Islam is sad and all too worrying.

Is dialogue between religions of such seeming extreme viewpoints possible at all?  Yes, there is some dialogue going on somewhere no doubt.  Hence my title – can we go beyond religion?  I’m not suggesting abandoning or abolishing religion – not that such a task would be possible anyway.  What I’m suggesting is asking deeper questions in the tradition of the late great Anglican theologian who got me thinking about God and religion in a critical and meaningful non-denominational fashion.  I refer to Bishop John A T Robinson who authored the multimillion copy seller Honest To God in the late sixties of the last century. It is in this sense that my title takes its meaning.  I’m arguing then for a secular theology in line with Robinson and that other marvellous liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard.  

In the light of the horrors of worldwide terrorism, the so-called war on this latter, the wasted lives of all the thousands of innocents killed, we must deepen the questions we ask.  We must be slow to jump to conclusions.  We must be willing to listen and listen well.  How can we establish a credible dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, between right wing America and extreme Islam?  How can we bring about peace with anyone whom we call enemies except by talking to them, and, of course, listening to them and their consequent listening to us?  

There is a middle ground somewhere.  There are liberal Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.  This liberal middle ground must speak out and reign in our extremists!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Beyond Religion 1

Beyond Religion

I have always sought to avoid polemics in these pages, to avoid the pull of the extremes or poles, as it were.  However, sometimes one cannot, and indeed should not, stay silent.  I remember reading somewhere a comment by a professor of religious studies in some American University that there was nothing quite as bad as a bad religion and nothing quite as inspiring as a good one.  I think I understand what he was getting at.  Enough by way of introduction, it’s time to cut to the chase, to use a cliché.

Well Ratzinger, the erstwhile Vatican Rotweiller, has done it again, this time with his papal skull cap on.  He has managed to inflame the whole Islamic world.  Having said that, mind you, this latter world is very easily provoked.  It chooses to be insulted by even mild comments, legitimate criticisms or sincere approbations.

Ratzinger, (before he became Pope Benedict XVI he was known as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,) issued many a right wing, reactionary, if not downright fascist document.  He had an ultraconservative take on Vatican II and would have steered clear of its more conciliatory and open approaches to the modern world.  He had nasty things to say about homosexuals - In his notorious Halloween letter, published in 1986, Ratzinger called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" that threatens "the lives and well-being of a large number of people."

As "Grand Inquisitor" for Mother Rome, Ratzinger occupied himself in service to the Truth (that is, the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the Truth): correcting theological error, silencing dissenting theologians, and stomping down heresy wherever it reared its ugly head -- and, consequently, had received somewhat of a notorious reputation among the liberal media and liberal Catholic scholars.

Likewise Ratzinger was the author of the now famous or infamous document Dominus Iesus.  According to the Times News Service, the statement implied that "Churches such as the Church of England, where the apostolic succession of bishops from the time of St. Peter is disputed by Rome, and churches without bishops, are not considered 'proper' churches." They suffer from "defects." Religions other than Christianity are considered to be "gravely deficient." Their rituals can constitute "an obstacle to salvation" for their followers. (See the following site for relevant quotations: )  This is pre-Vatican II stuff.  It harps back to that era when Fr Fahy, S.J., an American theologian of the 1950s, was going around proclaiming that “there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church.”  As far as my memory serves me, this rather fascist theologian was severely censured and indeed censored by his immediate Church and religious superiors. (I am open to correction as memory is a very fragile and fallible tool)  I remember reading this fact in Hans Kung’s marvellous book The Church which was banned by the official Church but which we studied at college back in the 1970s.  There is really nothing new in Dominus Iesus. It reflects long-standing beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church: that the Church alone possesses the full truth; all other faith groups have only elements of truth. To any secular individual, this may seem like an arrogant stance. However, it is hardly unique. Many, perhaps most, faith traditions also believe that they alone possess the entire truth, and view all other religions as being at least partly deficient.

However, practically all other religions, Christian as well as the Great Religions of the World have similar beliefs – that they alone possess the real and full essence of the Truth, with a capital T no doubt.  Hinduism, which is syncretistic by nature, is possibly the only exception.  Buddhism also can be viewed as a non-denominational General Life Philosophy as well as being a World Religion.

It is hard to see how mainline Christian Churches, Judaism and Islam (the three great religions of The Book) can have common ground.  If they each believe that they alone possess the truth or rather The Truth in capital letters how can they talk to each other about common ground.  Relativism has always been a bad word for religion of any hue because it allows for compromise, that is that our religion may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth as it were.  Personally I feel and believe and think that truth is indeed relative.  People of deep, if entrenched, beliefs might find this objectionable.  I say to you that you are entitled to your deeply held beliefs, but I and others are also entitled to hold our own less dogmatic and less absolutist beliefs.  Absolutism leads to conflict and war.  Relativism implies compromise.  It also implies that I must listen to what the other person is saying.

The absolutist approach to truth has always turned me off.  In fact I find absolutism in religion repugnant in the extreme because it says that our members only have a privileged access to the truth and that we alone are saved.  Absolutism in ethics, in politics or in any other area also turns me off.  I am a firm believer in dialogue, and consequently in compromise, in the middle way as Aristotle put it.  Religion of the absolutist variety has caused so many wars and has been responsible for millions and millions of innocent deaths.  Christians stand condemned as well as Moslems.  It is time we went beyond the narrow confines of religion and embraced a spirituality that is open to all, that is open to learning what the truth is as we journey together towards a shared future on planet earth.

Nothing in this world is really 100% clear. This picture of the sunset with black obscuring clouds over Howth Harbour sums up for me the reality of the Truth - there are so many takes on it - it depends on where you are in the world. We all see the same sun, but truly we see that same sun differently