Reduced Laughter by Revd Dr Helen Paynter.
A Review by Richard Matcham
Chapter 1 – Introduction
My title: In Defense of the Comedic
Using Private Eye as a great introductory example, one thing is sure – humanity loves humour, and we love humour that subverts the way things are, the high-and-mighty, etc. The Bible hasn’t had good fare in recent millennia regarding all things funny. The Bible is a serious book, and is found to be read (when it is read at all), to be read by serious people.
Our Western rationalism in general, and 19th century German scholarship (p.5) in particular, riding on the back of Plato’s suspicion that humour is malicious; and Aristotle’s warning that while humour is necessary, it should be ‘kept in check’, is missing the point that humour can be ‘a route to truth’ (p.3).
On the contrary, humour is not the opposite of sadness or seriousness, a useful observation of what de Sousa calls a ‘category error’ (p.4). Thank God! I have come to realise that my own use of humour is directly related to my serious side. They are two sides of the same coin.
All this is carried over into our Bible reading. Our culture may ‘Think Bike – Think Safety’ but we certainly do not train ourselves or our churches to ‘Think Bible – Think Humour,’ and I for one would love to try. Admittedly, this is not easy – the Bible is a very serious book(s), with lots of weighty, eternal, salvific images, multi-genre & theological categories, stories and truth claims. Thus, as a default setting, we ‘are more likely to under diagnose humour than over-diagnose it’ (p.6), and this means we will likely miss it altogether.
A taster-example is offered via the Naboth narrative (1 Kings 21), and how the Hebrew word describing the sulky and vexed Ahab is related to the Deuteronomic stubborn and rebellious son (21:18-19). Here, the son is the one killed, whilst in Kings, it is Ahab who kills. ‘This subtle, darkly humorous, allusion will only be apparent to the attentive reader or listener’ (p.8). I wish I’d been more attentive in my reading!
Helen then offers some ‘ground rules’ for textual interpretation. The text itself assumes a ‘literary or aural competence’ (p.8), and this requires competent hard work. Highlighting wordplays and ‘hidden polemics’, the careful reader is able to see the ‘subversive, and deliberate partial concealment’ (p.10) of the narrative, using the ‘useful guidelines’ for the ‘methodological criteria’ outlined by Yairah Amit on page 9.
Finally, Helen’s hermeneutical approach leans heavily on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, someone who refers to seriocomic literature as ‘playful, irreverent, multi-voiced, subversive and outrageous’ (p.11). I have already guessed in my own reading that the Bible is all of these things, but what I hadn’t reckoned with, is that it is more deliberately so, and far deeper than I gave credit.