Book Review: The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary

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Updated January 16, 2019
James Cary - What's so funny about Easter?

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The Sacred Art of Joking is a book by James Cary about how jokes can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion.

The devil may have all the best tunes. But does he have all the best jokes?

Was Jesus funny? Why does religion have to be so serious?

Maybe it doesn’t.

Award-winning BBC Comedy writer and stand-up theologian James Cary explains why Christians should be able to take a joke and how the Bible is way funnier than it first appears. Seriously.

James has contributed to BBC shows like Miranda, Another Case of Milton Jones and Newsnight. In The Sacred Art of Joking, he delves into the Bible and finds that ultimately, the joke’s on us.

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The Sacred Art of Joking
(Updated: January 16, 2019)
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James Cary is one of the UK's top comedy writers and his show credits include episodes of Miranda, Bluestone 42 and Another Case of Milton Jones, he is also a lay member of the General Synod for the Church of England. James has also written a play that includes time travel, religion and science which was released on DVD called "The God Particle". All of this experience means that James is very well placed to investigate the art of making a joke. He goes beyond just what makes a joke work, or bomb, but also looks at the church and humour as well as discussing some of the controversial clashes between comedy and religion in recent years including the outrage surrounding Jerry Springer: The Opera.  From the very start he gives some instructions about how to read the book, basically to read it in order and not just jump to the bit that you think you want to hear about. From there the book is split into 3 parts.

The first part is looking at what makes a joke, and particularly what makes a joke funny. He explains about common, shared experiences, but also that comedy can be situational. What is hilariously funny to a group of office workers may not be funny when you get home and try and relay the joke to your significant other. Context and delivery are explored, there is a huge difference between someone making a funny comment in a stand-up environment and the joke being picked up and being read with dispassion and disdain by a news presenter. He also looks at the shifts in our culture and how things that were considered funny 40 years ago simply would not be accepted today.

For Part 2 James moves onto another area, Comedy and the Church and in it he looks at the way that Christianity has been represented in the Media mentioning shows like Rev, The Vicar of Dibley and Hell's Bells. While some people see these as positive representations of Christianity, other people have not be so happy with the way that television deals with morality. One example is the Festival of Light Movement fronted by campaigner Mary Whitehouse who took exceptions to things like Monty Python's Life of Brian, in more recent years former politician has used media commentary opportunities to speak out about some representations in the media. Do these outraged people show that Christians don't have a sense of humour? James looks at some of the older Christian traditions which used humour as part of religious festivals as well as the humour that can be found in the Bible using a few examples such as the story of Eglon and Ehud. He takes a couple of chapters to look at why Christianity is the butt of many jokes and why comedians don't make fun of Islam. Then he points out that possibly church sermons shouldn't start with a joke. Instead, he makes the case that the reading of the Bible should be taken a little more seriously and performed by someone who knows how to bring life to the words and that then they may see the humour in the text.

Part 3 of the book looks at the "Advanced Humour" and looks at some of the cultural incongruities of humour and uses Nazi's as an example to show how it's OK to laugh at Nazi's and even Hitler in a certain context, but it's not OK to film yourself training your dog to do a Nazi salute. He then turns his attention to the way that Christians and the media handled the furore around Jerry Springer: The Opera and the changes in the law since this play was broadcast. Following that he looks at another controversial play that has religious themes, this time it's The Book Of Mormon and how the Mormon church responded to the show. Using this he then turns his attention to the Easter story and looks at some of the humour to be found in this key piece of Christian understanding.

James is sensitive in this book to appeal to both those of faith and those who have none, but there is no doubt that this is really aimed at the Christian church. Throughout the book James uses humour to make his points and arguments very clearly. James has a very gentle touch and you get the impression that it would be very hard to be offended by much that he has to say. Throughout the book he refers to many familiar TV series, many of which I have already mentioned. One book and film that he regularly refers back to is The Name of the Rose and he uses the position of the character Jorge as the more extreme side of the argument for no humour in Christianity. I expect that there will be people who won't appreciate some of the views of humour in the Bible, but there is a lot to learn in this book about joke, what makes them funny (or not) and the cultural relevance in our society. More than anything else this book is easy to read, it's not exactly light reading, but the comedy makes the pages turn quicker!

James Cary will be touring The Sacred Art of Joking and can be booked for your church, check out James' website for more details. 

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