What are the possibilities and limits for play and fun in the sphere of religion — and why?
So often we think of religion as a matter of utmost seriousness. And when humor and religion do come together in contemporary Euro-American culture, it is often in a context of mockery: the tendency is to laugh at religion, usually someone else’s. The consequences of this kind of humor-about-religion may just leave a sour taste, or they may be devastating. Consider the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, the Danish cartoon scandal, or Charlie Hedbo.
Of course, there are other examples through which we can think about this question. In my own work on Japanese picturebooks, I am exploring the ways in which religious imagery and behaviors constitute a field of play, often a very funny one. In this case, playing with religion is construed as appropriate and pro-social, but it is also not viewed as being truly religious. In part, this is because religion is seen as a domain for “serious” endeavor by committed adults—more like work. It’s also because picturebooks aren’t closely associated with institutional religion (priests, temples and shrines, orthodox ritualizing, etc.). For me, this makes it imperative to challenge assumptions about how play, humor, and religion can and do interact.
This question was posed by Professor Heather Blair of the Indiana University Bloomington Religious Studies Department. Professor Blair specializes in the pre-modern history of Japanese religions. Current research examines the religious practices of aristocratic lay people in Japan during the early medieval period, a study of the ritual protocols for sutra burial, and a reconstruction of the ritual and discursive context for a 12th-century palimpsest manuscript of an apocryphal sutra about women’s ability to become buddhas.