Indiana University Bloomington

Playing With Religion


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.


2 Responses to “Playing With Religion”

  1. Faye Hoffman

    Love this site and the challenges it gives my 75 year old brain. So, which historical character in Christian biblical scripture had no parents? (Joshua – he was the son of Nun.) Numbers 13:16.

    Yes, for many years I thought religion was serious and stuffy. What I have learned is that faith is not. Serious study of religion can be soul-deadening at times. Historical study of religions can be a lot of fun.

    Because I believe God laughs my faith calls me to laugh, and hopefully not at someone’s expense, but with them.


  2. Sarah Kissel

    Why does laughing at religion seem to have no effect on its sacredness, at least in the eyes of the practitioners? Frequently we use humor and mockery to dull the effects of something too intense to metabolize — tragedy, hatred, fear, boredom, power. We expose the jest behind the furrowed brows and hushed tones of society to assuage the influence they have over us because the affect produced is uncomfortable at best, devastating at worst. Humor draws out the man behind the curtain to reassure us that things are not as dramatic as they seem. But in matters of faith, drama is precisely the point — the rhetoric of belief usually hinges on the presence of the fantastic, the otherwise unbelievable. Yet those who subscribe to a given belief system don’t experience a crisis of faith when someone pokes fun at their deity, or drops a communion wafer, or the choir sings off key. Is it because the awe of the divine could use some tempering too?
    In my mind, the encouragement of laughing at religion bespeaks an impulse to anthropomorphize God to make him/her/it more relatable, more comprehensibly human. By sanctioning the mockery of religious sanctions, we are able to take the edge off of all the abstract greatness we hear about in houses of worship. Humor relies on relationality — somehow it narrows the distance between God and man by presenting God in a fallible, laughable, human light by juxtaposing the two extremes. Contradictory to expectations, a space is deliberately created for laughing at God because it simultaneously accentuates the inherently divine duality: God is both made more relatable and more distant when elders encourage silliness and play surrounding worship and devotion; God is big enough to withstand mockery unflinchingly and to fit in a clever joke or brief vacation bible school skit. Humor widens the margins of God’s capabilities.

    Liked by 1 person


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