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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Holy humor?

If you're not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there," Martin Luther once opined. Luther's robust humor about God and himself runs contrary to modern touchiness about religious humor.

In February, Canadian editorial cartoonist Roy Peterson drew the wrath of Muslims with a cartoon that portrayed Osama bin Laden videotaping himself and saying, "Yo, Allah! Smile, we're on candid camera." A voice from above replies, "We?"

Several hundred letter-writers said the cartoon insults God, Islam and Muslims, who believe God is utterly transcendent and shouldn't be portrayed in such human terms. Yet, change the cartoon and make it a sinful Christian talking to God that way and it draws smiles from many Christians. It makes God look good and pokes fun at human presumption.

What's funny — and acceptable — differs from one tradition to another, says John Stackhouse, who teaches about theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. Christians, for example, are most sensitive about anything that seems to trivialize Jesus.

Stackhouse says Jews are the most open about religious humor, perhaps because of the Jewish tradition of arguing, complaining and making wisecracks with God. Muslims are most sensitive, he added, in part because they feel under attack by the West. The best advice seems to be that it's OK to laugh about religion, not at it.


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