Blessed Be The Cheesemakers
Watching an episode of Miranda Hart’s new sitcom tonight pulled me back to something I’ve been thinking about for a while — and slightly unsettled by. The co-writer on much of the series is James Cary, whose work I’ve come across a few times. He’s also co-written the majority of Milton Jones’s recent radio comedy, which I enjoy a great deal.
Here’s the thing. Cary is an evangelical Christian. Not a cultural Anglican whose expression of religion is mostly defined by folk memory and inertia, but an actual godbothering believer. Reading the blog on which this figures most into his writing, I’m struck time and again by the combination of jaw-dropping amazement — surely he can’t really believe that? — and visceral repulsion that’s my essential response to those deluded into what seems to me the area of actual mental illness. A sample post, from which this bit of choice loony:
In order to understand why creative works — and indeed why anyone works — we need to understand the past and the future. All things were created by God and men and women were made to fill the earth and subdue it. To tend the garden and increase in number. This would involve learning how to raise children, how to feed larger numbers of people, how to build houses, how to organise cities, how to develop science, economics and academy in general — not to work out how to fight sin and minimise the curse, because there was not meant to be sin or curse. With or without the fall, the plan was — and is — to take God’s glorious creation, rule over it and bring him ever increasing glory.
Religion itself bothers me on its own terms, but the bothering goes oddly deep in this case, and I think it has to do with how I view comedy, rather more than how I view religion. I spend a lot of time with comedy in all its forms. I love trying to figure out how it works, when it does, and why it doesn’t, when it doesn’t. I watch the good and the bad, and find the bad just as interesting as the good. Perhaps most importantly, I find sense of humour the most crucial way to connect to another person. If I can express my — very dry, very cynical, sometimes very silly — sense of humour with them, we’ve got a good chance of becoming friends. If not — and, honestly, usually not — then we probably don’t have a chance.
So comedy for me isn’t just a diversion; it’s a core part of who I am as a person. My botherment with Cary isn’t exactly about his religion, then — although that on its own would be a biggie. It’s more to do with the fact that a shared feeling for what’s funny draws me towards someone, makes me appreciate them more than in almost any other way; yet someone’s outward expression of religion repels me more than in almost any other way — those expressions are so unfathomable to me, so alien, that I feel I can’t possibly understand who they are, can’t possibly feel any intellectual kinship.
The combination of both in the same person disturbs me partly because I’m surprised by it. There’s a sense in which I don’t think it should be possible. To me, comedy is an almost pure expression of someone’s view of the world. It’s an intellectual exercise, and it’s the taking of a position. When we create something that’s funny, we reveal a great deal about ourselves; when we laugh at something, we both also reveal something about ourselves, and share the intellectual space.
The intellectual spaces my mind allocates to comedy and religion are more or less entirely disjoint. I see comedy as an essentially rational process — one which involves a clear-headed, unsentimental honesty about our world and our own lives. One of the aspects of comedy is precisely to see the delusions we fall prey to. Religion, on the other hand, is sentimental, irrational by design, and feeds off those very delusions — the evangelical variety all the more so.
Is it possible, then, for me to find an evangelical Christian funny? The question itself needs some clarification. The reason it doesn’t seem ridiculous to even ask it — as it would to ask, say, if I could possibly find a cake baked by an evangelical Christian delicious — is the intellectual aspect, the fact that I very much associate sense of humour with the essence of who someone is. I don’t intend the question to carry any particular pejorative weight, as might my asking whether I could find a racist funny, for example. Notwithstanding my feelings about religion in general, the question here is mainly about how the two intellectual spaces of comedy and evangelical religion seem to me to be sufficiently far apart to be more or less unbridgeable.
Clearly there are some bridges, though which bridges they are might be instructive. Cary’s work with Milton Jones — also a Christian — occupies Jones’s own world of puns and word-play. This is the comedy of phonological and syntactic ambiguity, rather than anything more substantial — which is not meant to imply criticism. That sort of humour skates across the surface of cultural experience. A pun doesn’t involve taking an intellectual position, or revealing anything other than that words sound alike and can be mixed up. Which — again — is not a criticism, merely a recognition that, no matter how much I might find cultural kinship in the fact that someone else likes puns as much as I do, it’s not a sharing of intellectual space in the same way that liking the comedy of Stewart Lee might be, for example. Tim Vine, another comedian whose stuff I love, and who is explicitly Christian — though perhaps not quite in Cary’s woo-woo mould — has honed word-play into what amounts to his own sub-genre.
Maybe, then, it’s possible to see the comedy of Cary, Jones and Vine as closer to the analogue of cake-making than to that of comedians whose acts are infused with their world-views and the taking of intellectual positions. It might provide a partial answer to my question. But are there comedians and comedy writers out there whose work is as infused with their religious world-view, and whose stuff I might connect with intellectually? I doubt it, honestly haven’t seen any, and might almost be afraid to find out. Perhaps Cary, Jones and Vine – and the others like them that I’m not aware of — do see their work as taking an intellectual position infused with a religious world-view, and not just in some less significant way consistent with it. Perhaps there’s something divine I’m missing in silly word-play. Blessed be the cheesemakers, indeed.