TT: Not That Shaggy!

JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that one of the many ways SF has addressed issues of religion and spirituality is through humor. Would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, let’s begin with shaggy god stories…

JANE: That’s a good idea. Err… What’s a shaggy god story?

Shaggy? No, Ziggy!

ALAN: The term was coined by Michael Moorcock when he was the editor of New Worlds. He claimed that his slush pile was always far too full of these kind of stories. After the nuclear holocaust that wiped out humanity, there were only two survivors. One was called Adam and the other was called Eve…

The expression quickly caught on (it’s a very clever one), and these days it’s generally used to describe any story that depends for its effect on a punch line that invokes some kind of biblical scenario.

JANE: Clever, definitely, since it switches the letters d-o-g around into g-o-d, but Moorcock’s definition is a bit misleading, too.  According to what I recall, a shaggy dog story is basically a bad joke that builds up to a punchline that is usually anticlimactic.

Would you consider Arthur C. Clarke’s stories “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God” (which we mentioned before) to fit Moorcock’s definition of a shaggy god stories?

ALAN: Yes I would – though they are definitely not anticlimactic bad jokes. I continue to find their punch lines effective and moving and (the first time I read them) quite shocking. Which is why they were well worth publishing in the first place, of course.

JANE:  Hmm… I just went and read up on shaggy dog stories.  One article did note that meeting the audience’s expectations in an “unexpected manner” also qualifies as a shaggy dog story, so I guess the Clarke stories really would (despite being effective) qualify as shaggy god stories.

If that’s the case, then a shaggy god story is not necessarily a bad story. It’s just that most of them are – especially if you’re an editor reading more and more of them as they appear in the slush pile.

ALAN: That’s exactly right. But even the clichéd shaggy god story that Moorcock hated so much can be made to work if you try hard enough. I have an example in mind. I think it’s by Damon Knight, but I’ve not been able to track it down…

As usual, Adam and Eve are the only two survivors of the nuclear holocaust. But Adam has a problem. Eve does not take kindly to his advances and she runs away from him and hides in a women’s toilet. Since men aren’t allowed in there, clearly there is nothing that Adam can do to save the situation. She won’t come out and he can’t go in. The human race is doomed to oblivion.

JANE: Heh….  Okay.  I’m chuckling.  Maybe one of our readers can identify this one?

Leaving the shaggy god story behind, what other stories have used humor to explore religious and/or spiritual issues?

ALAN: Probably one of the best examples is by Christopher Moore. All his books never cease to make me laugh out loud on buses, much to my embarrassment and to the amusement of all the other passengers. But by far and away his best book, in my opinion, is Lamb which is subtitled: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a subtitle that sums up the plot admirably.

Make no mistake about it, the book is hugely irreverent and potentially offensive. But irreverence is never used as a cheap substitute for wit. This is a very clever book and there are subtleties hiding behind the belly laughs. Which, to my mind, makes the jokes twice as funny!

JANE: You’ve mentioned this book before, and I’ve actually just taken a copy out of my library, because I want to read it, but I haven’t gotten there yet.  Can you give me an example of these subtleties?

ALAN: Yes I can. Biff and his friend Jesus go searching for the three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth. Jesus wants to learn how to be the Messiah, and presumably the Magi can teach him. His mind is set on high ideals, but Biff much prefers the low places of the world.

So, for example, one of the Magi teaches Jesus the way of the Tao. And while he is absorbing these rarified lessons, Biff is learning about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can enrich his life…

Again and again, in scene after scene, Jesus and Biff contrast the sacred and the profane and slowly they each come to realise that a truly effective life cannot be lived without both of these aspects being part of it. Neither can exist without the other.

Moore clearly respects his characters. Nothing that Jesus does in the book contradicts what we know about him. And Biff is not just a shallow cynic looking for a good time. He is the anchor that holds Jesus’ humanity on to the straight and narrow. Without Biff, Jesus cannot find the words to touch people’s souls.

But mostly, it’s just a hysterically funny book.

JANE: That sounds great…  I look forward to reading the book.

ALAN: I have several other authors in mind who have used humour to further a complex discussion of religion. Shall we talk about them next time?

JANE: Absolutely…  It sound enlightening!

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