“From Homer to Homer: Divine Laughter from The Iliad to The Simpsons”

Anita Houck
Saint Mary’s College

In time, tone, and genre, The Iliad and The Simpsons are about as far apart as they can be. But together they point to a lasting current in the religious imagination: the portrayal of God as laughing and laughable. We can find works that use laughter to depict the divine across the religious continuum, from secularism to spiritual searching to committed faith; and from the Bible to the most canonical literature—Homer, Aristophanes, Euripides, Erasmus, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Isak Dinesen, Rainer Maria Rilke—to twenty-first-century popular culture, such as The Simpsons, The Onion, and, of course, jokes. Such depictions of divine laughter are especially noteworthy because the Greek and Christian traditions have often been deeply suspicious of laughter. This talk will briefly survey the use of laughter to depict the divine, drawing on perspectives from humor studies, literary analysis, neuroscience, and theology. The image of divine laughter can’t provide answers to theological questions, at least not in the form of rational explanations for why the world is as it is. But because laughter is inherently ambiguous and relational, it can point toward ways of envisioning and addressing the divine, including by reaffirming the importance of human virtue.