Jesus had a sense of humour

2010-07-10 00:00

“DO you think a solemn, serious Jesus who couldn’t be funny would have appealed to children? Children wouldn’t want anyone who is sour and surly.”

These are the words of Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, archbishop emeritus of the Anglican Church, and likely, quite soon, also to become known for the largest children’s Bible project of its kind in the world.

“Can you imagine the situation when Jesus told his listeners about how someone is two-faced? You see the splinter in your neighbour’s eye while there’s a whole beam sticking out of your own! I’m sure that when he told this story the audience would have laughed, because, you know, that guy he was talking about was really ridiculous.”

On July 30, Tutu will open the Cape Town Book Fair and also launch an illustrated children’s book of the Bible, The Children of God Storybook Bible.

In the book Tutu retells 56 Bible stories. Twenty artists have illustrated the book.

The idea of a children’s Bible book with Tutu as the narrator was the brainchild of the Anglican priest, translator and publisher, Luke Stubbs. The project as it now stands has taken three years. Stubbs died from cancer last year.

“I think the book was his dream,” says Tutu. He ordained Stubbs as a priest in 1987.

“He was very reserved and modest; he came to me and spoke half hesitantly about the idea of a children’s Bible which could then be distributed, especially in Africa.

“He didn’t say it, but meant that I would be a very good prop.”

Tutu laughs heartily, then adds more quietly, happily: “There are quite a number of children’s Bibles on the market, but he also had some hope for one in which I would be the storyteller.”

Doug Abrahams assisted him with the writing of the book, says Tutu. Among other things, Abrahams was also involved with Made for Goodness with Tutu and his daughter Mpho.

“He is a very, very competent person. I would sit with him and talk to him, and talk and talk, and then he would take what I said and put it together in a wonderful way.”

In The Children of God Storybook Bible, readers get a contemporary view of the world in Bible times. Where did the idea come from to move away from traditional depictions?

He laughs again. “Well, I suppose what you’re saying is in keeping with my nature. It is indeed compatible with the tradition of the church, certainly with parts of the church. There will be people who don’t approve of God rubbing his hands or laughing and crying. There are those who think the correct expressions are those of someone who has just unexpectedly swallowed a dose of castor oil and that that is how we must look in church.”

Then, more quietly, “Many times Jesus will have grieved, you know, about the things that were happening, especially to the weak and the poor. I think he also shocked people with the things he did and said. When he allowed that woman who could possibly have been a prostitute to touch him ...? I mean, he wasn’t conventional.”

His voice takes on a tone of urgency: “Jesus showed how God really is, you know.

“We sort of try and put God in boxes, because we think we can control Him.” (Previously he pointed out that God is not a Christian. “God is God,” he said.)

“Look at the stories Jesus tells. He could have chosen an important person as the hero of a certain story, but he picks a good Samaritan. He deliberately went out of his way to choose someone who was treated unjustly, because he was trying to say that everyone is important to God, especially someone who cares for others.”

Creation stories are among Tutu’s favourites.

“In one of them it is said that people are the apex of God’s creation and that everything God created was good. And then there’s the story where Adam is created from dust by God breathing life into him. These are very important stories.” Pensively he says quietly, “It is so profound: that moment by moment we are in life through His breath.

“I think the children will be crazy about the story of David and Goliath. And the story of God giving the laws to Moses. And the Exodus. Those are wonderful stories that speak of God caring for people.”

“Then there’s also the book of Esther. It’s a book in which God’s name isn’t mentioned even once, but it overflows with God and goodness. And the story of Ruth shows how even the heathen share in the Messiah.”

He smiles broadly as he says, “One lesson that God wants to teach us is that we all belong to one family — we are members of God’s family. But we just don’t want to learn that lesson, do we?”

Then he adds, “I am very, very happy — we have been blessed with a wonderful group of people [for the project].”

For Tutu, the international involvement is instructive: “It’s actually quite surprising the extent to which the book is being received pre-publication, and also the variety of artists — not only one artist, and not all from the same ethnic group — that in itself is a lesson.”

Thanks to his own participation in the project, one is tempted to correct him, but you then realise he isn’t seeking the recognition. His eyes and smile are full of childlike amazement, every moment.


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