Can the end of the world be funny? What about divine punishment? Judging by the recent spate of movies by Steve Carell, Jim Carrey and others, Hollywood certainly seems to think so. And Friday brings us another—Mr. Carell's new apocalyptic comedy, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."
The "Office" star's previous religious-themed movie, "Evan Almighty," took on the story of a present-day Noah. And its predecessor, Mr. Carrey's "Bruce Almighty," suggested a Job-like figure to whose complaints God responds by letting him experience what it's like to be God.
There is a long tradition of those who say that depictions of real faith are incompatible with humor. From the Desert Fathers of the early church and on into the monastic tradition, laughter and levity were sometimes seen as affronts to the most important truth—that death and judgment are possible at any moment.
Hollywood has inadvertently lent support to this view, often offering up less in the way of religious comedy than comedy at the expense of the religious. "The Invention of Lying," a 2009 film written by and starring Ricky Gervais, depicts a world in which the ability to lie is nonexistent. When Mr. Gervais's character somehow gains that capacity, he invents the big lie—the existence of God—and takes advantage of the gullible folks around him.
Christians, offended at their portrayal in Hollywood, seem to have bought into the notion that religion doesn't deserve the comic treatment. The surprisingly high-grossing "Fireproof" (2009) and "Courageous" (2011), both produced by a Christian studio for predominantly Christian audiences, are more extended illustrations of Gospel messages than efforts at artistic creation—and they exhibit such a grim self-seriousness that they banish the possibility of comedy.
The recent religious comedies of the Carrel/Carrey ilk aren't hostile to religion, per se. Nor do they question the existence of the divine or suggest that believers are suckers.
But they do deliver a vastly diminished deity. The God portrayed by Morgan Freeman is "Bruce Almighty" is not an awe-inspiring lawgiver and judge but a warm, if occasionally demanding, friend of the people. God tells Bruce that the problem with human beings is that they keep looking up to God for help rather than looking to one another.
Maybe these literal representations of man's interactions with God aren't the most interesting divine comedies being made today. In "Stranger than Fiction" (2006), the regimented life of IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) becomes disrupted when he begins to hear voices. It turns out that he's actually a character in a novel being composed by Kay Eiffell (Emma Thompson), who always kills her protagonists. Crick starts out assuming that he's in control of his life only to realize that someone else is writing the script. Still, it turns out that he has a role to play, one that for its happy ending requires that he embrace tragedy, sorrow and sacrifice.
Then there was the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" that told the story of Everett McGill (George Clooney), an escaped convict in search of a quick fortune and reunion with his wife and children. McGill is a skeptic who treats all religious claims with dismissive humor. At one point he finds himself in a car with two men: One has just been baptized and the other has sold his soul to the devil. "It looks like I'm the only one who remains unaffiliated," he observes wryly.
Yet a series of events, including a great flood that brings about the ending for which McGill has been hoping, casts doubt upon his doubt. Rife with religious imagery and a soundtrack of hymns and spirituals, "O Brother" is a comedy of human limits and divine providence.
In these types of stories, humor is in the service of self-knowledge and it puts protagonists on the path to knowing God. The main character of Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins" (1971), a comic novel about the apocalypse, is a lapsed Catholic and a psychiatrist who is himself a patient. He sets out the modern religious comedy in these terms: "Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good."