Pranks and Gods

What is a prank? It is a pointless act of unkindness. It is also an ancient tradition. According to ancient Greek tradition, the gods played a prank on Oedipus and his family by giving him information that was accurate but incomplete. They knew that their predictions were the very reasons that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. When Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, learned what they had done, Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself. The gods, we may assume, had a great laugh. Aristotle, generally a wise and accurate thinker, said that Oedipus had been guilty of hybris (pride), which was the reason he had done the investigation that led to the tragedy. Nonsense. Oedipus had no choice; the tragedy was carefully planned and orchestrated by the gods. Not even Aristotle, however, had the courage to say something bad about the gods.

A similar prank occurs in the Bible. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee unto the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Genesis 22:2). At the last moment, an angel spares Abraham, who has, we are told, passed a test of faith. His wife Sarah died at the beginning of Chapter 23, although we are not told whether there was a connection between Abraham’s obedience to God and Sarah’s death. Abraham and Isaac never spoke to each other again.

It might even be argued that the Christian doctrine of justification through faith is a prank. Since faith, by definition, is different from knowledge, we can’t ever know—as distinct from believe in—the route to salvation instead of damnation. And so if you have no faith, you don’t learn the truth until you are already in Hell and it is too late. Pranks are always based on incomplete knowledge or lack of knowledge on the part of the victim.

Children are frequently the victims of pranks. When they complain, they are asked, “Can’t you take a joke?” Those who ask such questions are supporting the validity of committing cruel acts and considering them jokes.

Dharun Ravi, who was 18 when he set up a webcam in his dormitory room to catch his roommate, Tyler Clementi, in the act of a sexual encounter with a man, thought he was committing a prank. That was his defense. His lawyer Steven Altman, called him “an 18-year-old boy, a kid.” This excuse, the jerky-kid defense, might have worked had it not led to the death of Tyler Clementi. If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide but merely tried to make an issue of this prank, he might have been asked, “Can’t you take a joke?”