(5/31/12: Feast of the Visitation)
This is the place (as the blog subtitle says) where we will discuss all things dealing with Faith, Film, Philosophy, and Fun.
Some people are on the cutting edge of technology. Not me. If there is such a thing as a “cut off” edge, where people stop using the once-in-fashion gizmos, then that would be where I usually stand. I finally decided to get into blogging just as everyone is now moving to twitter. I’ll probably finally get a Facebook account just as everyone goes back to Myspace.
The point is, being new to the Blogosphere, I am sure that I am going to be making a number of etiquette mistakes along the way. I ask you to be patient as I learn the ropes.
A little about me: I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.
At the very least, I hope to have fun!
To kick things off, I’ve posted below an essay I wrote a few years ago. I did it for no particular reason and without anywhere to share it. But it was my attempt to say something original and profound. You’ll decide if it is.
(And I promise all of the posts won’t be this long.)
God is a Joke
As a kid, I loved riddles. Still do. I can remember being a pluckish 9-year-old, bored out of my mind at my cousin’s wedding. I was too young to simply enjoy the celebration of friends and family, but I was too old to just sit in a corner pretending the tiny plastic swords from the bar were
miniature lightsabers. I sat at a table of adults and teens sharing riddles. I remember it vividly because I realized that I could figure out most of the answers. While other adults were puzzling with furrowed brows, I paced up and down the banquet hall in my little suit and tie, trying to think while blocking out the lyrics to “Dancing Queen.”
Riddle: “A man ties a dog to a 10 foot rope. The dog’s water dish is 20 feet away. How does the dog get the water?”
Answer: (see bottom of essay)
Riddle: “In 1980, Sarah was 15 years old. In 1985, Sarah was 10 years old. How can this be?”
Answer: (see bottom of essay)
If you’re anything like me, you took a few moments with the above riddles. You stopped reading and thought it through. You looked at the data over and over again. You hesitated to skip down to the answer, because you wanted to see if you could reason it out for yourself. Did you get it right? Did you get the mental cramp from twisting your mind around a dozen possible answers? And did you get the thrill of vindication at the end of your cerebral gymnastics, when you looked at the answer and saw that you were right?
And did you feel smart?
That is the purpose of a riddle. It acts as mental exercise. Riddles are different than trivia because to be good at them you don’t have to be like Hans Gruber and reap the benefits of a classical education. Even a 9-year-old, bored at a wedding can jump into the fray. And we tend to intuitively regard the master of riddles above the master of trivia. The riddle master may not have as much content in his mind, but he has insight. He looks at the problem with his laser-critical eye and is able discover the truth.
The riddle strengthens the riddle master. Riddles force you to think laterally. You need to alter your normal way of thinking because something does not fit. The data has to be examined from another angle. Only then can the answer present itself. And the reward for your strain is the simple knowledge that you are right. You have figured it out. You are smart.
At least this was how 9-year-old me felt. I looked at the clues, made the deductions, and discovered the truth. In my mind I was a pint-sized Sherlock Holmes. And I fell in love with riddles.
But riddles aren’t jokes.
And herein lays, I believe, the fundamental point of frustration that so many of us run into when pursuing the question of God. We treat God like a riddle. We look at the problem with our laser-critical eye; we examine it from every possible angle. How old is God? Is He all good? If so, why is there evil? What is His nature? His will? Philosophers since ancient Greek times have wrestled with these questions. Here were riddles worthy of Oedipus and the Sphinx. And let us not forget the fundamental question: Does God even exist? What are the clues we can use to unlock the answer to this riddle? So many of us believe that if we just put the pieces together the answer will reveal itself and the riddle will be solved.
But God is not a riddle. Yes, there is an answer to this question, the deepest of all our questions. But it is not the kind of answer we are looking for. We will never solve the riddle of God for one very simple reason:
God is a joke.
Before we go any further, let’s contrast the riddle and the joke.
Question: “What’s E.T. short for?”
Answer: (see bottom of the essay)
Question: “What’s the definition of ‘procrastination?’”
Answer: (see bottom of the essay)
Now, unlike the riddles at the beginning of this essay, I’m sure you didn’t wait and puzzle out the answer to these questions. You went right to the bottom to see the answer. Of course we don’t call the end of a joke “the answer.” We call it the “punch line.” This phrase, which probably has its origin in early 20th Century American slang, is a vivid contrast to the “answer” we find in a riddle. “Answer” carries with it a sense of discovery. A page has been turned; a door has been unlocked. “Punchline” comes at you sideways when you weren’t even looking. The rug has been pulled out from under you. Like the magician, the comedian has dazzled you with a surprise.
But the single most glaring distinction between riddles and jokes is the element of joy. By “joy” I mean mere delight and mirth. I would use the word “pleasure,” but I want to talk about that which lightens the heart and bursts through our egos to cause, quite against our wills sometimes, that singularly human activity of laughter. (In contrast, the marital act, which I’m sure most would call “pleasurable,” would probably suffer if one of the partners engaging in it spontaneously broke into giggles).
Now we come to the “question” of God. And this I think is where most everyone has come upon the fundamental mistake. As I stated earlier, the “question” of God is not a riddle. It is a joke.
This is not to say that God is illogical. Far from it. The best jokes are the ones that have a very clear logical thought process. If they did not, we could not follow the comedian from set-up to punch line.
Joke: A mailman comes to the front gate of a fenced in house only to be greeted by a vicious barking dog on the other side. The mailman looked up at the man sitting on the front porch and asked, "Is your dog going to bite me?" The man on the porch said "No." The mailman went to unlock the gate, but the dog did not back down. Again he asked the man on the porch "Is your dog going to bite me?" Again, the man on the porch said "No." So the mailman entered the gate and the dog immediately jumped on him and attacked him. The mailman shouted, "YOU LIED! YOU SAID YOUR DOG WOULDN'T BITE ME!" The man on the porch shouted back, "That's not MY dog."
The joke is very logical. It follows a very clear line of thinking. And so does the question of God. When it comes to God, we do not need to abandon our reason in order to enter into the joke. In fact, it is more logical to approach God as the Great Joke rather than the Great Riddle. You can figure out a riddle. But you shouldn’t figure out a joke.
If there is delight to be found in the riddle, as my younger self found, it is from the pride received at feeling so clever. I pieced together the clues to understand the answer. But this CANNOT be done with God. All of the great saints understood this, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, who made clear that human reason would always fall short of understanding God because God is, above all, mystery. He is too big to fit into our little brains.
One of my favorite stories about the nature of mystery involves the other great medieval mind: St. Augustine of Hippo. The legend goes like this: Augustine had been in enveloped in great frustration because he could not understand the dogma of Trinity. How could there be 1 God and 3 Persons? It literally pained his mind. One day Augustine was walking down a beach and saw a little boy running to the ocean. Filling a cup with water, the boy dumped it into a hole that he had dug. After watching for a bit, Augustine asked the child what he was doing. The child said “I am going to put the whole ocean into this hole.” Augustine replied “But child, it is impossible for you to put the whole ocean into this hole. The ocean is too big, and the hole too small.” The child looked at him and said, “And so it is impossible for you to understand the Trinity,” and he disappeared. (Rim shot)
After that, Augustine understood: Trinity is a joke, and not a riddle. But rather than this causing him to abandon reason, he was now better equipped to talk about the Trinity in a more rational way. Augustine at last understood that Trinity was not something to be could be fully understood. The Trinity is something to enjoy.
Have you ever simply enjoyed the Trinity? Have you let yourself be caught up in the Love Story of God the same way we get caught up in the love story of Sam and Diane, Pacey and Joey, Jack and Rose, Ross and Rachel, etc. etc. We should. It is the greatest love story of all time and beyond.
Love stories are very much like jokes. You have the set-up followed by the unexpected punch line. And every time love is discovered between 2 lovers, it is always a surprise. There’s always something new about it, as if it has been discovered for the very first time. Happily married couples wonder whether anyone in the world could possibly be as happy or if only they have unlocked this magical secret of the universe. Romantic love goes beyond the logical realm of the riddle and finds its home in the joyous delight of the joke.
Romantic love, at its best, should be a reflection of the Divine love. And this too is better reflected in joke than riddle. Because with love, as with the joke, you have to give over a little of yourself. When 2 people share riddles, they engage in mental jousting. They are Bilbo and Gollum, dueling not with swords or fists but wits. Riddles are designed to create distinctions, i.e. I am smarter than you. Jokes are not designed to focus conflict AT the other, but to draw you closer TO the other. How often when we try to make friends do we crack jokes? Probably more so than riddles. If our jokes make someone laugh and vice-versa, it means that our minds have entered into a common frame where we can meet, not compete.
The dueling nature of riddles cannot be overemphasized. Here, the riddle master and the riddle solver are both active. But with jokes, the comedian is active while the audience is passive. Here is another reason why we tend to approach God like a riddle. In our hubris, we think that we can understand Him, and by understanding, conquer Him. Of course, most of us don’t admit to this, but often we want to learn about something to gain power over it. We read computer manuals so that we can figure out how to get our WI-FI to find the Xbox. We read about cars so that we can maintain it ourselves and not have to take it in to Leon at the Jiffylube. If we understand God, understand how He works, then we can best “manage” God and fit Him more efficiently in our lives. At least I believe that is the secret Promethean motive behind keeping God at a distance by treating Him as a riddle.
But with God, as with the comedian, there must be on our part self surrender. When we hear a joke, we listen as we are taken down a long, seemingly aimless road until we turn the corner and find a mini-surprise party waiting for us. The joy of a joke is not figuring out the ending, as in a riddle, but in being led to the ending. In fact, if we figure out the punchline to a joke before we are led there, our delight is diminished.
This can be easily seen in the life of Christ. Often, the Pharisees would pester him and test him and try to figure out who He is. In fact some got so frustrated that they came right out and ask, “Can’t you just tell us plainly who you are?” They thought the Messianic prophecies were riddles to be deciphered. But when Jesus came to them, he was not at all what they expected. He came at them sideways. He could not simply tell them who He was because that would have been like giving away the punchline before the set up. He had to lead them from the beginning: his conception in Nazareth (Can anything good come from Nazareth?). Then he brought them to Bethlehem, where He is born in a barn, like something out of an 80's sitcom.
In His public life, Jesus winkingly toys with the Syrophonecian woman (even the dogs get scraps), winds up his disciples (Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves), and enters Jerusalem majestically on His Messianic ass (i.e. His donkey). But all that is still only the set-up for the ultimate joke: the Paschal Mystery. How confounded everyone was at the scandalous Passion! How the called out to Him “Come down from the cross and we will believe!” As if that would produce the logical evidence to command their assent! Almost no one could figure Him out, even the thief on his left. But the thief on his right got it. Rather than taunting or teasing Jesus, the good thief says, “Remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.” He got the joke. Why him and so few others? The good thief doesn’t just suffer alongside Jesus. He suffers with Jesus. He travels on that way to dusty death metaphorically holding His hand. He did not fully understand Christ, but He fully experienced Him. And by experiencing Him, he came to know Him.
He got the joke.
Now, if the story ended at Calvary, then we would have to say that the Gospel was a bad joke. But the punchline does not end in pain. It ends in joy; it ends in Resurrection.
The people wanted a Messiah to free them, and so He has. But He did it in a way that no one expected. He came at them sideways. And now they are free not just from political oppression but from the oppression of sin and death. In our life, we want a God who loves us. And He does, but He does it in an unlooked for way: He died for us. We want to be happy in the here and now. He brings happiness in the now and forever. We Christians should always believe in happy endings. Our story is the happy ending. We let the Great Comedian lead us down the long winding road of our lives so that when it comes to the great punchline, our hearts will be filled with mirth and our spirits with laughter as He says to us, “Welcome home by good and faithful servant.”
And if He doesn’t say that, try telling Him the one about the man who named his dog "Stay." Then shimmy up and over the pearly gates while He’s laughing.
ANSWER RIDDLE 1: The other end of the rope is not tied to anything
ANSWER RIDDLE 2: The two years in question refer to B.C. not A.D.
ANSWER JOKE 1: “He has little legs.”
ANSWER JOKE 2: “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”