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Essay

Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear:
The Consolation of Comedy


There must be no foul or salacious talk or coarse jokes—
all this is wrong for you; there should rather be thanksgiving.

—Ephesians 5:4

 

IGREW UP in a moral world. All stories led to morals. My mother loved to tell me about the boy who wanted a puppy for Christmas, and I brooded on the anecdote as if it were the meditation of the day from Guideposts or The Upper Room, monthly devotional magazines that my father left on the back of the toilet for me and my brothers to read.

If the little boy really wanted a puppy, his mother said, he should get down on his knees and ask God to give him one. Night after night, before going to bed, the boy besieged heaven, praying for a puppy, praying fervently and long, confident that God was hearing him.

But at Christmas there was no puppy under the tree. As the boy played contentedly with the toys that he did get, his mother said, “I guess God didn’t answer your prayers.”

“He answered me,” the boy told her. “He just said no.”

“That’s a cute joke, don’t you think?” my mother said, chuckling, then glancing at me to see if I got it.

I got it. It was a moral. It was an Aesop’s fable for little Christians. It was her way of telling me that I wasn’t going to get the puppy I’d been whining for and that I might as well stop walking around the house belting out, “How much is that puppy in the window, the one with the waggley tail?” which I hoped would conjure in her subconscious the desire for a puppy that I had failed to argue into her.

My mother loved the anecdote because it showed a model child bowing humbly and gracefully to God’s better judgment. It also conflates parents and God, because it’s not God who drives to the pound and gets the mutt. It’s Mom and Dad. How stupid did she think I was?

I was indignant that the mother in the joke was just pushing the blame for her decision off on the Almighty. Even when I was ten, the psychological vacuity of the joke and the emotional manipulation in it left me raw with contempt. That smarmy boy knew nothing of desire and disappointment, I thought, though I could not have articulated my irritation. I knew what it was like to have balked passions—or at least, balked greed—and I knew that even at those rare times when I accepted disappointment with seeming grace, I did it only after swallowing a bitter mouthful of resentment. The little plaster saint of Mom’s joke infuriated me, but he also admonished me irrefutably, and I bowed to the point: prayers were not always granted. We were guaranteed only that God would listen, not that he would acquiesce. I hated the joke for making me see what no sermon, no matter how compelling, would ever make me acknowledge, much less understand.

At least the pious anecdote gave me something to chew over. Humor and religion were married, it seemed, but not altogether faithfully. Behind religion’s back, the really funny jokes went on savage benders every Saturday night with punch lines of easy virtue, and then on Sunday morning they slumped, chastened, in the back row of church, nursing a hangover and worrying they had caught a dose. The jokes I heard in Sunday school were so insipid that I didn’t even groan when I heard them.

Where is baseball first mentioned in the Bible? In the big inning, Eve stole first, Adam stole second, and Cain struck out Abel. Where is tennis first mentioned in the Bible? When Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court. Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible? Samson. He brought the house down. Where is cannibalism first mentioned? 2 Kings 8:1. Who is the fastest man in the Bible? Adam. He was first in the human race. Who was the first person to drive a sports car in the Bible? Joshua. His Triumph was heard throughout the land. Where was Solomon’s temple located? On the side of his head. What kind of car did Jesus drive? He drove the money changers out of his father’s house in his Fury.

Still, the bad jokes in Sunday school topped the torpor of sitting in church, waiting for something interesting to happen. No matter what I did, I was bored, bored, bored. I read the bulletin till I was furious with tedium. Who cared when the adult Bible study group was meeting and who had donated the lovely floral displays at the front of the church? If I kicked the pew in front of me or jostled my brother, trying to claim more space, Mom pinched me, thumped me with her finger, popped my thigh, or jabbed me in the side with her elbow. “Sit still and pay attention,” she hissed. “Just wait till I get you home, young man!”

The preacher’s microscopically close analysis of Bible verses went on and on. The state of our souls—miserable—was too depressing to contemplate. And the terrors of judgment and the increasing likelihood of my burning eternally in perdition—“like a pork roast on a grill”—disturbed me so much I concentrated on not hearing them. But early in the sermon, warming us up for the brimstone to follow, the preacher often paused and smiled self-deprecatingly, letting us know he was going to tell a story. I stopped fidgeting and listened. Sometimes he simply told a cute anecdote about something that had happened in the news that week, but often he told a joke. And then I knew I’d have something to think about for the rest of the sermon.

Many times I heard from Baptist pulpits the story—it was a great crowd pleaser—of the farmer caught in a flood. As the waters rose around his isolated farmhouse, the farmer moved to the second story of his house and then onto the roof, where he perched on the ridge, prayed, and waited for God to save him.

His neighbors rowed over in their fishing skiff and asked if he wanted to get in with them, but he replied, No, he had prayed to God for help and God was going to save him.

They left, and as the waters kept rising, the farmer prayed even more fervently. The sheriff’s department puttered up in a motorboat, rescuing stranded flood victims, and again the farmer sent them away. He had asked God to save him and he was waiting for God.

Swirling brown water now lapped up onto the roof, and a National Guard helicopter circled overhead. Through their loudspeaker, the guardsmen offered to send down a ladder. But once more the pious old farmer, who had climbed onto the chimney, waved them off.

As the water sucked at his boots and then started creeping up the legs of his overalls, the farmer, giving way to doubt, called up at the sky, “God, I thought you were going to rescue me.”

The sky opened. A bright light shone out of the sky, and God said, “I’ve already sent two boats and a helicopter….”

When I first heard the story of the stranded farmer, I laughed and thought what I was supposed to think: “Yeah, why can’t the old guy just accept the way God has answered his prayer? God helps those who help themselves.” But as the preacher moved on into his sermon, I kept pondering the story, worrying at it. I knew I was supposed to take the obvious lesson from it and move on. But I saw the farmer’s point of view. When God admonished the presumptuous farmer, he was also admonishing us listeners and correcting our definition of grace. Was the story telling us that the days of direct, divine intervention in our lives were over and we could only count on each other? Did God now only work through people? Why wouldn’t the farmer, after a lifetime of belief and obedience to God, want the Almighty to reveal himself in his servant’s time of greatest need? I was only twelve, but I wanted to see God. I wanted that reassurance. If God only worked through people, maybe there was no God. Maybe those saviors in boats and helicopters weren’t God’s agents but just people doing their jobs. That was a hard and frightening idea for a boy brought up a believer.

Hadn’t God sent this flood, as he had sent the flood in Genesis and then intervened to save the one good man, Noah, in his ark filled with animals? But instead of being Noah, as he had imagined, this poor proud farmer found himself to be Job, a man endangered so he would ask for help and be taught a lesson that would edify others. Under all my thinking lay the Baptist understanding that everything is a test from God. And that led to an inescapable and terrifying corollary: God’s grace and God’s malice are often indistinguishable. If the farmer hadn’t asked, would God have let him drown? And what about all the other people who were flooded out of their houses—what did they learn?

Maybe I wouldn’t have worried over this joke so much, but these questions about who and what God is and how he works in the world were exactly the questions troubling me daily. I was surrounded by believers who never seemed anguished in their faith. The gap between the hard, obvious God of the Old Testament and the vague God of the modern world troubled me. The chasm between story and actuality, joke and the real world, was what I was struggling to plumb. Where did the one stop and the other begin? Where did they overlap, and what did it mean that they did?

Nobody raised questions about the preacher’s jokes and anecdotes. Nobody else, so far as I could tell, even had these questions waft through their minds, like eye-floaters drifting through their field of vision, so I assumed my mind was aberrant. In fact, Saint Paul told me that I was a sinner for thinking such thoughts, so I kept quiet. I could not stop my mind from thinking what it thought, and I began to perceive its processes as both the essence of myself and somehow autonomous, beyond my control.

If you think I’m making too much of a simple joke, you are, of course, right—and wrong. The preachers analyzed the parables of Jesus just this closely, and the joke is nothing if not a parable. Biblical exegesis considered everything. As a boy, I heard—twice, from different preachers in different states—sermons that explicated the Lord’s Prayer one phrase at a time over a year. Week one: a thirty-minute sermon on the phrase “Our Father.” Week Two: “Who Art in Heaven.” Week Fifty-two: “Amen.” I have heard the parables analyzed from just about any angle imaginable, including the story of the prodigal son considered from the viewpoint of the pigs in their sty as the destitute drunk settles down next to them for the night. “Whoa,” said the pigs, “why is this Jew, a man who has abjured pork in all its forms, down here in the mud with us? Is he trying to steal our slop? There must be something bad wrong with him.” I learned the same kind of close reading from a book suggested by my pastor, who had noticed my susceptibility to jokes: The Gospel According to Peanuts.

The congregation always laughed at the joke about the farmer in the flood, though, and I laughed with them. So did my father. In church, my father relaxed. He knew the world of the church, respected it, and loved it. Jokes told there would not be sexual or violent, and they always made an edifying point. The anarchy of pointless wordplay and bizarre imagery was left outside the vestibule. Church humor did not tear down; it built up.

When my father chuckled, I studied how his lips drew upward as the cheek muscles lifted toward his eyes and the flow of blood into his cheeks made his face glow rosy and soft, not the vibrant red flush of anger. The near silence of his amusement fascinated me. I laughed from my gut. I was an hysterical laugher, a laugh-till-my-sides-hurt laugher. I laughed till I wept. But my father controlled his laughs as he controlled everything but his temper. He didn’t make a sound beyond the sociable chuckle he began with. In church, that amused chuckle wouldn’t diminish his dignity and authority in the eyes of his children, which might have happened if he acted silly, laughed at nonsense, welcomed merriment, let himself be ravished by the demon of hilarity. When he chuckled unselfconsciously in church, he relaxed his jaw enough to reveal the blue gap where one of his molars was missing.

Because of my parents’ hidden sorrow at the death of my sister, I grew up in a house deficient in what Arthur Koestler called the “luxury reflex” of laughter. But when my father’s brothers, Uncle Herschel and Uncle Bob, blew through town, mild anarchy was loosed upon the house. Though Herschel was a Methodist minister and Bob later became one too, they said my father was the religious one, the one who everyone assumed would be a preacher, a possible life that fascinated me with its inappropriateness. He had the faith and the intensity of a preacher, but he entirely lacked the glad-handing gifts of the salesman, the ease with other people, and the stage presence that good preachers delight in. Around his brothers and their faith, though, he relaxed and laughed, knowing their humor, like church humor, was safe. Often their humor was church humor.

Most preachers I’ve known possess a fine and finely articulated, if circumscribed, sense of humor. Humor is a staple of the pulpit of course, but it’s also social grease for people in the public eye—genial, not too judgmental, more or less harmless. It’s wordplay for well-educated people who love words, stories, and public speaking, but know the bounds in which they work. My Uncle Herschel, the Methodist minister, delighted in telling my Baptist father the joke about the Baptist who argued that anything less than a full dunking did not count as baptism in his eyes or in the eyes of God.

A Methodist replied that he thought a little sprinkle of water on the top of the head would do the job just fine.

The outraged Baptist responded that that was ridiculous. Jesus was fully immersed by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, and we had to take Jesus as our model.

“Wouldn’t it be okay to take someone in the water only up to his chest?” the Methodist asked.

“No!”

“How about to the neck?”

“No!”

“Well, how about if you held him in the water till he was almost completely immersed, with his head barely sticking out?”

“No!”

“See!” cries the Methodist, triumphantly. “I told you that the sprinkle on the top was what counted.”

You have to be pretty deeply involved in church doctrine to see the wit in the joke. It toys good-naturedly with doctrinal issues that churches and denominations split over. Because the joke pokes almost as much fun at the Methodist’s skewed logic as the Baptist’s doctrinal vehemence, the point is really that such minor issues aren’t worth fighting over. While seeming to tweak my father for becoming a Baptist while all his brothers had remained Methodists, Herschel was actually saying it didn’t matter, and they all shared a companionable laugh.

I was especially interested in my uncles because they looked like my father, without his austerity of expression. Pink-faced bald men with large noses, they had faces creased with pleasure. Would I look like them or like my father? A few years ago a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years mentioned that he had enjoyed watching my genial face age through the years as he observed the author photos on my books. He was worried I’d be offended by his describing me as “aging,” but what caught my ear was “genial.” I’d turned into a version of my uncles.

Herschel told a different joke one day while I was sitting with my brothers, squeezed onto his and Hazel’s small sofa, flipping through one of their magazines while sunlight flooded the small parsonage. A boy and girl are kissing in the back of a car, and when they break their clinch, the boy says, “Honey, that was some powerful kiss! I ended up with your gum.”

“Dum? Dat’s dot dum. I dot a told.”

I cringed, twisted my lips, and laughed involuntarily while swatting my hands in front of my face, as if I were trying to keep a fly from landing on my nose. Herschel roared with delight at my boyish disgust. The idea of another person’s snot in my mouth excited such a strong response that I twitched and shivered for the next fifteen minutes, and every time I did, Herschel laughed again. I’d never heard a gross-out joke from an adult before, much less from a minister—and a minister who acknowledged without judgment that a boy and girl would make out in the back of a car! This was heady talk! I was almost dizzy.

I glanced at my father. Was this joke going to mean trouble? Would he scold me later for laughing? He chuckled at my histrionic revulsion, but he looked uneasy, indecisive. Then he seemed to let his unease go, and I could almost see him think, “That’s just Herschel. He likes to push at the boundaries a bit, but he never goes too far. His heart is pure.” If I had told that joke to Herschel, I’d be in hot water. My heart was not pure, and we all knew it.

I was finicky about sex, which was a mystery. It scared me, and like most kids I freaked out when I tried to comprehend my elders doing it. Once while I was visiting my Uncle Bob in Toledo—I must have been fifteen—my cousin Jane handed me a thin, dusty box her father had hidden on the top of one of his bookshelves. Herschel had sent it to him—a gift from one minister to another.

“Look inside,” my cousin said. I lifted the lid, and pulled out a sheet of paper boldly announcing that the box contained a “monokini,” the male answer to the bikini, which was then new and getting a lot of press coverage. The gag gift from Florida was a skimpy polyester man’s bathing suit with an eight-inch tube sewn to the front, hanging down like an empty sausage casing.

My cousin laughed and looked at me, waiting for me to laugh. Because I didn’t want her to see I was creeped out, I squeezed loose a weak laugh before I hurriedly replaced the monokini in the box and shoved it back into her hands. Why was I repulsed by the silly gag gift? I’d been telling dead baby jokes with utter delight for years.

I was shocked that a minister would indulge in sexual humor, but mostly my prissy adolescent modesty was ruffled. The vaguely transsexual merging of men’s and women’s clothing perturbed me, and so did the faux-silk slipperiness of the fabric, which cheapened sex with a tawdry lubricity that still troubles me. As soon as I looked at this thing that was clearly never meant to be worn, that existed only for the concept, the joke of it, I imagined my uncle pulling the panties up his legs, stuffing his penis into the polyester tube in the front of the thong, and walking around the room. And that led me to imagine myself doing it. To a boy who’d never come close to having sex, those images were so threatening, so disruptive of my sense of an ordered sexual world, that I couldn’t see the humor in the monokini, and the fact that two ministers could laugh at what I couldn’t disturbed me even more.

My own body was frightening, a fear I shared with many people raised in the Calvinist tradition. Week after week, the preacher, citing the apostle Paul, railed from the pulpit against the corruption of the flesh, the depraved substance our souls were trapped in, and I absorbed Paul’s contempt. The body was dirty. I could see that. Mine pooped, peed, spat and blew goopy boogers out its nose. Each night, while I slept, crust formed in my eyes. My mother scraped brown wax from my ears. Zits erupted on my face and squirted on the mirror when I squeezed them. My body blistered and oozed. Even something as comically innocent as my bellybutton collected loose fibers from my shirt—and when I swabbed my finger around in the puckered hole, gray lint stuck to it and stank. And what about farts? Sometimes they were laughingly called “poots” and “toots,” and my brothers and I sang out “He who first smelt it, dealt it!” when one got dealt. Sometimes, farts got us backhanded out of the chair at the dinner table. As a result, I grew up with a Puritan fascination with, and mistrust of, bodily functions that my mother, who had the same mixed emotions, derided as “nice-nasty.”

I was as thrilled by this impermanent substance my soul occupied as I was wary of it. I instinctively understood Paul’s Platonic contempt for transient flesh that distracts our souls from the eternal. And yet God had put me in it, and even before sex arrived and made both pleasure and shame more intense, I loved the flesh’s passing pleasures. I raced to open the blue can of Maxwell House because I was enraptured by the first blast of coffee fragrance when the can opener breached the vacuum seal with a brusque psst. I sat in the tub for hours, reading comics, luxuriating in the warm water till all my digits were wrinkled and tender, as if they were melting, and my mother forced me to dry off and put my pajamas on.

It seems natural to me that a boy so attuned to the competing tugs of flesh and spirit would find that dirty jokes, with their emphasis on the bodily pleasures and mortality, possess a power that impinges on the theological. The gap between what we want to be true and what we find to be true, between the ideal and the real, between soul and flesh, is so huge that when we reduce it to concrete examples we laugh. The romantically deluded boy who’s kissed his girlfriend so passionately that he thinks he’s snorkeled up her gum is unceremoniously informed that his romanticism has blinded him to what he actually has in his mouth. The body itself continually undercuts our inclination to romanticize our desires. Similarly, the farmer stranded on his roof has a concept of the divine that he is forced to redefine. In the world of perfect forms there are no floods. But if there were, God himself would rescue us from them. The deluded farmer is trying, by will and faith, to turn this world into the perfect world, and he is slapped down for it. But why should he be? Christ himself ordered us with the bland equanimity of a god, “Be perfect,” the most startling of all his commandments and the only one that always makes me laugh.

§

If you want to jolt yourself with your own daring and unconventional sense of humor, religion is one of the few places to go after dead baby, Helen Keller, and mutilation jokes. Only those alert to the sacred can appreciate, I suspect, the various uses of blasphemy, and only those who respect taboos can enjoy the bone-deep electric charge of toying with them. Because I was a serious boy raised in a serious faith, surrounded by rational adults with a rigid sense of the supernatural, I still feel a diminishing frisson of sinfulness when I pull a cork from a bottle of sauvignon blanc, tell a dirty joke, dance, or say “goddamn.” I like to test my own sense of religious trepidation, poke it with a stick, thump it on the head as I walk by. The agitation keeps me alive to my old faith and—who knows?—maybe it to me.

The first time I heard a joke about Jesus, the thrill of lurching out past the sharp edge of propriety was palpable. Making fun of Jesus was the sin of blasphemy, and it wasn’t, as I’d thought, witches gathering in the darkest part of the piney woods to summon Lucifer, or a warlock drawing a pentagram in blood on the floor of a deserted shack. It was three boys huddled in the back row of a tenth-grade world-history class after the teacher had stepped out of the room. We were supposed to be doing our homework.

Carl Blegen, a military brat like me, with black plastic glasses and lank brown hair swept across his forehead, leaned into the aisle. Elbows propped on his thighs, he motioned with his head for me and Gary Sandig to lean toward him. He looked around, and when he was sure no one else could hear, he whispered, “Jesus is on the cross.”

He paused a second and stared at us, making sure we had absorbed that this sentence was the beginning of a joke. He held his hands out loosely from his shoulders to suggest Christ nailed to the cross, but not wide enough that a casual onlooker would recognize what he was doing. He looked like he was imitating a chicken.

I was so puzzled, tense, and suddenly afraid I could barely listen. I felt endangered.

“Jesus looks out over the crowd and says, ‘Peter, come to me.’

“Peter hears Jesus calling him, so he starts walking through the crowd toward the cross, but the Roman soldiers see him and drive him back with whips.

“Jesus calls out again, ‘Peter, come to me. I want you.’

“Again Peter starts toward the cross, and again the Roman soldiers whip him and beat him and punch him until he gives up.

“For the third time, Jesus calls out, ‘Peter, come to me. I want you.’” As he spoke Jesus’s words, Carl used a dreamy, disconnected singsong voice, as if Jesus, lost in his thoughts, had not seen what had happened to Peter.

On his third attempt, determined to make it to the foot of the cross, Peter launches himself into the crowd. The Romans lash him bloody with their whips. They club him to the ground and kick him. But Peter claws his way to the base of the cross and calls up, “I’m here, Lord.”

Still using that dreamy voice, but with an edge of childish glee in it, Jesus says, “Peter, I can see your house from up here.”

I laughed so hard I clung to the side of my desk to keep from falling on the floor. I put my face on my desk and laughed until I drooled on my notebook paper. Other students turned and looked at me.

“What’s so funny?” they asked.

“Nothing,” I said, and kept laughing. Carl, red in the face with pleasure at his own joke, shushed me. He was nervous I’d repeat the joke and other students, offended, would tell the teacher.

I held my side and racked for air till I finally calmed down. But as soon as I thought “I can see your house from here,” air exploded from my lips in a wet snort, and I was off again. Carl kept saying, “Come on, man, stop.” He made a lowering gesture with his hands, palms facing the floor. “Stop it. Everybody’s staring at us.”

Like that was going to make me stop? Everybody looking?

“What’s so funny?” the students near me demanded, frustrated and a little angry. Again I just said, “Nothing,” and kept laughing. It must have taken me five minutes before I could shut up.

The joke had raised me to a height of nervous expectation, and just as I was expecting something violent, gross, or sexually vile, it swooped beneath what I was prepared for. The eerie innocence of Jesus’s answer exploded in my head. Tortured, dying on the cross, this Jesus spoke with the “gee whiz” amazement of a boy who had climbed a tree for the first time. The joke takes the pivotal event in Christianity and turns it into childish thrill. This Christ isn’t interested in redeeming sinful mankind with the sacrifice of his life. He’s just a dumb kid in a tree who wants to share knowledge that others already know. I could remember being that kid. At fifteen, I still remembered the first time I had climbed a tall tree and looked to find the roof of my house. I was embarrassed now by my excitement then, and I was embarrassed for the naïve Christ of the joke who was as innocently delighted as I had been.

The joke was dynamite. I knew I had to be very careful with it. I couldn’t tell it to any adults, ever. Only my friends who saw themselves as outsiders were even possible audiences, and even then I’d have to think twice. But I knew I was going to tell it. There was never any doubt in my mind about that.

In homeroom the next day, as I told the joke to my friend Tom, a girl overheard me and turned around. From the hesitant yet determined set of her jaw, I could see she didn’t really want to say anything but her faith compelled her. The mockers of the Lord must be both admonished for their sin and offered the chance to repent.

She curled a strand of blonde hair nervously behind her right ear. “When I think of all that Jesus has meant to me and all he suffered for my sake…,” she said, her voice trembling. Unable to finish the sentence, she turned back around and faced the front of the class, opened her algebra textbook, and stared at it, lips trembling.

Tom shrugged at me. I shrugged back. I felt small and mean, and yet aggrieved too. She had turned to hear the joke without being invited to listen. What right did she have to complain? But she hadn’t complained. She had been hurt. She was a bystander who had edged between the knife thrower and the woman strapped to the spinning wheel. A wounded civilian. Collateral damage.

Every time I told the joke, someone, between laughs, said, “You’re going to get struck by lightning,” and I shrugged with false audacity. For my blasphemy, I did expect a bolt of cosmic electricity to blast me into a stinking circle of charred earth, and for this magical thinking I held myself in contempt. It was not the sort of sophisticated, post-Christian thought I wanted to be thinking. Even if I were to remain a Christian, I didn’t want to understand God so primitively. But deep in my brain a terrified king ruling over a shrinking desert kingdom knew he deserved to have his fields destroyed by floods, drought, and locusts, and his starving people afflicted with plagues. The rest of my brain laughed at the superstitious minor king, so far from the intellectual agorae of Greece and the great public baths of imperial Rome.

Had the Jesus jokes been around for a long time and I just started to hear them when, in high school, I was going through my crisis of faith? Or were they something new? Whatever the case, they were there when I needed them. Perhaps it’s natural that the thing that has been drilled into us as holy all our lives should, when it is finally questioned, provoke an extreme response. This was certainly true for me. Attempting to understand intellectually and psychologically what we find funny comforts us after we have stopped laughing and the stitch in our sides has loosened. But laughter is not intellectual, thank God; it’s visceral. And my favorite Jesus joke while I was in high school was wordless.

I’d throw my arms wide and pause for a moment. Then, grimacing with feigned pain, I’d yank my right arm free of an imaginary nail. I’d do the same with my left hand. I’d hesitate for a moment, my eyes widened, and I’d windmill them backward, as if to keep myself from falling. The audience would make the leap and imagine Christ collapsing forward, still pinned to the cross by the spike in his ankles. If the joke is funny at all, and I found it very funny, it’s because it’s so wrenchingly horrible to imagine the torture of crucifixion being taken to a new and surprising level—and that because Jesus, the perfect man, a man and a god, makes an elementary mistake of physics.

The joke always makes me flinch. I feel a slight psychosomatic twinge in my ankles whenever I tell it. Oddly, the joke reminds us of Jesus’s humanity and torment in the body at the same time it mocks the gravity of the moment. Like the cruelty jokes and Helen Keller jokes, it reminds us of the vulnerability of our bodies and pushes fear into laughter. The person enacting the joke is Christ, but a stupid Christ, a mortal who is not going to return from the dead. Who, then, is the joke on?

§

During my freshman year at Huntingdon College, which was a mile and a half from my house, I took a required semester-long class in the Old Testament and another in the New Testament, both taught by Barnes Tatum. A thin, energetic, Methodist minister, Dr. Tatum did not tread delicately on the religious preconceptions of fundamentalists. He quickly introduced us to the higher criticism of the Bible, and his teaching could not have been more revolutionary if he had told the class Martin Luther King was as surely a Christian prophet as the apostle Paul—which, in fact, he did.

Though I didn’t know what to make of my new knowledge, I saw Dr. Tatum was right when he showed us there are two different and incompatible creation stories in Genesis. How had I missed that for eighteen years? (I consoled myself by remembering that great scholars had missed it for eighteen centuries.) The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’s life in significantly different ways, and, as he said, the Bible certainly does assume the earth is the immovable center of creation, with the sun circling it. Attempting to bring us to a more complex understanding of our faith, one that acknowledged and accepted these truths, Dr. Tatum rubbed our noses in the many Biblical errors and irresolvable textual contradictions.

Before class one day, I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me how fascinated I was by what we were learning. She looked up sharply from the notes she was studying and snarled, her voice thin with obstinacy and loathing, “I’ll put down what he wants me to on the test, but I don’t have to believe it and I don’t have to think about it.”

I did. As much as I envied her refusal, I had to think about it.

Because I lived at home and commuted to school, my father required me to continue attending church with my family, which I did sullenly and with as little grace as I could get away with. I’d sit in church on Sunday and the preacher would tell the congregation the same thing I’d heard preachers say my entire life: that the Bible was divinely inspired, literally true in all particulars, and inerrant. If it could be shown to be false in even one detail—“even so much as a comma, one jot or tittle”—you might as well throw the whole thing away because you could no longer trust it. The whole edifice of Christian belief would tumble down around us like the walls of Jericho. If the Book of God could be proved to have one error in it, the preacher said, God was a liar, Jesus was a liar, and he himself was a liar.

I was so saturated by all-or-nothing thinking that I’ve often thought of my classmate’s sharp face, makeup caked around a mole on her chin, as if her resentful and furious “I don’t have to believe it” were a voice in my head. The religious edifice that we’d spent eighteen years building depended on every brick’s being sound, and here was our teacher—a minister!—pointing out with more than a bit of showmanship and glee every mismatched brick, every line of crumbling mortar, every gap in the façade.

I felt like a rat in a double-bind experiment. If I went down one path to get to the food, I got shocked. If I went the other way, I got jolted again. So I stood in the middle, hungry and trembling, unable to move. I could neither give up the faith by which I’d understood the world for my entire life, nor could I embrace it. Though I wanted to be a sophisticated atheist, I couldn’t see my way past an instinctive spirituality, which I knew might be wishful thinking, a mere refusal to accept mortality. I couldn’t find a middle path. And Jesus specifically warned against half measures. “Would that you were cold or hot!” he says in Revelation 3:16. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” I imagined myself as brackish, warm water being spat from the mouths of both Jesus and the atheists, each splattering the other and grimacing with distaste.

Besides coping with class work, money pressure, a night job tending to a bedridden old man, and an afternoon job at a dry-goods warehouse downtown, I beat my head against these intellectual questions—or were they emotional and spiritual questions? Whatever they were, they pushed me close to a breakdown. A turning point came after my freshman year, when I took a summer class in folklore and read epics, myths, fairy tales, and folktales with fascinated compulsion. One Sunday, bored in church, I picked up my Bible and, while the preacher droned, read it as a story, beginning at Genesis 1:1. With wonderment and despair, I saw that Genesis was like the folklore I was reading at school. Adam and Eve weren’t the first couple formed by a God in a garden, or the first evicted from paradise. Moses was not the first abandoned baby found and adopted by a king’s daughter. Jesus was not the first hero whose birth was presaged by signs and whose childhood acts foretold the greatness he would grow into. And Mary wasn’t the first woman impregnated by a god. Greek myth was full of figures like Hercules and Orpheus, men with superhuman powers and divine fathers. The Biblical stories were more polished, more complex, sure, but clearly they weren’t like folklore; they were folklore. The obvious will rock you when you discover it for yourself.

As I was struggling with my turmoil at this new understanding, I heard this joke:

Jesus is in heaven, when suddenly he realizes that, though he sees his mother and God himself every day around the heavenly palace, he hasn’t seen his earthly father in almost two thousand years.

So he goes to Saint Peter, who’s standing at the pearly gates, and asks where his human father is.

“Hmm,” Saint Peter says. “That’s a tough one. What’s his name?”

Jesus thinks for a moment. “Joseph,” he says, proud of himself for coming up with it.

“There’s a lot of Josephs here,” says Peter. “What did he do for a living?”

“He was a carpenter.”

“Oh, in that case he’s probably been put out in the boondocks with all the other carpenters, so their sawdust won’t disturb everyone else. Let’s go see if we can find him.”

Jesus and Peter walk and walk until they are way out in the backwoods of heaven. After checking out every carpenter and lathe operator they run across, they finally find an old man in a small shop, sitting alone at a workbench. He’s covered with sawdust and little curls of shaved wood, and Jesus thinks he looks familiar.

He says to the old man, “Did you once have a child by miraculous circumstances?”

“Yes, I did,” says the old man.

“And did you then take that child and love him and raise him as your own?”

“Yes, yes, I did,” says the old man, excitement rising in his voice.

“And did he have holes in his hands?”

“Yes, yes, he did!” says the old man, leaping from his workbench.

Jesus throws his arms wide to embrace the old man, and says, “Father!”

And the old man launches himself into Jesus’s arms, hugs him, and yells, “Pinocchio!”

Oh, it is impossible to tell you how much I loved that joke. I don’t remember where I heard it or who told it, but I laughed until I had to sit down, tears leaking down my hot cheeks. I chuckled for the rest of the day, and when I woke up the next morning my jaws ached. I made a pest of myself, telling it to everyone I thought could stomach it. The joke plays the search of a son for his lost father—a staple of myth, drama, and popular fiction—and here, comically, he finds the wrong person.

But it’s more than just the wrong person. Jesus confuses this particular woodworker with Joseph, but Geppetto confuses the son of God with a puppet. If the bringing down of the high and mighty is funny, no descent is more vertiginous than the fall from God incarnate to seeing your life story parallel that of a hand-carved block of wood in a children’s story. Suddenly we see in Jesus, the exemplary man, a character flaw we had not expected: vanity. He’d thought of himself as the only person with holes in his hands who’d been brought to life by a miracle and raised by a woodworker.

I was thrilled to hear this criticism, however mild, of Jesus. But what really fueled my laughter was seeing yet another way in which the story of Jesus, the story scholars call the myth of Christianity, was similar to other stories. The comic slamming together of the historical world of Jesus with the fictional world of the puppet is charmingly disorienting. Despite his having been indisputably a living person, was Jesus, as he was portrayed in the Bible, also fundamentally fictional? Maybe both stories grow out of a universal human desire to see ourselves as miraculous and capable of moving toward a higher spiritual level than the one we were born into.

The joke didn’t solve my spiritual dilemma, but it showed me how to laugh at the forces at loggerheads in my mind. If I acknowledged each was legitimate and each had a right to be there, jammed up against the other, the pressure to make a decision eased. Over time, I’d sort them out.

In the meantime I could still laugh at the excesses of the faithful. At Huntingdon, a preseminary student and his girlfriend began seeing extravagant, brightly colored demons perched on the shoulders of everyone who did not share their fundamentalism. I don’t remember what color they told me my demon was, but I remember that it was polka-dotted.

Some believers keep their faith while following a flawed and unreliable holy book; I, though, had been trained not to have a nuanced mind, one that could tolerate inconstancy, confusion, and imperfection, and I knew now I would have to develop one. I kept eyeing faith: What form would it take if I could still have it? What would I believe in this new dispensation, and how would I believe it?

§

One of the most shocking pictures I’ve ever seen is the famous painting by Ralph Kozak of Jesus, his head thrown back in manly, open-mouthed laughter, delight untouched by malice, his upper teeth in a straight pearly row, unlike any ever seen in a grown man’s face in Greco-Roman Palestine. When I saw a copy of it tacked on the bulletin board in the hall of my church, I stared at it with amazement, amazement and longing. I so wanted it to be true that I felt a physical craving for it, a craving as pure as hunger, and I didn’t believe for a second the picture had an ounce of truth in it.

As G.K. Chesterton and others have pointed out, the story of Christ is technically a comedy. If his life ended with his death, it would be a tragedy. But he returns from the dead, and, if you believe in what the faith teaches, he brings eternal life to all believers. That’s a lot to rejoice over. And the laughing Christ is right to see this. Yet it is impossible not to notice that in the gospels Jesus is the Man of Sorrows. He famously never laughs or jokes, and the only time he is confronted with a riddle he doesn’t answer. Pilate asks him what truth is, and Jesus, who must know if he is who he says he is, doesn’t say. Perhaps he disdains to answer. Some answers are only for those who can hear them.

The Oxford don turned Episcopal priest M.A. Screech says in Laughter at the Foot of the Cross that the religious and the nonreligious will always find each other amusing because they understand the world in fundamentally different ways. The spiritually inclined value things that, to the worldly, don’t exist, which makes their actions comic; and the worldly, to the sad amusement of the otherworldly, cherish evanescent delights that will cost them eternal bliss. Paul says it in almost those words, in 1 Corinthians 1: 20-21: “Hath God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

“The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven,” wrote Mark Twain. Baudelaire, his contemporary, went further. Baudelaire declared that because there was no sadness in Eden, there was no laughter either. Harmony prevailed. Laughter didn’t exist till disharmony provoked it, so laughter is demonic. But I doubt there is much laughter in hell either. Laughter isn’t demonic, but human. We are hung between our desire for a perfect world and the flawed one that we actually live in.

Christianity, like all religions, offers meaning. It is meaning. But jokes love to point out the inconsistencies, the places meaning fails. They love the chaos, but they are terrified of it too, because they cannot not see where meaning breaks down. They take one level of meaning, turn it into another level of meaning, and let the two play out side by side, uncomfortably.

God created order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness. But what we see around us is often disorderly and impossible to understand as meaningful. Jokes home in on those disordered places. They play with them, juggle them like a juggler keeping aloft a ball, two flaming torches, a cat, and a milking stool. They love to invoke chaos, as Satan does, but in some form or another they restore order. They are both revolutionary and profoundly conservative. They are suspicious of systems of thought and enamored of anomalies, but mostly they are content to play with them, not destroy them.

I don’t think the jokes love chaos, but they can’t ignore it. Is that love?

Walking through a small town, Jesus sees a crowd milling about, preparing to stone to death a woman who has committed adultery. Just as in the Bible, he steps forward, raises his hand, and proclaims, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

The crowd falls silent, abashed. They begin to disperse, and then a lightning bolt zings out of a clear sky and blasts the woman to a charred lump of flesh.

In an anguished voice, Jesus looks up at the sky and, through clenched teeth, says, “I’m trying to make a point here, Dad!”

The joke depicts people’s uneasiness with forgiveness, especially for sexual sins. But more than that, it brings together as comedy the tensions of the faith. How do those two forces at the core of Christianity—judgment and forgiveness—work in practice? For all its talk of forgiveness, and the real dedication of many believers to that ideal, the faith I grew up in often took more pleasure in the failings of others than joy at redemption. The knowing remarks about how Mr. Holcomb was going to roast in hell for all eternity and how Mrs. Sloan might be enjoying life now but she was going to be paying for it for a long time in a very warm place elicited more smiles than any confession of faith I saw. So I appreciated the beleaguered Jesus of the joke who was balked in his effort to teach compassion. And it’s just fun to see one of the great trump lines of the Bible trumped, one of the great moments of enduring wisdom turned upside down.

The tension between judgment and compassion is at the base of a religion that rests on the paradoxes of its tenets. One reason I love the faith is those paradoxes. Whether we are believers or not, we make judgments, and extend or withhold forgiveness every day. The two impulses are rich, true, decent, and irresolvably in conflict at our core. So it’s impossible not to imagine that those Christians who see this life as a tragic fleshly trial and those who see it as a wonderful precursor to heaven are simply acting out of visions that are determined more by temperament than theology. The preconceived worldview determines which side of the gospel they focus their eyes on. And that, sadly enough, is something else to laugh about.

Here’s how I resolve them. Here’s my theology:

At the end of a powerful and emotional sermon, Billy Graham looks out over a packed arena and asks those who have felt the Lord working on their hearts to come forward and be saved.

One man slowly makes his way down the aisle, and when he reaches the front, Reverend Graham holds up his hands, the music stops, silence falls over the huge hall, and into the microphone, Billy says, “Brother, who put those clothes on your body?”

The man replies, “The Lord did!”

“Amen!” roars the crowd.

“And who, my dear brother, puts food on your table?”

The man replies, “The Lord did!”

“Amen!” roars the crowd with one voice.

“And who, my dear brother in Christ, put that smile on your face and the joy in your heart?”

“The Lord did.”

“Amen! Hallelujah!” roars the crowd.

Billy raises his hands again and calls for silence, before he leans in, holds the microphone closer to the flushed face of the new convert and asks, “And, brother, what did the devil ever do for you?”

The man pauses for a second, thinking. “Nothing,” he says. “Fuck him.”

Amen, brother.


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