Although comedians and fundamentalists are often seen as occupying opposite ends of the debates around matters of religious belief, they tend to have very similar methods of biblical exegesis; ways of treating the text. That is to say, both fundamentalist Christians and atheist stand-up comedians tend to take biblical scripture and smother it under the weight of an insupportable literal-mindedness, straightjacketing the meaning of the words within the bounds of their narrowest, least figurative, most prosaic meanings. But whereas the fundamentalist tells you something utterly fantastic and physically impossible with the implication that your ability to make yourself believe it is a healthy gauge of your faith in God, the comedian tends instead to be asking how anyone could be childish, wishful, or desperate enough to believe in anything so patently absurd.
For my money, it’s not particularly compelling either as polemic or as comedy. It’s somewhat underwhelming to have figures like Ricky Gervais regale an arena with an observation along the order of “God, yeah, this bloke is meant to have created the universe in seven days? It takes longer than that to make a building!” and that’ll be more or less the joke. Which would be like, ‘Next up: Ricky takes on poetry!’ “e.e. cummings, yeah? ‘nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands’? The rain doesn’t even have hands!”
Which is not at all to say to say that I don’t think you should make fun of the bible. There are many funny things about the bible that don’t require a shaky interpretation of scripture in order to work as comedy. To start with, there’s just how inconsistently the names have aged.
You turn to any page in the bible, and you will meet people with names you wouldn’t blink at hearing today, ‘Nathan,’ ‘Sarah,’ ‘Elizabeth,’ and then, out of nowhere, a ‘Joab.’ Or ‘Zerubbabel.’ What year do you think the last baby Zerubbabel was born? And even hipsters aren’t bringing Zerubbabel back. You’ll go to Main Street and meet Baby Eunice and even a Baby Mortimer but I promise you this right now: there are no Baby Zerubbabels coming down the pipe.
And people outside the church, they might think, ‘Well, the bible was put together over a long, long time, the kooky names are probably way in back, with the normal names more recent.’ But those of us who know our scripture, we know that’s not the case, don’t we? Go back to the book of Genesis, one of the first pairs of brothers we meet in the whole bible: Naphtali…. and Dan! Jesus’s apostles, James and John, sons of… Zebedee. ZEBEDEE! That’s one family: James, John, and Zebedee. “Hello, my name is Zebedee, I’m named after something Louis Armstrong once scatted. These are my sons, James and John — you know, ‘John,’ the name so nondescript it’s what we call dead men whose bodies are found without identification.”
The French playwright Molière died in 1673, but his theory of comedy — that it proceeds primarily from incongruity; putting elements that don’t belong together side by side — remains one of the dominant ways of understanding how and why comedy works, why something is funny. This is probably the main reason that, at least when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths, most pairings of spiritual matters with comic elements have tended to be approached from the comedy side, rather than the religious. There is a sense that proper Christian decorum calls for respectful distance between seriousness and laughter, or, as the psalmist says, between torment and mirth. We don’t feel comfortable placing humour right up alongside pain, gravity, or holiness.
A little more than a year ago, I was invited to perform stand-up over the course of a few evenings at a couple different locations up and down the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. I grew up completely enamoured of Haida artwork — I was just a kid on a field trip the first time I saw Bill Reid’s earth-stopping carving of Raven And The First Men at the Museum of Anthropology, and like everyone who sees it I’d been absolutely floored, though as I got older I was embarrassed at the way that, as a kid, I’d giggled at the bums and testicles that you could see in the piece. I thought that reaction showed I’d missed the point. Also, as I grew older, I developed a deep admiration of Haida ecological and political strategy, and having only visited the place once, briefly, before, I had eagerly agreed to the stand-up gigs when they were offered, lowering my typical rates in exchange for some extra nights’ accommodations. But as the trip approached, we soon found we needed the extra real estate on the calendar. First, the Saturday night show had to be moved to Sunday (and let me tell you, the Sabbath was not made for comedy, nor was comedy made for the Sabbath), in order to make room for a very dramatic and politically contentious Potlatch, the result of serious and from what I could tell very painful deliberation by a group of Haida matriarchs. Then, the Friday night show had to be moved to Monday, to make room for a funeral. A much-beloved and well-respected matriarch had died, and the community would, in huge numbers, be paying respects to her that day. Wanting to honour the unspoken removal between comedy and seriousness, comedy and pain, comedy and holiness, I asked the organizers if it might be better for me to come on a different week. But they spoke to relatives of the departed, who said that because she had always championed hosting arts and culture events on the islands, that she would have hated for the shows to have been held up on her account. We proceeded with the first show on Sunday night, in a theatre/public hall space a stone’s throw from where the gruelling, incredible, somehow totally practical and simultaneously totally transcendent Potlatch had taken place over more than 12 hours, finishing after 3am that same day. I had two opening acts: a hilariously deadpan mother, from Masset, who told highly-relatable, unsentimental jokes about her exhausting life, and a pair of Haida grandmothers who dressed in funny costumes and told dirty jokes. It was one of those incredibly special nights where everyone has a ball, and the audience feels closer than just a crowd. One show down, one to go.
But the next show, though slightly more removed from the sadness of the funeral, or the seriousness of the politics discussed at the Potlatch, was cheek by jowl with the sacred. I would be performing in Masset, in the longhouse of the artist Christian White. I’d be surrounded the whole show by carvings, masks, and totems — encircled by some of the most beautiful artwork in the world, the product of spiritual and cultural traditions snatched back out of the jaws of pandemic and genocide, while I told my dumb jokes about skunks and fitbits, male stretch marks and how getting a puppy cramps your sex life.
As if that weren’t enough, we got to the gig with just enough time to spare for me to drive out to see the literally legendary Ta’aw Hill while the organizers got the venue set up before the show. I drove out by myself in the old red Toyota owned by the woman who’d arranged my mini-tour, passing from wide paved road onto narrow dirt road, past some cabins and a beautiful totem pole by White, the artist whose longhouse I was performing in, and nearly out onto the beach. I walked out a few yards from the car, out onto the sand, with a view of the volcanic hill and the surf opening out onto Alaska, and there was no one there except for me, and the Creator of the universe.
I have never in my life felt that particular combination of complete solitude and total safety. I was taken by the totally uncanny feeling that I could stay there, alone, forever — and that I would never feel lonely. I had been told that I had literally only the time that it would take to drive out and to drive back before the show, but it was all I could do, physically, to get myself to leave. It was one of those rare intimations of eternity that sometimes break through into the tedious clock-time of the rest of our lives. After my opening acts were finished that evening, and I was called to the front of the longhouse to perform, I took the mic and confessed to the audience: “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do comedy tonight. I just drove out to Ta’aw Hill and looked into the face of God.” But the show went pretty well. There are times in the life of a comedian when you travel through a place, and there are other times when the audiences and places and the circumstances come together in a particular way to bowl you over, to make you feel like there is nothing else on earth that you should or even could be doing, and that weekend’s shows, which had seemed so inauspicious going in, are still some of my most cherished memories as comic.
Those nights, when the audience is there for you, are magical for a comedian. I’ve also been in small town gigs that felt like mortal combat with an audience, and that can be its own kind of dues-paying pain-pleasure, usually in retrospect. But I’ve still, thank God, never quite suffered a road gig like the one next to the rivers of Babylon. Psalm 137 is, for my money, the bible’s most pitch-perfect rendering of the paralyzing weight of grief and mourning — a lamentation for the Israelites held captive by King Nebuchadnezzar (another name that’s never coming back) and their longing to return to Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s destroyed Temple. People get very squeamish about the notoriously disturbing last lines of the psalm: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” It’s perfectly right that those lines should be shocking, and even revolting — but what I hear in them, primarily, is the tantrum outburst of pure, raging pain. Blinding pain, culminating, in this case, in a total loss of even moral orientation.
Jerusalem is that which one needs, or has sustained them, and that they can never have again, not even for a second, and that kind of pain is unrelenting. My Jerusalem is my mother, who became very sick when I was five, and died when I was ten. The psalmist captures, for me, the suffocating longing that comes when the act of remembering is made synonymous with weeping. But even in exile, I can sing the songs my mother taught me. My Mom, whose own father died when she was seven, had been — despite, or because, of her pain — incredibly funny for all of the years of her own short life. Almost every story told about her involves a prank, or a joke, a funny voice, or an embarrassing situation. I often tell the story of a joke my mother made immediately after I was born, that I consider my comedy baptism, and that came from a place of humour meeting pain: as the doctor gave her the stitches after her episiotomy, my Mom turned to her and said, “Sew it all the way up, Doc — nobody’s getting back in there.”
On January 1 of this year — this difficult, difficult year — I turned the same age, to the day, as my mother was on the day she died. I thought that I should mark the occasion with some sort of contemplative experience, but was finding it difficult to book space anywhere. Then a friend’s mother asked me, out of the blue, if I could maybe use a Coastal Pacific Airlines credit she had that was about to expire. I saw that they flew to Masset. I booked myself a small cabin with no electricity or indoor toilet on Tow Hill Road, just a few minutes’ drive from Ta’aw Hill. This time, I got to see where I’d met God in the chilly, churning glory of a winter afternoon, in greater detail — including a visit to Rose Spit, a few hundred yards from where I’d stood, and which was, I learned, the site of the Haida creation story. This was the exact location where the moment captured in the most artistically significant sculpture of my lifetime — finished, in fact, the year that I was born — had taken place. Along with a bible and a few other books, I had brought with me a book of Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst’s tellings of Haida stories, and read the following under a battery-powered light:
“[A]s happens so often with the Raven — he had an idea. He picked up the men, and in spite of their struggles and cries of fright he put them on his broad back, where they hid themselves among his feathers. Then the Raven spread his wings and flew to North Island. The tide was low, and the rocks, as he had expected, were covered with those large but soft-lipped molluscs known as red chitons. The Raven shook himself gently, and the men slid down his back into the sand. Then he flew to the rock and with his strong beak pried a chiton from its surface. Now, if any of you have ever examined the underside of a chiton, you may begin to understand what the Raven had in his libidinous, devious mind. He threw back his head and flung the chiton at the nearest of the men. His aim was as unerring as only a great magician’s can be, and the chiton found its mark in the delicate groin of the startled, shell born, creature.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Haida creation story, at least as told by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, was, among other things… hilarious. It now seemed like maybe I hadn’t been wrong, as a kid, to giggle at the private parts sticking out of the shell in the sculpture. That Reid was noting the same truth my Mom was, that same year: that the miracle of life begins at the meeting place of the funniest, least dignified parts of us. That’s the wisdom of creation. The painful and the solemn and the holy and the hilarious never stay neatly inside of their own columns.
In his book The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith, the late Presbyterian scholar Conrad Hyers contradistinguishes the bawdiness and ribaldry and even the scatology (that’s scatology, not eschatology) of various creation stories from around the world with the relative humourlessness of the Genesis account. But that doesn’t mean that Hyers thinks humour is a foreign element to Christianity — in fact, he thinks it’s right under our noses a lot of the time, even going so far as to boldly make the case that there is something of Molière’s comic incongruity in Mary’s Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke. As I write this in late November, we are, of course, now just a little more than a month away from celebrating the birth of God in a barn because there weren’t any hotel rooms, and if that image isn’t at all funny to you, I’d suggest that’s probably because of several hundred years worth of respectable Christmas carols and homey Christmas cards redacting the smells and sounds out of that manger.
And even St. Paul, a man not known for his wackiness, enjoins the Corinthians to be fools for Christ. The particular Christian tradition that takes up this mantle most explicitly and enthusiastically is, I think, the Franciscan tradition, with St. Francis embracing the title of ‘jongleur de dieu.’ St. Francis of Assisi had several epiphany stories; in probably the most beloved, he was, famously, praying in the crumbling church at San Damiano when he felt himself addressed by Christ in the Crucifix, instructing him, “Go, rebuild my church, which you see is in ruins.” Francis then set to work rebuilding the literal walls of the church, only realizing when he finished that beyond San Damiano, God meant the church as the mystical body of Christ. The story can be seen as an invitation to the numinous beauty of metaphor. In another register, though, it can be read as broad slapstick, the kind of joke that wouldn’t have been out of place on Gilligan’s Island or I Love Lucy: “I meant the church, you knucklehead — not the church!!! Franciiiiiiiis!!”The writing of Franciscan scholars like Ilia Delio and Jon Sweeney always quickly dispels any image of St Francis as a harmless goofball, pointing out that his immense capacity for joy was bound up with, as Delio points out, a commensurate and related capacity for empathetic suffering. But there’s no question that, especially compared to more po-faced, explicitly laughter-skeptical traditions like St. Benedict’s, Francis’s spiritual outlook made room for humour in the same way it made room for the other stuff of regular people’s lives: vernacular language, accessible religious imagery like the Nativity scene, and the natural world itself.
The more I think about it, the more the San Damiano revelation story has something for everybody: the literalists get a brand new church building. The serious religious interpreters of solemn holy messages receive their divine mission. And the snickering comedians get one more giggle care of Molière’s incongruity, in this case between the sacred infinity and a human finitude that can only be described as tiny, and hilarious.
This text was presented as part of the Religion and the Arts: the Power of Creation sermon series at Lynn Valley United Church.
Tow Hill, Haida Gwai