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Simcha FisherFebruary 18, 2022
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A few months ago, a bunch of Catholics resurrected a funny tweet by writer and comedian Daniel Kibblesmith:

The joke was very well received. But a few people, to my gratification, were offended by it. Not offended because someone dared to make a joke about God, but offended in an older sense, as in wounded and dismayed, aware of a trespass, maybe even alert to some kind of danger because a line has been crossed.

That was how I felt, to my surprise.

The joke is funny because, when you try to sum up what God says in the book of Job, it doesn’t add up. Surviving unbearable agony versus inventing the hippo comes across as nonsensical and absurd, out of context. But in the context of Scripture, God is revealing to Job his ineffable immensity, his unanswerableness, in such a way that, well, if you read the whole thing, the fact that he made the hippopotamus does answer Job’s suffering. But you have to be willing to put yourself right there in front of the bellowing hippopotamus and feel his hot breath and smell his smell and think of who made him.

You have to be open to the idea that the Book of Job tears off a veil and reveals a relationship between God and Job. That is, at least, how Job himself perceives it. And so do many people who have read it deeply. They can put themselves where Job is. And maybe that’s why, at least to some people, the joke came across not as a light-hearted spoof but as something ugly. Because, for people who have felt that hot breath of suffering, the flippancy trespassed on something real—a specific, painful, precious, hard-won relationship that exists between actual people and God. At least, I think so. Humor is tricky. So is God.

So why did so many Catholics, who presumably know something about submission to the will of God in the face of profound suffering, share the tweet? Or, more broadly, why do we often have the almost rebellious impulse to make jokes about sacred things?

Humor is tricky. So is God.

When I worked for conservative outlets, readers regularly took me to task for my irreverence. I was told I had no business making jokes about holy things like prayer, church, priests, saints or, of course, sex. There are some people who really do live like this: They believe that jokes are all very well and good, but they must be sequestered strictly away from anything remotely spiritual.

This approach makes no sense to me. I wouldn’t even know how to have a spiritual life without laughing about it sometimes. Scripture is very plainly full of jokes, and even if you set aside the possibility that I’m projecting, I would swear God teases me.

And I tease back, when I’m feeling up to it. My husband and I were alone (well, not alone, but you know what I mean) in the adoration chapel a few weeks ago, and he was deep in the Gospel. I nudged him and whispered, “Anything good in there?” He flipped a few pages back and forth, lifted an eyebrow, and said, “Meh.” I laughed so hard I almost broke the kneeler. That was a good day because I was buoyed up with the certain knowledge that of course there was good stuff in there. The joke, in other words, was on us. It was irreverent, but ultimately, it was directed at us and our habit of behaving as if the Gospel is, indeed, meh.

Another day at the chapel, not so good, I had a little storm inside my head about how certain things were going in my life and ended up silently shouting at Jesus that it must be pretty easy to be in the world when you’re just a piece of white bread, and all you have to do all day is sit there. This is a joke, too, albeit not a very funny one. And he knows I didn’t mean it, mostly.

Is it all right to make jokes like this? I think so. I don’t think it hurt Jesus to feel the hot breath of my suffering. I did apologize for shouting.

I wouldn’t even know how to have a spiritual life without laughing about it sometimes. Scripture is very plainly full of jokes, and even if you set aside the possibility that I’m projecting, I would swear God teases me.

I have more or less settled on the idea that we’re meant to speak to God in our native tongues, and if that means humor, then that’s legitimate.

But it’s important for there to be a line. There are some things I just won’t joke about: Abortion. Crucifixion. The Eucharist, for the most part, depending on the context. And something that’s hard to describe, but just sort of the presence of God. You have to know when it’s time to turn the jokes off and shut up.

So why do Catholics have this urge to be flippant? Part of it is a desire to be part of an in-crowd—not even just with other smart, witty Catholics but with God himself. When we know someone well enough to have a joke with him, that means we’ve achieved a certain level of intimacy. I don’t say this is always the case, but sometimes when we’re flippant about the divine, it comes from a desire to show how close we are with it, how intimate. But it’s easy to take these things too far.

I was pondering the question of where to draw the line, and I had a sudden memory of a throwaway scene in some novel I read long ago.

In it, a mom has hired a babysitter for the evening. She comes home unexpectedly early, and finds her children safely in bed, but the sitter is utterly naked on the couch, with her fully-clothed boyfriend on top of her. The girl scrambles to get dressed and make excuses as the boyfriend slips out the door, but the mother understands what happened. She has seen this scene before. She has felt that power imbalance: The girl totally exposed, totally vulnerable, and the boy, who was uninvited, not at all.

Well, that’s not intimacy. That’s something else. It was something else because there was such an imbalance of power; because it was a situation that mimicked the mutual intimacy of marriage but took place at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong kind of relationship. The boy took advantage of their closeness and made the girl take on all the risk, keeping all the power and advantage to himself, slipping away cleanly when it became too fraught.

And this, perhaps, is what it is sometimes like when we make jokes about sacred things. It mimics intimacy, but it’s something else.

So why do Catholics have this urge to be flippant? Part of it is a desire to be part of an in-crowd—not even just with other smart, witty Catholics but with God himself.

There’s something amiss in the relationship when we go straight to the part where we’re entitled to say flippant things but we skip over the part where we’re willing to take some of the risk of vulnerability. There’s something off about the balance of power. We’d see that this is true if it were two people. Why would it be less so just because it’s me and God?

Well, it’s less so because we’re never actually more powerful than God. No matter how vulnerable he makes himself, he is God and we are just ourselves. But what we are attempting to do, in that moment when we make these jokes, is to make God small, to make him silly, to make him manageable, ridiculous, vulnerable, naked. Utterly knowable.

In a much-quoted 2013 essay, the writer Tim Kreider said, “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” And oh, is this true. But it is a little too easy to fake it—to behave as if we’re entitled to tear the clothes off what is sacred because after all, we’re a couple, me and the divine. We know each other.

But what a difference there is between knowing someone well enough to presume to make a joke with them, and looking at someone and saying: “Oh, you. I know all about you.”

The strangest part of this is that God does make himself in some way vulnerable to us. He makes himself exposable. He will let you take advantage of him. He will let you make jokes. He will let you say what you like, and when’s the last time you’ve seen anyone get smitten like Uzzah for daring to put our hands on the Holy of Holies? He will let you sit there in the chapel and stare at him, exposed. He will let you eat him. We are given plenty of room to decide for ourselves when we’ve gone too far.

That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as going too far.

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