God's a Joke
The Sunday-morning hymns have been sung, the body and blood consumed, and the prayers offered for the sick and the shut-ins. Now it's time for the Reverend Jeffrey Eernisse to harass his flock.
He leaves the pulpit and swaggers down the aisle. "Give me your wallet," he commands a guy sitting up front. Sheepish, the guy hands it over. Jeffrey, a goateed GenXer, demands that other churchgoers surrender their watches, earrings, even eyeglasses. Most of his victims grin; no one appears remotely shocked or worried. In the 11 years that Jeffrey has been at Second Christian Church, the little evangelical congregation has grown used to Lettermanesque stunts like this. A white-haired lady looks flattered that Jeffrey wants one of the rhinestone Js pinned to her jacket. Rowdier church members don't wait to be shaken down; anxious to horn in on the act, they volunteer their valuables, waving them in the air so that Jeffrey will take them.
Only a Hispanic teenager, sitting near the back, balks at Jeffrey's request. He has demanded one of her butterfly clips. She looks at him blankly for a second, then slowly, reluctantly, removes the clip, pressing her hand against her falling hair as if stanching a head wound.
Triumphant, Jeffrey returns to the pulpit and piles his loot on top of it.
"We Christians," he announces, "are thieves."
By inner-city standards, the congregation doesn't look at all shady. They're mostly working-class, Anglo and Hispanic, either over 60 or under 40. Sunday-morning regulars. Good citizens. Nice people.
Jeffrey continues: "We will steal anything that isn't nailed down."
He's accusing them -- churchgoers! -- of being thieves.
"And that's the way it should be."
They don't look offended or outraged; they're smiling, intrigued, waiting for the punch line. Jeffrey hopes, though, that they're at least a little bothered and confused. He hopes that they're wondering whatever happened to thou shalt not steal. He hopes they're wondering what in the name of God is going on.
Saturday night, before that service, Jeffrey went to a friend's house to see Dracula in Istanbul , a low-budget '50s film shot entirely in Turkish. His friend Kate, the high priestess of a Wiccan coven, was at the video-screening party, too. Last year Jeffrey performed her marriage to a Unitarian. Before the ceremony, he gave the couple his usual full-bore Christian counseling, saying how a married couple's relationship should reflect God's relationship with the church; he thought this particular pair would do a good job of that, better than many Christian couples. The wedding was outdoors at the Orange Show, and at the end, a rainbow appeared, God's stamp of approval. The only thing that even mildly marred the affair for Jeffrey was that a couple of Kate's fellow Wiccans seemed hard-pressed even to make small talk with him -- ugh, a male Christian minister. Intolerant Wiccan geeks, he thought.
But Kate, of course, is very cool, and so, in a vampire-nerd way, was the Turkish Dracula -- far more faithful to the Bram Stoker book than any English-language movie, so faithful that the horror-movie fanatics didn't need subtitles to understand what was going on. The tape was a copy of a copy that a friend of a friend had once taped off Turkish TV. The sound was warbly and distorted, the picture was grainy and black-and-white, and Jeffrey enjoyed it the way only a connoisseur could: as a piece of film history, interesting not by itself, but in context.
Jeffrey is constantly puzzling out the significance of things, looking for insight in unlikely places. He likes explaining the importance of deathly dull passages of scripture, the begats and the dietary laws and the precise boundaries of the Promised Land. He finds enlightenment in Montrose, Houston's little patch of Gomorrah, because it's so gothic, because the contrast between the light and the darkness is extreme; the light is easier to see there than in the suburbs. He even treasures his videotapes of bad Bela Lugosi films -- partly because even Bad Old Bela is still Bela, but partly because Jeffrey especially enjoys mining the dreck for its small, interesting snatches of dialogue, the little flashes of interest buried in the schlock.
Even Jeffrey's stories about his kids have a point. When he watches horror movies at home, his older son, four-year-old Japheth, usually hides in his room. Japheth will watch some of the wolfman movies, too, but only while clutching his little plastic wolfman figurines. Jeffrey's conclusion: It's Japheth's way of controlling the monster, containing the evil.
Naturally Jeffrey can talk at length about the Christian symbolism embedded in horror movies. Werewolves stand for sins of the flesh, the spirit made slave to the body. Monsters like Frankenstein embody the random, uncontrollable dangers that scare us precisely because they're senseless -- cancer, car accidents, hurricanes, evils not so much malicious as unthinking. Vampires represent Satan, and the dark seductiveness of evil.
And in Dracula in Istanbul, he found something more: fodder for his weekly church-bulletin column. Because the film was set in Istanbul, with Muslim characters, the filmmakers couldn't use the standard Christian props. In one scene, the hero was reduced to fending off Dracula not with a cross, but with a puny clove of garlic. The change, Jeffrey thought, drained the imagery of its usual power. Registering that loss, Jeffrey wrote, gave him "a renewed appreciation of what I have as a Christian in the cross of Jesus."
He had watched a Muslim vampire movie with his friend the Wiccan, but the moral he drew was entirely Christian.
Jeffrey likes to mess with people's heads. At the bank, he asks for $2 bills and $1 coins. Once, at Burger King, he paid for his meal with one of each. The kid behind the counter was stunned. She stood there with the money in her hand. She looked at her cash drawer: no slot. She looked at Jeffrey. She looked at the money. She looked at the drawer.
Finally she asked her manager, "Do we take these?"
"It's money," he said. "We take it."
Jeffrey was deeply gratified, not because he'd passed the currency, but because he'd rocked the cashier's world, expanded her job-numbed mind: "For five minutes, she'd been knocked off automatic pilot!"
Autopilot is the enemy of truth, Jeffrey says. When you function purely from habit, you see only what you expect to see, not necessarily what's actually there; you force the world to fit into the slots of your cash drawer. When he preaches, he hopes to leave his congregation a bit dissatisfied, to smash their paradigms and trouble their minds. "You can't participate in the divine life if you're snoozing," he says. "If there's anything God isn't, it's automatic pilot. God is all cylinders, 24/7. That being the case, the last thing I want to do is lull and soothe. You comfort people at a funeral. That's the only time they should be comforted."
Instead, he makes his flock laugh. Humor is a relative of surprise, laughter the sound of a paradigm breaking, a truth recognized. He likes to say, "If you're missing a piece of information, there are jokes you don't get. The more you know, the more jokes you get." Jeffrey hates not to get a joke.
"This is what I believe is true, ultimately, in a theological sense. We are told that God created this universe. And we are told that his intention in doing so -- the reason he didn't just create a bare stage and stick us on it -- is his desire to communicate to us, through the creation, about Himself. Natural revelation: It's why people everywhere came to the conclusion that there's a power behind the universe. The heavens declare the glory of God -- that thing. The whole universe is God's attempt to communicate himself to us.
"The one thing that we believe about God is that he is the source of all joy. So everywhere we look -- from the blue of the sky, green of the grass, the whole bit -- is God pouring joy at us, if only we have enough sense to interpret it. Which means that the universe is a joke God is telling us. And He Himself is the punch line.
"You know how it works? It works like this.
"That's the joke. And the more you know, the more of the joke you get. Everywhere I look, God is saying, Guess who? And if I go, God? He goes, yeah. And if I fail to see God, it's a failure on my part.
"Knock-knock.Knock-knock. Everywhere. The whole universe is going, Hello! Hello! Helllllooooo!"
Behind the loot piled on his pulpit, Jeffrey reads the sermon's text: Exodus 11:1-3. God has just unleashed the last and ugliest plague, killing the first-born child of each Egyptian household, and the Egyptians are desperate for the Children of Israel to leave slavery, get the heck out of Egypt and take their avenging God with them. But first God tells the Children of Israel to ask the Egyptians for their jewelry. It is, basically, a shakedown.
God, Jeffrey says, "is the ultimate thief": He wants his followers to plunder the secular world, not to leave anything of value behind. Sure, Jeffrey says, Christmas used to be a pagan holiday, but why not appropriate such a good celebration? Yeah, the Old Testament was Jewish; it's ours now. Even the cross was filched, a former symbol of Roman oppression.
He urges his flock to go out and steal, for God's sake, anything that might prove useful to their faith. He doesn't mention vampire movies, or Burger King, or knock-knock jokes. He doesn't mention his own carefully modulated embrace of the secular world, in all its trashy pop-culture glory.
He doesn't have to mention those things. The congregation knows him, and they get that part of the joke.
E-mail Lisa Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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