Between Heaven and Mirth…and Snark

I’m proud to report that my patron and heavenly protector, St. Francis de Sales, delivered the best one-liner in Church history since Jesus did his bit about the egg and the scorpion. On seeing his friend St. Jeanne-Francoise de Chantal, a consecrated celibate following her widowhood, in a decolletee gown, he advised, “If you’re not looking to entertain visitors, you’d better take down the signboard.”

Forget funny — that was pure camp, especially if Monseigneur was speaking in his Mae West voice.

I gathered this tidbit last Saturday, when I skimmed Fr. Jim Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. What’s that you say, gentle reader? I should have bought a copy? I agree, but it’s in hardcover. If you want to put one in my Christmas stocking, place your cursor over the link above this article. Start clicking, and don’t stop until I tell you.

Anyway, as far as I could tell, it’s a lovely book. With his trademark low-key yarn-spinning, Fr. Jim makes the case that laughing through life’s cruelties can spur the believer toward spiritual maturation. It’s a theme he’s addressed in his bestselling My Life and the Saints and in his America Magazine pieces. Before the mike, at his countless speaking engagements, he’s embodied his own theme, becoming, in effect, the Jay Leno of Catholic media.

Most of the edifying quips Fr. Jim cites are pretty low in sodium. The saltiest (after Francis de Sales‘) comes from a woman who was recovering from a hysterectomy. When a visiting bishop told her, “I know just how you feel,” she retorted, “Oh, so you’ve had a hysterectomy?” Zing! Way down on the other end is St. Bernadette’s line: “People say I have no heart, but, you see, I sew them all day long.” If Bernadette had any plans to do stand-up, she was smart not to quit her day job.

Fr. Jim cracks open the door for the hard stuff when he writes that humor can speak truth to power. Here he tells the story of the hysterectomy patient, but he might have added St. John Chrysostom’s address to a wealthy audience: “Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?” The Empress Aelia Eudoxia, fed up with unwanted advice on her bed and bath, sent St. John beyond — into a very uncomfortable exile. The man was willing to suffer for his snark.

But snark, or “aggressive and pre-emptive humor,” as Christopher Hitchens calls it in a different context, can also move laterally. Once the cadaverous Shaw once told the elephantine Chesterton, “If I were as fat as you, I’d hang myself.” Chesterton thrust back: “I’d use you for the rope.” Compare that to the dozens. Superiors also scatter barbs at their inferiors like Napoleon raking the Toulon mob with grapeshot. Just get any credentialed journalist talking about bloggers, or any academic on the subject of Those Darned Kids. In nature, the type of humor that Fr. Jim plugs looks rare to almost to the point of insignificance.

None of this is to suggest that Fr. Jim‘s taste in humor is at all narrow, or that his own wit is anything other than sharp. He is, after all, official chaplain to the not-quite-snarky Colbert Report. In his appearances, he sometimes gives hints of the blood he might draw if he felt like it. He makes a mission of dignifying the light jesting that leads to joy — an inarguably wholesome state — to disarm crabby zealots who see Moe, Larry and Curly as avatars of Termagant, Apollyon and Baphomet. As an example of the type, he tells the story of an acting Jesuit provincial who warned a loopy scholastic, “All mirth is excessive!”

Well, phooey on that guy — who I picture looking like Colonel Flagg from M*A*S*H* – but the way Fr. Jim tells it, the man was already a dinosaur 40 years ago, when the story takes place. Does his kind still present fun-loving Christians with any clear and present danger? I don’t pretend to know. Maybe being a blogger — surrounded, so to speak, by other bloggers and combox cowboys — has skewed my sampling, but it seems to me that a certain cruel flippancy is becoming the default in discussions of faith. Often, the results aren’t funny at all, but they’re clearly meant to be.

I admit, I admire snark more than I should. I’ll also admit I’m pretty bad at it. A few months ago on Patheos, I published a piece where I tried to sound clever, but ended up sounding waspish and smug. To make that point, one reader told me I sounded “gayer than the gayest elf in Mirkwood.” I did think of a good comeback: “Oh, yeah? Well, a straight humorist who can sound gay is like a white singer who can sound black!” Unfortunately, I thought of it six months after my piece went up.

I suppose what I’m yearning for — what I’m putting out an APB for — is some expert parsing of cruelty’s allowable limits in humor. If the pen really is mightier than the sword, then maybe it’s time to consult Thomas Aquinas’ Just War theory. Was Ann Coulter employing proportional force when she called Mike Dukakis a “Greek midget”? Can she really claim to have exhausted all other means to achieve her end? And anyway, by Anglo-Saxon standards, aren’t “Greek” and “midget” practically redundant?

It’s all too much for a punk layman like me. This looks like a job for a Jesuit.

  • Sherry

    Not a Jesuit, but I think the distinction you are seeking in humor is the line between satire and comedy. Comedy has an element of mercy, of forgiveness that Satire lacks. There is no offering to restore or forgive when snark is employed, only wounding. In Comedy, we have marriage, restoration of natural order, a happy ending as it were. In satire, we have the cynic stating the wretched state of things and possibly despair. Words, even clever ones wrapped in ire or wrath, even righteous wrath at things of this world, can be misunderstood, injure, embarrass, destroy. No one is destroyed by mercy or charity, and humor when properly employed as a form of speaking truth, is laced with mercy and charity for the recipient, even if it addresses a fault. This is admittedly, a dry discussion of drollness, but humor is serious business, because the alternative is misery.

    Why is humor so connected to mercy? Because humor changes suffering to struggling, even when it seems impossible. Humor is a form of wit that when used in situations that otherwise seem dire, is a type of grace.

    I remember a friend coming to see my youngest son in the hospital. She’d brought me hot chocolate. She looked at my child, strapped with IV’s, only 8 pounds, Down Syndrome, awaiting open heart surgery. He opened his bright blue eyes and gave her a smile. “Wow! He’s Down Syndrome Hot!” she quipped. I had a spit take of my starbucks venti skim hot cocoa with whip. The hospital room felt lighter, as did the air and the wait. The challenge had in no way ceased to be, but how we (Paul’s family as a whole), addressed it had changed.

    There is the classic story of Saint Teresa of Avila, “When Jesus told her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” Teresa responded, “No wonder you have so few.” That is a sharpness of wit that is Holy Spirit Inspired, guided by truth and a joyful heart.

  • maxlindenman

    Say, Sherry, how’d you like to take over this blog? I think that’s the best response I’ve ever gotten from a reader on any subject.

  • Sherry

    Thankyou very much!

  • Jennifer

    I like the idea of comedy and mercy–nice thought train.

    But satire is present in the gospels and is Jesus’s primary mode in dealing with the pharisees (probably the least likely to be able to laugh at themselves).

    It is one of those things that people just have to struggle with because it is all wrapped up in intentions, circumstances, and objectives–two out of three of those are almost impossible to know completely.

    Though the morality of a given action is usually measured by object, intention, and circumstance, I’d have to say in this case we’d have to add a fourth: how funny WAS it? Because I have a feeling the Jesus who noisily ate a fish in front of his slack jawed buddies who believed he was a ghost or a demon, just might mitigate sin if it was a real knee slapper.

    And if you disagree with me, you sir, are worse than Sauron and deserve to be burned in the fires of Mount Doom. In fact, I will demonstrate on my own blog how your disagreement is an objectively evil act, using the Catechism, John Paul II, St. Thomas Aquinas and a little JK Rowling thrown in.

    Good day, sir. I said, GOOD DAY!

  • Mister Lynch

    “I suppose what I’m yearning for — what I’m putting out an APB for — is some expert parsing of cruelty’s allowable limits in humor.”

    Unless the Golden Rule or the second commandment have been repealed, I don’t think we need an expert–the allowable amount of cruelty in humor is best judged by the target.
    A couple of decades ago, I started trying to remove all the humor from my speech that could be — either intentionally or accidentally — hurtful. I’m sorry to say that I am still working on it!

  • Rolando

    I’ll add to what Sherry said by making a distinction between juvenalian satire and Horatian satire. Horatian satire is a kind that lightly pokes fun at its subject but ultimately is not mean-spirited; Juvenalian satire is all-out mean. Here we can look at the difference between The Simpsons and South Park.

    While Horatian satire does not ultimately affirm what it’s making fun of (it’s not like roasting, which is a kind of affirmation: “You’re a [inser insult here], but we love you anyway”)it’s still critiquing it, just less vehemently. I think even Fr. Martin employs some of this in subtle ways when, for example, he pokes light fun at the Jesuit who thought that “all levity is excessive.”

    Juvenalian Satire, though, seeks to destroy–as Colbert did in the White House correspondents dinner, for example.