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.

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