The rule of three suggests that there ought to be a joke. It all but requires that there be a joke.
“So Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il are standing at the Pearly Gates. And St. Peter says …”
I’m afraid I can’t figure out how the rest of it goes. Part of my problem is that I don’t much care for the set-up. It’s a standard trope, and we should honor the classics, but the whole Pearly Gates thing still bugs me.
It’s not that I don’t find some jokes with this set-up funny. I do — “… Fanny, I think we’re in trouble,” “… but while he drove, people prayed,” “I just have to gargle with it,” etc. All well and good.
But when I try to imagine creating such a joke myself, some literal-minded, evangelical chapter-and-verse part of my brain kicks in. I start thinking about how the biblical idea of “pearly gates” isn’t about Heaven. That bit is from the end of Revelation, from John’s description of the New Jerusalem — which comes down from Heaven to here on Earth. And in that city “each of the gates is a single pearl” and those gates “will never be shut.”
And then that gets me thinking about how the otherworldliness of American soterians (thank you, Scot McKnight, for that word) distorts the essential substance of our faith, which in turn gets me thinking about how that otherworldliness became ascendant in the context of slavery and a deliberate blindness — a choice to neglect the this-worldly fate of so many of our neighbors. Then that, of course, gets me thinking about how our focus on the powerful and famous keeps us from seeing the very “powerless” about whom Havel wrote so beautifully and whom Jesus loved (and St. Peter, too, eventually). And then I start to think that maybe this set-up isn’t actually all that funny, since it requires us to pretend that these three would be all alone there at the Pearly Gates instead of being surrounded by the thousands of others who also died this past week, unmentioned and mostly — but not entirely — unmourned, most of them dying due to easily preventable causes arising from unjust patterns of distribution that persist not because we are unable to correct them but only because we are unwilling to do so.
And then, again, I’m back to chapter-and-verse, back to the eschatological hope of John’s revealing, and to those scenes he describes of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” and of the promise that:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
And clearly by that point I’m just not in the proper frame of mind for figuring out how our narcissist/hero/madman Pearly Gates joke is supposed to go.
I’m still pretty sure there’s a joke there somewhere, but somebody else is going to have to write it.