Better Beef and Bible

February 28, 2012

One highlight of my checkered past is serving on the pastoral team at Reedwood Friends. It gave me wonderful colleagues and a chance to reconnect with Portland after stints in Indiana and Massachusetts. Early on, when I needed to snag some supplies, I tried to call Better Book and Bible, a reliable store in my memory. So I looked for them in the phonebook. All I could find was “Better Beef and Bible.” A loud guffaw wasn’t enough. Curiosity made me drive to their shop.

The store itself, tucked between other city businesses, was modest but spacious. The middle was open, the ceiling high. On the left, I saw a butcher’s display case full of steaks, ribs, chops, burger, and sausages. The guy behind the counter wore his white outfit and almost white apron authoritatively. On the far facing wall, several shelves boasted Bibles for sale – varied versions, some boxed, some not, some with genuine leather covers, some with looks-like leather  covers, which, of course, I believed were genuine, too. This is the Bible after all. I already owned a Bible, so I didn’t look too closely. Besides, I didn’t really want to know if the covers were fresh.

I’ve come to enjoy discovering shops that offer odd pairings of goods and services. I suppose it happens a lot in small places, but it still entertains me. In Newberg we have “Sam’s Barber Shop & NW BBQ Co.” I haven’t tried the BBQ, but Sam gave me a nice haircut once. And a quick shampoo scrub washed the Chili Joe’s Hot Smoky BBQ Sauce right out. Some double-duty businesses make you cautious. Would it be safe to patronize the “Computer Repair / Karaoke Systems” place? How about breakfast at the hilltop “restaurant and auto parts” café? Would the ball-bearings omelet be safe and tasty? I’ve only seen it in a cartoon, but I’d probably avoid the dockside “Ken’s Bait and Sushi.”

Maybe you would like to create new business ideas for fun or to carve out a new market niche. For example, the guys who run “Midget Motors” in our town are pretty normal size. But they wouldn’t have to be. Or in farm country, how about opening a one-stop “Tractor and Tofu”? Without revealing your business secrets, perhaps you could share some ideas or places you’ve seen. Actually, sometimes, even when they make people laugh, unlikely combinations actually work. Like “Carpenter and Messiah.”


Mayhem, Shenanigans, and Hanky-Panky

February 24, 2012

In evaluating a Bible survey course, one student objected that the course included too much sex and violence. I don’t think that was only in the session I guest-taught. They must have actually read the Bible and been surprised at how much sex and violence is there. The title “Holy Bible” doesn’t entice readers by promising juicy stuff like adultery, murder, love songs, war, and mayhem. Maybe that would be “The Shocking-Truths-Revealed-and-Illustrated Bible.” (In a reversal of not promising, I discovered years ago that Augustine’s Confessions, unlike a magazine of the same name, hardly included any racy stuff at all.) Advertised or not, though, the stories of the Bible mix in more mayhem, shenanigans, and hanky-panky than you would expect.

The stories of Samson, the “judge,” have plenty of all three. (See Judges 13-16.) God used Samson to rescue the Israelites from their neighbors, the Philistines, but hardly because he was the poster boy of true devotion. One persistent theme in the Book of Judges is how God chooses and uses unlikely people to protect and lead Israel. The stories make clear, I think, that Samson tops the unlikely list.

The stories about Samson are also very entertaining. They are like many stories about folk heroes, and they are told with relish. Often using great humor, folk hero stories typically tell of the hero’s prowess, cleverness, fatal flaws, near escapes, and final victories, all of which we have in Samson. He was born to unsuspecting country folk and was given secret powers (if he kept his hair – apparently male pattern baldness was not an issue). He could rip lions in half, carry the doors of Gaza’s city gates uphill 35 miles overnight (a feat reminiscent of Paul Bunyan), and kill a thousand enemy warriors with the jawbone of an ass. (This last image has been used later, unflatteringly, to describe  annoying public speakers.) He could think up puzzling riddles, and with cleverness and prowess was able to capture 300 foxes, tie pairs of them together by their tails, set their tails on fire, and turn the foxes loose in his enemies’ grain fields. These are mayhem and shenanigan stories, for sure.

For hanky-panky, we can go to the stories (yes, plural) about Samson’s fatal flaw. He found the Philistine (!) women irresistible and was a sucker for fine form and fluttering eyelashes. The dialogues of Samson trying to respond to her “If you really loved me…” pleading are priceless, sad, funny, and the stuff of thousands of plays and sitcoms since. We can still read them aloud with high humor without changing a word.

The Bible tells, sometimes playfully, the story of God’s presence in real human life, including the parts that are embarrassing, ugly, and seamy. Often, for all our sake, we have to include humor to respond to and understand the glory and failure we share.


Pounding Fools

February 10, 2012

“Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.” (Proverbs 27:22) As far as I know, no one has attacked me with this proverb. Probably because, reading it from the King James Version, they have no idea what it means. My good fortune could change, though, if friends read it in a more modern translation like The Message: “Pound on a fool all you like – you can’t pound out foolishness.”

Probably the King James translation of Proverbs 27:14 is clearer: “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.” Still, in my view, this doesn’t have the punch of the recent Common English Bible’s, “Greeting a neighbor with a loud voice early in the morning will be viewed as a curse.” The Message suggests that the early morning shout-out sounds “more like a curse than a blessing.”  I like to ponder what this might look like in a college dormitory.

When trying to read the Bible well, using a translation that sounds like our ordinary language helps a lot. That’s always been the point of translation. St. Jerome’s great translation into Latin was called the Vulgate because, in his time, it was put in ordinary people’s language. John Wyclif translated from Latin into early English because he wanted everyone, even the ploughboy, to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language. As our language continues to change, modern Bible translators produce new versions to pursue that same goal.

Sometimes to be funny we create awkward English sentences scattered with thee’s and thou’s and –eth’s. (My word processor thinks “shouldest” is a misspelling.) Such language is pretty unnatural for most of us, not including those who speak Elizabethan English fluently. So it’s good for a laugh. But when we’re reading with an eye for humor in the Bible, we should hardly expect to find much if we read it in translations that feel stiff and use archaic words. It’s a lot easier when we use translations that use our ordinary speech, our “vulgate.” They help us read more spaciously and imaginatively in response to the text.

Several modern translations can work well, and individual readers can judge which versions seem more natural. I prefer translations that use the “dynamic equivalence,” rather than a strict word-for-word, approach, since the result seems more fluent and natural (and, in my view, more accurate). The most recent of these is the Common English Bible, but other fine translations include the New Jerusalem Bible and the New Living Translation. Though it is a “paraphrase,” I find that Eugene Peterson’s The Message often captures the sense of the text in a very engaging and responsible way. I invite you to experiment with which translations help the Bible breathe for you.


Spacious Reading without Laugh-tracks

February 6, 2012

Often I crack up reading jokes, humorous essays, or collections of cartoons. Sometimes, though, what promises to be funny seems flat. Maybe I’m not clever enough to get the humor. But more often it’s because I’m reading in a hurry, superficially, or inattentively. Humor needs breathing spaces, and I’m squeezing the life out of it.

Lots of folks miss humor in the Bible because they don’t expect it. Many more miss it because they don’t read well. Students have taught me about three levels of reading: careful reading, where you dig into the text; skimming, where you do a fly-over to get the shape of the piece; and retinizing, where the image of the page merely hits the back of your eyeballs. For all kinds of reasons, a lot of modern reading is fly-over and retinizing. When we read that way, we’ll miss humor and a lot more. In reading the Bible, we’ll miss the power of poetry and the wonder of miracles. While we read about the crowds being amazed at Jesus, inside we just go “ho-hum.” Fast, drone reading or mentally mumbling our way through the text just won’t do.

We can read in more rewarding ways. We can soak in a text and create space for attention and imagination. We can take in the scene the writer has painted with words. We can let the words open and bloom and see what they’re trying to describe. We can use our imaginations, not to make stuff up, but to enter what’s already there. Many writers encourage us to read the Bible with all of our senses on alert, an old and proven practice often associated with the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.

A soaking, spacious reading helps especially with humor. Storytellers and comics work hard to learn “timing,” creating space for listeners to see the picture or move in the direction that makes the funny punch-line or surprise work. They want listeners to experience the outlandish, the odd, and the absurd, and they want them to be caught off guard by the comic twist.

This is true, too, for Bible writers. As readers, we can help, allowing spaciousness and imagination in stories that are often very compact. We can remember the set-up of the story and make the characters vivid. We can experiment with pause and vocal inflection, and allow characters to raise an eyebrow, roll their eyes, give a mischievous smile, or even roar with laughter. And we have to do it without benefit of laugh-tracks or a back-up band to add rim-shots to good (or lame) jokes.

Experiment with reading aloud and visualizing various scenes. For example, when Jesus compares and quotes two men praying, it’s easy to imagine using exaggerated voices to accent the religious stuffiness of the one and the quiet humility of the other. (Luke 18:9-14) (Frankly, at this point, I can hardly imagine that Jesus didn’t do that and get guffaws from simple folks who had had their fill of self-righteous religious guys.) Or we can see the Samson and Delilah dialogue as the kind of man/woman teasing and cajoling that frequents sit-coms. “How can you say you love me when you don’t trust me?” (Judges 16:4-21) Or we could read Laban’s apparently heart-wrenching speech to son-in-law Jacob, knowing that this was a lying, cheating, maybe even murderous father-in-law who was mostly looking for stolen property. (Genesis 31:26-30) Try it with a fake, even angry, sobbing voice. And the suspenseful story that follows, Laban searching for the stolen “household gods,” has a wonderfully comic surprise ending.

Whether we find humor or not, reading the Bible spaciously, with mind and senses on alert, will open the way to fresh understanding. And, in more places than we suspect, I’m sure we’ll find cues for laughter.


Between Heaven and Mirth

February 3, 2012

My Jesuit classmates in my doctoral studies scared me. They weren’t unkind, but were alien smart. Though they were still young enough, I was sure they had spent decades in the basement of the Vatican reading Scripture and learning seventeen languages, in all of which they could fluently tell secrets or jokes. Not that they did, but then I’m not that good at getting casual Latin puns.

So when I brought my caricature of Jesuits as smart, scary scholar-teachers to reading James Martin, SJ’s book Between Heaven and Mirth (HarperOne, 2011), I didn’t know what to expect.

Briefly, it is smart and funny. It responds at length to an elderly priest’s glowering scold of a young priest who confessed to “excessive levity.” The confessor chided, “All levity is excessive.” Martin argues that, instead of excessive, levity is essential, and he winsomely prods readers toward great joyfulness. “And when you’re deadly serious, you’re seriously dead,” he writes. “A better goal for believers is to be joyfully alive.”

Martin’s biblical, theological, and historical foundations are wide and deep. He writes engagingly and tells lots of fun stories. I found it both profound and, as he intends, “mirthful.”

At the core, Martin corrects crippling misconceptions of God, Jesus, and the spiritual life. For example, he notes that the common picture of God as “joyless judge” is “enough to wipe the smile off any believer’s face.” He shows how Jesus could be “hilarious,” using high exaggeration and “intentionally ridiculous illustrations” in his teaching. Martin devotes a whole chapter to humor among the saints, including the words attributed to St. Teresa, “From somber devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”

Several chapters offer practical guidance for discovering joy in our personal spiritual lives. With chapters like “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks,” Martin explores both the challenges and the benefits of opening ourselves to joy.

This fine book invites and guides us, developing the subtitle, “Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” I love the old English setting of Psalm 100 that includes the phrase, “Him serve with mirth, His praise forthtell.” James Martin’s book can help us do both.


Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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