From the Book of Genesis:
God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 6:13-15 (NRSV) – January 18, 2014.)
I read those words and heard Bill Cosby’s voice. I’ll bet I’m not alone. More than 50 years ago (1963), Cosby’s debut comedy album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! included a 3-1/2 minute skit he’d been doing on stage entitled Noah: Right! Ever since, it has colored the story of Noah and the ark for Americans; I know people who wouldn’t be born for another quarter century after that album’s release for whom Cosby’s skit is nonetheless an interpretive filter for the Noah story. Millions read the story and hear Noah asking, in Cosby’s voice, “Lord, what’s a cubit?”
In 1979, the comedy sketch troupe Monty Python released a full length movie entitled Month Python’s Life of Brian, which spoofed the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth by telling the story of Brian, the baby born in the stable stall next door and who spends his life being mistaken for the messiah. When he is present at the Sermon on the Mount, Brian is at the edge of the crowd among those who are so far away from Jesus they cannot hear clearly what he says. As they struggle to hear and understand Jesus’ words, they have this conversation:
What did he say?
I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
I cannot read the Beatitudes without that dialog coming to mind; I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. I’m sure that when it is the appointed Sunday Gospel, my parishioners wonder why I have such a goofy expression while reading it!
Because I’m a child of the television generation, I also cannot read the story of Adam and Eve without seeing in memory Bob Newhart and Ruth Buzzi in beige long underwear playing a Garden-of-Eden skit on the old Laugh-In show, or sometimes Richard Basehart as a shipwrecked, alien space-traveling Adam encountering a similarly shipwrecked Eve (the plot of an old Twilight Zone episode).
I’ve two points in mind this morning in recalling these comedy routines to mind. The first is the difficulty of setting aside preconceptions when reading the scriptures. What we think we know about the text may be helpful as we study and interpret it, but it can also be a barrier to hearing it fresh each time to encounter it. I am convinced that the bible speaks to us anew in each reading, and that what we already “know” can and does interfere with our appreciating that. So I struggle to not hear Cosby’s voice, to not understand peacemakers as cheesemakers, to not see Adam climbing out of his space ship.
The second point is rather the opposite of the first, that these comedic or fanciful takes on the stories of the bible are as helpful as they are distracting. I know a lot of people who have a hard time finding humor about God or Jesus or the bible acceptable. My staunch Methodist grandfather frowned upon any humor about church, Sunday School, or other things religious; he considered them disrespectful and (I’m sure) blasphemous.
I find wisdom in a line by Oscar Wilde (from Lady Windemere’s Fan): “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” The same can be said of the bible. Theologian and author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally” (a quotation often misattributed to Karl Barth). Finding humor or inspiration for fanciful works of fiction and comedy in scripture is part of both taking it seriously and not talking seriously about it. These comedic or fanciful treatments help us hear the scriptures with new ears.
And the question still remains: “What’s a cubit?”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.