Amanda has taken to laughing lately. Laughing, shrieking, squealing with delight at the most bizarre range of stimuli. The dog licking her feet. Learning to wave bye-bye. Her singing teddy bear. All endless sources of amusement.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, little baby laughs delight me more than anything else she has done to date. Perhaps because the laughter feels like a kind of personal communication with us that had been impossible for her up to this point. Laughter as communion and communication. Pondering Amanda’s expressions of amusement got me to thinking how far they are from how we often seem to think about laughter, particularly those sources of comedy entertainment in popular culture.

Admittedly, I did not major in Drama as an undergrad, but one couldn’t walk past the Dance & Drama department at Kenyon College without inhaling a big ‘ole whiff of Aristotle’s Poetics. One dim recollection from my Aristotelian indoctrination (by which I mean the department’s “baby drama” course) is the observation that comedy should depict people as “worse than they are.”

By such logic, the sit-coms of the past decade or so have succeeded by leaps and bounds (to say nothing of classics like Faulty Towers or the Simpsons). Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock. They are undeniably brilliant and leave us laughing at the foibles and faults of their less-than-perfect protagonists. As Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy observe about themselves at one point when putting their self-serving schemes into action: “We’re not the best people, but we’re not the worst people. Grad students are the worst.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love all the shows I mentioned above, and they have had me laughing to the point of tears at various point. But the prevalence of that type of comedy seems to suggest that We take it for granted that humour is grounded to a certain degree on meanness. We so often see laughter taking place at someone else’s expense.

Then, over the past couple weeks (when the chuckling cherub is tucked safely in her bed), Leeman and I got to watching the relatively new sit-com Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It is HILARIOUS. Seriously, that show has destroyed us and left us breathless with uncontrollable fits of gaffawing. Put simply–you should probably go binge-watch it on Netflix right now, and then be filled with a mild sense of loss as you realize you have no more stories to share with your friends from the NYPD’s 99th precinct.

Leeman and I realized that so much of what sets the show apart from so many other (admittedly great) sitcoms is that literally every character on the show is so darn likeable. (I’ve heard Parks and Recreation falls into this category as well, but I have seen only a handful of episodes–Fie on you Canadian Netflix!) From main character Jake Peralta who, though a cocky man-child, cares about upholding the law and supports his co-workers whole-heartedly. To Captain Ray Holt whose love for his detectives shines through his robotic exterior (bonus points for actor Andre Braugher portraying a refreshingly non-stereotyped gay character). And while Amy Santiago might try a little too hard at times, she is incredibly competent at a physically demanding job and never overtly sexualized as female leads so often are. These characters have their idiosyncrasies, but we never doubt their sincerity and commitment to one another. We may laugh at them, but we laugh at them as they laugh at themselves. It is a reminder to me of what laughter should be–something that brings us closer to one another–an intimate emotion we can share with our friends–rather than something that separates us from one another.

That is all so say that at the end of the day, laughter can be a weapon used to cut people down, or it can be a means of genuine, loving communion with one another. I think it is interesting that for my infant daughter, laughter is a pure, innocent form of communicating her delight in the world in the only way she knows how. She has not yet learned what it means cynically laugh at someone else. It is worth pondering that for a moment, and wondering whether the simple joy of laughter is one of those wonderful gifts God has given us that we manage to make … not so nice. How much more powerful is joyful, mutual laughter among intimate friends and loved ones.


Ode to Mr Gordo

This weekend, I acquired something utterly ridiculous from a friend of Leeman’s who was clearing out her house. Namely, an exact replica of the stuffed piggy Mr. Gordo from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


(Amanda and Mr. Gordo have become fast friends).

I’ll be honest, my first thought upon receiving said piggy was, “Mr Gordo”?  … Seriously? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Oh, no … there is it, certificate of authenticity and everything! And a note that the product would be limited to 2,500 replicas. Limited to 2,500 replicas? Again I say .. Seriously? There are 2,500 people who would be in the market for a replica of Buffy’s Mr Gordo?

(For those of you not up to speed on your obscure Joss Whedon trivia, Mr. Gordo was seen in but a handful of episodes from the ‘90s cult classic, first appearing in the 2nd season’s “Whose Line is it Anyway” 2-parter when Buffy finds Angel lurking in her room, leading to the exchange “Were you just looking for a little quality time with Mr. Gordo?” “Who” “The pig.” Later appearing in the 4th season as Buffy goes off to college, specifically mentioned when Buffy’s later love interest Riley asks Willow for some Buffy-wooing tips and is informed in addition to Buffy’s love of ice capades, she also has a stuffed piggy named Mr Gordo. [In answer to your questions: Yes, that was more information than you needed. No, I did not have to look any of that that up. Yes, I might have a problem]).

I suppose if I was really in a cynical mood, I could note that the existence of 2,500 replicas marketed to enthusiastic Wedonites is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of consumer culture gone awry. If something can possibly be conceived of, manufactured, and packaged … it can be marketed and sold. Loyal fangirls (which I must admit to being) will then quite willingly buy pretty much anything that expresses their love for a particular fandom.

But honestly, I’m not feeling that cynical. Who can be anything but delighted at the existence of something so utterly ridiculous and random as the replica of a stuffed pig prop that appears in maybe half a dozen episodes of a cult TV show from over a decade ago. Sure, our society is horribly consumer driven and we are all fed the lie that we can craft our own identities y means of the products we consume. But then someone goes and makes this:


Who really needs a mug with made-up expletives from 5 different genre franchises? (That’s Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Mork & Mindy, and Douglas Adams if you’re keeping track at home) But I drink my coffee from it most mornings because it was just too ridiculous to pass up.

Sometimes, amid all the angst we can feel in this complicated world of (post?) postmodernity, it’s enough just to sit back and enjoy a little bit of the ridiculous. We can argue about Hobby Lobby and contraception, and crazy people carrying guns into Target another day. Right now, maybe we should just sit back and enjoy a world where someone decided to make a replica of Buffy’s stuffed pig. Or where another person decided they should do YouTube video edit of every word arranged in Star Wars alphabetically. Why? I guess the better question was “Why Not”? I should note that the aforementioned pig was bestowed upon me at my husband’s Fringe show (8 performances left!), in which he impersonates deceased horror writer HP Lovecraft answering Dear Abbey-style advice questions. Ours is a strange life.

It might not seem like much of a theological point. But I am happy I live in a world with just a touch of the ridiculous (did you see my child’s giant ears, by the way?). Maybe part of why I am a self-proclaimed geek is that geek culture is, by and large, not afraid of silliness and simply just enjoying things. And I wonder if there is in fact a spiritual lesson from that. A reminder that we do have a God who gave us a wonderful world to delight in and to enjoy. We honour God when we are the best we can be at EVERYTHING, include our capacity to enjoy life and be just a little wacky for the sake of being wacky. There doesn’t need to be a reason for everything. What a sad, utilitarian world that would be.

Now, excuse me, I need to finish drinking my coffee from my *other* favourite mug, featuring Yoda in a Mickey Mouse hat.

Wheat, Tares, and Hobby Lobby

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
–Matthew 13:24-30

I’ve read a lot of responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Hobby Lobby to refrain from covering certain contraceptives as part of their employees’ health plan.

Cards on the table, I feel the court made the wrong decision on this one. Apart from questions about whether Plan B actually is an abortifacient, I can’t help but feel the courts are opening up a can of legal worms regarding the “personhood” and rights of for-profit corporations. I’m also uneasy pondering what this case would have looked like had it involved, say, a Muslim business with concerns about pork products in medical supplies or Christian Scientists opposing blood transfusions. I am no legal expert, though, so I will leave it to others to explicate the potential implications of the case. I like to think that I am, however, at least somewhat qualified to tackle some of its spiritual implications.

I came across an interesting response to the case, in which the author celebrated the SCOTUS ruling, arguing that now we had validation that religion could and should be played out of the public sphere—it was not truly a matter of private conviction. I get the author’s point, but I actually wonder if this situation with Hobby Lobby has proved exactly the opposite—that we are moving ever more towards a religion of absolute personal piety that is incapable of engaging in the public sphere.

The situation as I understand it is this. The conservative evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby did not want any of their money going to pay for drugs they sincerely felt terminated a life. Fair enough. I can appreciate the sentiment. It’s laudable, really, to hold to a conviction so firmly and to declare that one will not play even a minor role in a behavior one sees as a moral evil (in this case, the death of an unborn child). Until you check out all the reports of the fact that Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plans actually invest in companies that make the very same products they refuse to provide for their employees. Not to mention the percentage of their merchandise that is manufactured in China, infamous for forced abortions and female infanticide. This is where our good old friend, the facepalm, says hello.

It is tempting to jump on the “Hypocrisy, thy name is Hobby Lobby!” bandwagon. The cynic in me wonders if this whole case was brought up as an attempt to jab another thorn in the side of ObamaCare as much as to prevent even partial participation in abortions. But the more charitable side of me wants to hold up Hobby Lobby as a case study for the inevitable failure of the puritanical impulse that resides in all of us. For all that the owners of Hobby Lobby likely have the purest intentions around their desire to be no part of a single abortion, the fact is that they also live in a messy, complicated world where it is simply impossible to achieve such absolutes. And that’s not just true for Hobby Lobby, that is true for all of us in a world where we are all (regardless of religious belief or political affiliation) more and more often trying to hold ourselves apart from any hint of “impurity.” We can see this impulse played out indeed in the responses to Hobby Lobby ruling. The craft store is either a beacon for religious freedom an increasingly secular age or it hates women and any sexual pleasure women have the audacity to experience. There is no room for a middle ground.

This is where that parable of the wheat and the tares speaks so powerfully for me. It is arguably one of the hardest of Jesus’s parables, difficult to interpret precisely. But I have to think that it speaks on some level to what it means for us to live out our faith in the messiness and complexity of the world around us. We can’t weed out every corrupting influence. If we try, we’re just going to look as hypocritical as Hobby Lobby. We all inhabit a world mixed with wheat and tares. I dare say the wheat and tares often co-exist even within each one of us. As long as we are part of this complicated, messy world we are never going to achieve such radical, absolute purity … and the uncompromising pursuit of it will often lead to the fair criticism that we value principles over people. That’s true for Hobby Lobby. But it’s also true for all the people boycotting chick-fil-a back in the day because they could not support a business that wasn’t totally on board with marriage equality. We are an ever-increasingly polarized society.

Perhaps I have written myself into a corner here. I certainly don’t want to indicate that I think it is not worth holding to principles or pushing for a cause one believes in (or, more importantly, feels spiritually called to embrace). But I do think it’s worth considering what is lost when we hold the value of personal purity above everything else in our life of faith. What good fruit is ripped up along with those tares we try to purge out of our lives? I can’t help but think it is the virtue of charity … a sense of love that tries to find away to live and work together in this strange messy, murky world we live in. Maybe that means being a little less “pure” sometimes. But it also might make us a whole lot more Christ-like.