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Beware the Jabberwock, My Son!

I’ve given it a day or so to think and rethink Fr. Paul Scalia’s article posted yesterday, “The Seriousness of Humor.” [1] I have only respect for the good padre, though for his biblical eisegesis, not so much. Recall what eisegesis means: “An interpretation, especially of Scripture, that reflects the personal ideas or viewpoint of the interpreter; reading something into a text that isn't there” (The Century Dictionary). Key words: reading into a text what isn’t there.

I will give Father the benefit of the doubt. Of course he means well, and is trying to make Christ’s teaching something more…what, I cannot say: palatable? Contemporary? Relatable? But I am afraid his efforts to interpret "the teasing Christ" fail. What Jesus advised the Pharisees about humility doesn’t require humor to get his message across. Instead, I suggest the Gospel passage only says that it is prudent to seat oneself in a lower position lest pride goes before the fall and one is forced to take that lower position with the pain of embarrassment in being humbled. Our Lord offered simple, sage advice to a group of religious men who are known for their presumptive pride. Why turn this into a piece about humor? I find nothing funny in it.

I don’t enjoy criticizing my brother priests, but do so only when I find them in error of judgment that can disaffect the thinking of fellow Catholics. Here’s what Fr. Paul says:

“This parable is unlike any other. It’s not a hypothetical story about a shepherd, farmer, or fisherman. It’s about the guests right in front of him. Point is, he’s teasing them about their prideful social climbing. Then, having teased them a bit – perhaps even having brought them to laugh at themselves – he then turns the lesson around and gives the instruction such people need to hear: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

But, honestly, is his interpretation justified by the text? To me, clearly it isn’t. There are no emotional asides from the evangelist that describe Christ’s desire to elevate the moods of his listeners—so why introduce such a reading? I argue that suggesting humor here is counterproductive. Again, Father tries to clarify his conclusions, but to me it is so much re-interpretation that I find it useful only for knitting together the loose complex of ideas he associates to weave an article for publication.

“So, this lesson on humility calls attention to a related virtue, which Saint Thomas Aquinas calls mirth. It points to the importance of humor and levity in the life of faith. Again, this doesn’t mean being flippant, trivializing things, or treating the sacred with disrespect. Nor does it mean the kind of humor that gets laughs at someone else’s expense. It’s rather the ability to laugh at the incongruity of things, at the ridiculousness of human affairs, and even at ourselves.”

Again, to his credit, Father does not demean the gospel; good for him. But can you imagine the puffed-up Pharisees laughing at themselves, in public, over the possibility of being found presumptuous? No one wants that kind of ignominy, and Our Lord, with His Almighty powers trying to tickle his audience into submission of the truth in a delicate situation where he catches some of them, so to speak, with their hands in the cookie jar by socially advancing themselves…it just doesn’t work, for me anyway. Some may say that I am interpreting the text here, that perhaps Jesus is addressing a delicate issue by addressing it in subtle tones that better manifest His kindness and gentility. My only response is, possibly, but why suggest that if the text itself doesn’t? Jesus’ message doesn’t need to be emotionally massaged so that it may more readily fit into our lives and psyches.

It seems that Fr. Scalia is almost ready to acknowledge that perhaps his interpretation is out of place when he writes:

“The proud lack that sense of proportion that makes a sense of humor possible. They consider themselves greater than they are and see themselves as the center of everything. This also makes them boring. The proud exalt themselves and trivialize the Lord. For that reason, they will be humbled, which won’t be funny.”

Here, I agree! And with this description fitting the Pharisees so well, why would Jesus attempt to make his earnest advice a matter of humor when the effects to his audience could very well be a cause for shame? Making light of truth to soften its effects was never Jesus’ strong point. Why introduce this here and now? The article’s point, certainly not to be found in Scriptures, is lost on me.

Then again, I am reminded of a poem of which I am fond—Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Now this may be entirely eisegetical on my part, though I think it has a message for those who tend to put into God’s words what isn’t there:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Whatever a Bandersnatch is, I hope I don’t meet it by reading into a text something lightly imagined (exactly as I do with Carroll).

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1 Comment

Sean Murray
Sean Murray
Aug 29, 2022

Great post, I completely agree.

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