Joking with Jesus in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard

By Rosenthal, Peggy | Cross Currents, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Joking with Jesus in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard


Rosenthal, Peggy, Cross Currents


With Jesus, it's not always suffering and passion. He's also the kind of savior that can make you laugh.

The contemporary West's major spiritual problem is distractedness. Our modes of communal distraction have multiplied and internetted so all-absorbingly that our daily round gets tied up in the illusion of total worldwide connectedness, while our personal schedules keep us dashing from meeting to meeting, car phones at one ear, radio chatter in the other. To shock us into paying attention to what truly matters -- God's presence in our midst -- some contemporary poets are inventively recasting the figure of Jesus. In this essay, I want to focus on two who do this in delightful, even comic, ways: Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard.

Norris's poem, "Luke 14: A Commentary," is a good place to begin, since it boldly portrays Jesus as the jokester, popping up to surprise us.

Luke 14:A Commentary

He is there, like Clouseau,

at the odd moment,

just right: when he climbs

out of the fish pond

into which he has spectacularly

fallen, and says condescendingly

to his hosts, the owners

of the estate: "I fail

where others succeed." You know

this is truth. You know

he'll solve the mystery,

unprepossessing

as he is, the last

of the great detectives.

He'll blend again into the scenery, and

more than once, be taken

for the gardener. "Come

now," he says, taking us

for all we're worth: "sit

in the low place."

Why not? We ask, so easy

to fall for a man

who makes us laugh. "Invite those

you do not know, people

you'd hardly notice." He puts

us on, we put him on; another

of his jokes. "There's

room," he says. The meal is

good, absurdly

salty, but delicious. Charlie

Chaplin put it this way: "I want to play

the role of Jesus. I look the part.

I'm a Jew.

And I'm a comedian."

(Cross Currents

44, no, 4, Winter 1994-95)

I have to confess that I can't read this poem without smiling. Though I've read it literally dozens of times, each reading delights me a new. Norris has managed, at least to my mind, to give her readers the very experience she's talking about: of being gloriously surprised by a Jesus who entertains us by saving us and saves us by entertaining us. She does this, first, by catching us off guard with her opening simile: "He is there, like Clouseau." This Jesus is unquestionably Present, but in a guise we'd never have guessed: as a film comedian who plays the role of bumbling detective. From then on, the poem tumbles through line after line of wordplay that is at once fun and profound, teasing theological depths out of everyday idioms in such a disarmingly bright way that we can only gasp out a laughing "Wow!" by the end -- which is precisely the experience Norris wants to give us of Jesus.

I won't try to point to every one of Norris's jokes. But I'll note a few that open our eyes to dimensions of Jesus' character that are in Scripture and traditional Christology but which, Norris is showing, we don't appreciate the wonder of. Casting Jesus as comic detective, she can say he does indeed "solve the mystery" of the meaning of our lives; he can be billed, Alpha and Omega that he is, as "the last of the great detectives"; he could apply the comic twist "I fail where others succeed" to all his apparent failures in the Gospel narratives, culminating in the scandalous failure of the Cross. Among the idioms that Norris turns into theological puns, there is Jesus' "taking us / for all we're worth," and there is our "fall[ing] for a man / who makes us laugh" by falling, himself, into the fish pond of humanity. It's a splashing Incarnation that wins over our hearts. …

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