No one — NO ONE — tells Bible stories like Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan. That he tells Bible stories at all says something. Something about his Catholic upbringing, perhaps, and definitely something about where his faith is now. As he said in a recent interview on Irish television, ‘It feels to me that we’re born with an imagination, and you can’t live without it. There’s no way human beings can operate unimaginatively in the world … we’re burdened with it. So you have to choose a path that rewards you the most; even though you know it’s an enchantment of sorts, you choose a path. For me, right now, this particular moment in time, it’s Catholicism. My heart gets so rewarded, I feel like it’s a bountiful, proper place for me … It’s soulful, it’s good.’
Now that his credentials are out of the way … I want to say this about Tommy: he tells Bible stories like they were meant to be told — offensively. What do I mean by that? Have a listen:
“By nature, I’m a religious person. And I’m religious because I don’t like facts. And there are no facts in any religion. There’s just stories, and if you’re lucky … a bit of singing. The Bible … maybe the Bible is just us trying to figure ourselves out. Maybe that’s all it is. And maybe every intention that the human heart can hold there’s a story in the Bible for it. And I thought they had it perfected. I thought for a story to end with … Our Lord Jesus Christ, what a fuck’n finale. He’s dead! He’s up again!! Fuck’n Rocky — it’s amazing. But THEN … what do they do? That’s right, the Book of Revelations, where it all goes fuck’n apeshit. We’re having loads of craic, Jesus was up, the kettle was on, the next thing the fuck’n sky’s split open and big shit cocks of death pummelling, Neanderthal, fuck’n Devil jism into the eyes of the unbelievers. What kind of a fuck’n bedtime story is that?”
The thing about Tommy is, he’s a storyteller in the Gaelic tradition of absurdity and nonsense and humour, a true poet and bard in the vein of some of my favourite writers, like Flann O’Brien. He’s brilliant because he’s fearless; he’s brilliant because he pushes and pushes the boundaries of what stories can achieve, what recesses of our imaginations they can open up. And he truly understands the offensiveness of scripture. The truth is, there aren’t many stories in the Bible that don’t cause great offence at some level. If you’re hearing a Bible story being told and it doesn’t offend you, it means you’re too used to hearing it; or the storyteller doesn’t know their craft.
So be warned. THE FOLLOWING BLOG IS OFFENSIVE. Back out now if you’re not up to it; if you ARE up for it, and you’re inclined to judge me on what you’re about to read, fill your boots.
Tommy’s best story, in my humble opinion, is from the book of Job. In fact, his exegesis of Job is just about the best exegesis on Job that I’ve come across, apart from maybe Carol A Newsom’s Bakhtinian reading of the story — The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations, which is utterly brilliant. But that’s an academic work. In terms of popular culture, where you don’t expect great exegesis of biblical texts, Tommy really does just get it. More than the movie Leviathan, which is another brilliant retelling of the Job story, from the point of view of a Russian villager trying to keep hold of the life that’s slipping away around him. In the best Russian traditions, it’s as bleak a movie as you’ll see, and there’s not a single moment of redemption or light or hope. The Leviathan (the mythical monster of Job 41:1: Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? – KJV) in the story is the Russian state, which is being enabled by the Russian Orthodox church. It’s the corruption of both institutions that is proving impossible to combat, no matter how hard Koyla, the Job figure in the story, fights it. It keeps coming for him, wave upon wave of crushing loss and humiliation, suffering beyond what he can bear, despite his faithfulness to God throughout the whole unrelenting drama. It’s really well told — but it’s bleak and miserable.
Unlike Tommy Tiernan, who is hilarious.
I saw Tommy live in Auckland a few years ago. Actually, I’ve seen him a couple of times. He comes out regularly because he has family here. The last time I saw him, at the Skycity theatre, I was with my wife, after we’d had dinner and too many beers. I point out the fact of the beers because even though I visited the Men’s before the show, I was busting again soon after Tommy hit the stage. Fortunately, 15 or so minutes in, Tommy asked for the house lights to be put on because a couple of audience members were arguing with the girls behind them, who wouldn’t shut the fuck up. As Tommy calmed the situation down, I decided to sneak from my seat to go to the toilet. Problem was, we were sitting in the second row. As you’ll know, if you’re in the front couple of rows in any stand-up comedy show and you get up to take a piss the comedian kind of notices, and kind of gets upset, and kind of wants to make sure everybody else notices too. As I ran up the stairs for the rear doors, absolutely certain I would wet myself before I got there, Tommy Tiernan cursed and ranted at me from the stage.
‘Where the FUCK do you think you’re going, in the middle of my show — it’s not the fuck’n intermission yet you know. What’s the problem? D’you have incontinence? Why didn’t you come wearing a fuck’n nappy?’
I didn’t care. Talk about the suffering of Job. When you’re busting like that, even if you’re sitting in the second row of a theatre and the house lights are on, you take your chances. I watched the rest of the show from the back step near the door. Carolyn remained in row 2.
Anyway, back to Tommy’s retelling of the story of Job, which was not from the show at Skycity, but from his Crooked Man tour:
“The book of Job is fantastic. There’s a lot to hang the human heart on in that. God and the Devil had a bet, to see if a holy man would still be holy after everything turned to shit for him. And it almost worked, except when God took his teeth.”
Now, on the first point — regarding the heavenly bet between the Creator and the Devil — Tommy’s spot on. That is what the story is about, or at least the prologue to Job, which some scholars reckon was added to the poetic section later to put it all in a different theological context. Even so, the theological dilemma is just as Tommy puts it: the story makes a link between being blameless, and upright, and fearing God, and shunning evil, with ‘blessing’. Now this idea — that you’ll be blessed if you live an upright life — emerges from the book of Deuteronomy, but the Hebrew Bible itself begins to have a problem with it the further into scripture you go. The Hebrew scholars ultimately didn’t like the idea. They thought it made the relationship between God and humanity little more than a trade agreement. Bollocks to that, the story of Job seems to be saying. But there’s also a bigger issue it’s dealing with. If it’s true that we only have to be righteous for good things to happen to us, it suggests there’s an underlying pool of ‘good’ in our world, as there is an underlying pool of ‘evil’ — and that our behaviour can dictate which pool we’re drawing from in any given moment.
What the Hebrew scholars had come to realise was that there were no such pools — that our entire reality is inherently fucked. It’s so fucked that there’s no moral code that can guarantee ‘blessings’, and no set of behaviours that can produce good. There’s only turmoil, caprice, suffering. Life is completely random, as if God is up there having a laugh with the Devil. Indeed, according to the Hebrew scholars, God has declared a great divine NO!!! on all human claims to goodness and righteousness and blessing, and it’s this NO!!! that Job, in his extreme suffering, comes to hear. And in that, Job realises this terrifying truth: that suffering is meaningless. That goodness is also meaningless. That blessing is meaningless too. His friends, realising what he has come to believe, gather round him to change his mind — to convince him that there is an order to things; that if he behaves in the right ways he will be able to tap into the ‘good’ and his suffering will ease. But Job knows this is not the case. The whole point of setting Job up as a righteous, blameless man, is so that we, the readers, will understand he has done NOTHING to warrant so much suffering. Which means he can do NOTHING to stop it.
I was thinking about this again on Sunday, when news of the death of theologian Rachel Held Evans came through. She was 37. A wife. A mother. Loved by thousands, if not millions, for her books, her presentations, her presence on Twitter. She was a voice for good. She spoke on behalf of marginalised people. In so many ways, she was ‘doing God’s work’. And she died. She died following a reaction to antibiotics, given to her because of a UTI. So, so random. So capricious. So meaningless. But how comforting would it be for us to find meaning in that death; for us to concoct some metaphysical justification for why she died so young. Some sin, perhaps. Or some sense that God wanted her home early. Utter bullshit, according to the story of Job. It was just random.
And Tommy Tiernan gets this too. We know he gets it because he uses comedy to great effect to draw our attention to the very theological absurdity that the story of Job is trying to expose. Tommy reimagines how good old suffering Job would have reacted had God gone even further than inflicting his body with boils, after taking his wife and family and home … and taken his teeth:
“That was the last fuck’n straw. And Job just lost the plot. This normally quiet, reserved, observant and religious man, just looked up to God, and said, ‘Hey!!!'”
At this point, Tommy shouts up at the roof of the theatre, gummy like a 100-year-old man without his dentures.
“You big fuck’n arsehole, you! Why’d you take my teeth? Fuck off, ya cunt!”
In the rant that follows, Tommy, as Job, uses the word cunt of God more than once, and it’s here that he really does push the envelope, particularly in front of his Irish Catholic audience, which laughs nervously but goes very quiet. And before I go on, just a few reflections on the word cunt itself. Which, after all, is only a word — but admittedly, a pretty offensive word. Not so much in my native UK, where the likes of Ricky Gervais use it like a semi-colon. But pretty offensive in the US. And very offensive in New Zealand, where even the most foul-mouthed of my friends say it’s the one word they won’t use. Fair enough. But I’ve seen the word used to great effect, and in fact, when the novelist Ian McEwan used it in his Booker shortlisted novel Atonement, it taught me a lot about the power of using forbidden words, and how the best writers are not to afraid of even the most offensive. In McEwan’s novel, it’s the word cunt, and how it’s written in a love note from Robbie to Cecilia, then read secretly by Cecilia’s sister Briony, that causes the tragedies that unfold in the final two-thirds of the novel. Part of the brilliance of this is that if you love the novel, but cannot utter the word, you are forever limited by the inability to tell someone why Atonement is such a wonderful piece of literature. The novel is self-conscious about its use of the word, even describing how the young Briony reacts to having seen it on paper:
“The word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams — an uncle and a nut, the Latin for next, an Old English king attempting to turn back the tide. Rhyming words took their form from children’s books — the smallest pig in the litter, the hounds pursuing the fox, the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word’s existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which — Briony was certain — the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context helped, but more than that, the word as at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly.”
The offence of the word during Tommy Tiernan’s sketch is the point. Tommy’s mimicking of Job’s cursing (which, of course, Job is famous for NOT doing) highlights humanity’s profound anger at God because of its suffering — anger so profound that it will summon every word at its disposal to curse God for the capriciousness of our lives, for the meaninglessness of our best efforts, for our fears, our sicknesses, our losses, our breakdowns, our shame, our depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. And before we quieten our rage with the conventions of religion, let’s just give ourselves a moment to reflect on whether there really is any other curse that we could use of God that would more adequately express our despair.
“Are you having a fuck’n laugh, are ya? All I do my whole fuck’n life is love ya. It’s all I do. My whole life. Morning, noon and night, I tell everybody how fuck’n sound you are. Oh, wait ’til you get to know him, he’s lovely. Then for a fuck’n laugh, you take me fuck’n teeth. Soup. That’s all I can fuck’n eat now. It’s fuck’n soup. Oh, oh, a smoothie. A smoothie! Have you ever tried to do a day’s work on a farm after having a fuck’n smoothie? Ya arsehole.”
I once wrote and taught a tertiary course called Theology of Suffering and Hope, in which the central idea, taken from Job, was that our world is more broken than we know or can acknowledge. Even our ways of knowing are suspect, by which I mean that we can convince ourselves of anything, when the reality is probably something quite different. This happens with suffering. Our attempts to find meaning in it are futile. Worse, they lead us to believe that we can make something good out of the brokenness, or that redemption will somehow validate the suffering. Not so, say the great writers and artists, who have known forever that this is false. It doesn’t matter how many ways we try to spin the tale, the ‘universe’ will never bow to our desire for meaning and value and purpose … the ‘good’ that all humans believe is accessible through their own actions. Perhaps the greatest expression of this in all literature is the ‘poem’ within Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov — The Grand Inquisitor — in which Ivan Karamazov comes to his brother Alyosha to say that his faith has come undone on a single perplexing dilemma; that even if the cosmos is moving towards some sort of ‘harmony’, in which good and evil will one day co-exist in some meaningful Kingdom of Heaven, it will never justify the human suffering that we have all witnessed, particularly that of innocent children. Ivan tells the story of a child who is thrown to the dogs after accidentally making a general’s dog lame. It’s said that the story was based on something Dostoevsky himself had witnessed. For Ivan, it is the ultimate evidence that God will NEVER be able to justify what he has allowed to be inflicted on human beings:
“I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony.”
In Tommy Tiernan’s version of the Job story, and in his own grappling with this theological dilemma, Job finally comes to end of his rant. But he has one more thing to say to God: ‘Fuck you!!’
“And then God says, ‘NO! FUCK YOU!'”
Which is precisely the point of the story of Job. We are fucked. And we don’t even understand why. It’s beyond our capacity to know. So far as the authors of the book of Job are concerned, it comes down to divine judgment on all our futile efforts to justify our existence, when no justification is possible. The reality is THAT bad. The very fabric of our human existence is compromised at a level we’re not even aware of, let alone able to fix.
This is God speaking to Job (in chapter 41), after Job has complained to God:
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? 2 Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? 3 Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words? 4 Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? 5 Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls? 6 Will traders bargain over him? Will they divide him up among the merchants? 7 Can you fill his skin with harpoons or his head with fishing spears? 8 Lay your hands on him; remember the battle—you will not do it again! 9 Behold, the hope of a man is false; he is laid low even at the sight of him. 10 No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up. Who then is he who can stand before me? 11 Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.”
In other words, ‘No Job — fuck you!’
Is there any redemption at all? Or is our existence just like a Russian movie? Unrelenting, tragic, moving inexorably towards defeat?
Well, there is redemption, according to where the scriptures go after the story of Job, but it’s not a path people generally like to follow. Because the path ends at the cross — the death of the crucified God — and as my friend Amar is wont to say, the divine doesn’t get more inaccessible than that. The cross is the true end of the line, where we finally discover just how bleak our existence is. If God enters our story and ends up there … man, that should make every one of us lie down in torment.
But it doesn’t. And we don’t. We carry on, making ‘meaning’, seeking ‘purpose’, creating ‘value’. Despite the book of Job — despite the likes of Dostoevsky delving into its truth in great novels like The Brothers Karamazov — despite movies like Leviathan — despite comedians like Tommy Tiernan — we remain strange, ignorant creatures, convincing ourselves of the value of hashtags and ignoring the evidence before our eyes as we maintain the search for meaning in the midst of our distress, working overtime to find ultimate value in our narcissism; when sometimes the most appropriate way to respond to the caprice of our existence would be to sing songs of the absurdity, make stories from the nonsense, and learn to laugh at ourselves and the things (or words) that we take most seriously.