A Lenten lesson from Elvis, the Simpsons and Monty Python

The Christian season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday – Feb. 13 this year. Lent is a period of 40 days (not including Sundays) leading to Easter on March 31.

For most people, Lent probably brings images of foreheads marked with ashes, or recollections of conversations about “giving up” chocolate or bacon or alcohol. The whole mood of the season is pretty much a downer, as Christians remember the death of Jesus of Nazareth and contemplate their own failures and failings.

I didn’t grow up with the traditions of ashes or giving up something, but I’ve watched all that happen year after year. And in the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with it. We all ought to think once in a while about the things we’ve done wrong, the ways we’ve hurt others.

But it gives Christianity an air of gloom-and-doom, rather removed from the God who declared “it is good” about Creation or repeatedly promised blessings and protection to the faithful. So for a number of years, I’ve tried to inject a little light-heartedness, even hopefulness, into my church’s experience of Lent.

One of my daughters gave me a book this past Christmas, and it reinforced my desire for a more balanced Lent. The book was “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” by Christopher Moore.

Lamb tells the story of Jesus growing up – all those years the Bible skips over, between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his ministry thirty years later. “Biff” recounts childhood pranks and squabbles, an uncertain sense of vocation, and failed attempts at raising the dead.

It’s meant, I suspect, to make Jesus seem more “real” – less of a marble statue and more like an actual human being. That’s what the Bible and Christian doctrine say he was, but actual belief has often turned him into something much less so – and consequently, more difficult to understand, appreciate and follow.

The parts of the book I found most intriguing – and probably close to reality – were early in Jesus’ ministry, when he had an idea about God but was struggling to communicate it. He fumbled his attempts to teach and attract followers and needed the help of his friends to convey things effectively.

It reminded me of another tongue-in-cheek treatment of Jesus, the movie “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” To be more accurate, the film doesn’t mock or poke fun at Jesus himself, but at the sometimes over-wrought, sometimes unthinking actions of his followers.

For instance, Brian loses a sandal while running away from the crowd. Someone picks it up and, because it is Brian's, considers it both a holy relic and a sign pointing to what faithful followers should do.

But an argument ensues over whether Brian’s followers should throw away their sandals or collect lost sandals – reminiscent of too many church fights over tiny details of doctrine or practice.

On The Simpsons, God’s followers, even the preacher Rev. Lovejoy, are often confused and self-interested. Bart secretly torments his neighbor’s children: “Do you want a happy God or a vengeful God?”

Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley.

And Homer describes his faith as “the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work in real life.” But the Deity is taken seriously; God is the only character drawn with five fingers, for instance.

Years ago, another daughter introduced me to A. J. Jacobs’ “The Two Kings: Jesus – Elvis.” The book is full of amusing “similarities” like:

  • Jesus walked on water; Elvis surfed.
  • Jesus and Elvis were both Capricorns.
  • Jesus had 12 disciples; Elvis had 12 members in his Memphis Mafia.
  • Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River; the Jordanaires were Elvis’ backup group.

French philosopher Voltaire said that “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.” I’m not sure if it’s faith or their father that my daughters don’t take seriously – probably me. But I’m glad they want me to laugh with them.

If Christians need to repent of anything this Lent, perhaps it’s the sin of taking ourselves and our ideas too seriously, while not taking seriously enough the instructions and example of the One we claim to follow.

Steve Swope

About Steve Swope

Steve Swope is pastor at the United Church of Christ in Columbia. Steve is a liberal/progressive Christian committed to recognizing and supporting diversity in modern faith and society.

2 Responses to “A Lenten lesson from Elvis, the Simpsons and Monty Python”

  1. roy

    Lent is becoming one of my favourite seasons in the Kingdom. I believe it is widely, and deeply, misconstrued. When I have “given up” something for Lent, it is a practical confession, with teeth and not just lip service, that there are things in my life that, while may not be wrong in themselves, are too important – as compared with everything that should be more important. Focus off Roy, more onto God.

    On several occasions, the thing I give up, I do not return to. Network TV is no longer seen in my house, and boy, it’s a happier, healthier household. That example was just low hanging fruit. Chosen not because of it’s cosmic consequence so much as the ease with which it can be conveyed.

    Peace.

    Reply
  2. Steve Swope

    “Focus off Roy, more onto God.” That’s the real purpose of Lenten disciplines, in a nutshell. Thanks, Roy!

    I probably should confess that a personal “barrier” for me is that I grew up in a religious household (my father was a minister), so the demands of faithfulness were in daily focus – often, when I was a teenager, too much so. But the typical Lenten re-orientation wasn’t as big a deal as it might be for others. I do like having that rhythm to the year, though.

    Reply

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