This column is also published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum. On January 27, 2009 this piece was broadcast on the Persepctives program on KQED FM in San Francisco, CA. Give a listen!
Something in our nature inspires humans to collect religious trinkets—talismans and relics that remind us of life’s transcendent mysteries, or icons through which we glimpse the divine. I’ve got dozens of such pious knickknacks—everything from a small collection of large Bibles to a cross necklace—but I suspect the most important of my faith-based souvenirs is a plastic dashboard Jesus figurine that sits up on the back of my stove between an empty bottle of Calvin beer from Geneva and my daughter’s Albert Einstein action figure.
Mine is a dashboard Jesus like any other: the Son of Man sits on a spring with a goofy molded smile and his hands lifted up as if to invoke some kind of blessing. This is Jesus Junk writ large.
I should be quick to point out that the importance of my dashboard Jesus lies not in its sentimental value or in its intrinsic worth. They hardly broke the mold when they made this version of the Jeez; one just like mine can be had for less than ten dollars on eBay. I won’t shed any tears if the little guy catches fire while I’m flambéing mushroom sauce, but I will replace my dashboard Jesus should any ill befall him, because he represents an important spiritual truth: those of us who take our religion seriously should never lose the ability to laugh at our piety. This is not to say that we should mock God or ridicule what is sacred; rather, it is ourselves and our zealous posturing that needs an occasional palliative guffaw.
When people lose a sense of humor, they are inspired by faith to engage in all sorts of heinous tomfoolery. I think of Christians who supported Proposition 8 on the faulty assumption that one person’s beliefs can dictate another person’s love life, or I think of people killing one another in the name of God in places like Gaza, the Balkans, Sri Lanka, and heaven-knows-where else. For God’s sake and for the love of all that is sacred on earth, these people need to lighten up.
The unexpected and the unknown are the currency of humor. When we laugh at our own piety, we are reminded that the Divine is as alive in mystery as he—or she—is in certainty. If we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, then the joke is on us.