Thursday, February 21, 2013

What’s so funny here?

A Protestant friend of mine decided to tweak me publicly on Facebook.  I was reading Tony Layne’s blog the other day and it reminded me of this bit from The Meaning of Life which Tony took me to in the theaters.”  (Yes, yes, I did.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.)

© 1983 Handmade Films
The bit in question?  The musical number, “Every Sperm is Sacred”.[1]  Two minutes later, he added, “I would be remiss in not posting the proper response to my last post,” to which he appended the sketch that follows the song, in which a Protestant man (the late Graham Chapman) waxes rhapsodical over the Reformation and condoms, unaware that he’s arousing his seemingly proper wife (Eric Idle).

My favorite exchange comes near the end:  Chapman says that Martin Luther may not have been aware of the full implications of his ninety-five theses in 1517, “but because of him, my dear, I can put anything I want on my John Thomas.”  To which Idle replies pantingly, “Well, then, why don’t you?”  But alas, Thomas Cranmer is too wrapped up in thundering self-righteously against the hidebound Catholic morality to pick up on her hint.  Protestants, the message seems to be, can do whatever they want … but they don’t.

Of course “Every Sperm is Sacred” is a hideous exaggeration of Catholic teaching about sex; it wouldn’t be satire if it weren’t.  Catholic teaching places great emphasis on the sacramentality of the marital act; in its proper context, sex is man’s participation in God’s act of creation.  And the Pythons unwittingly tell us precisely what’s wrong not only with contraception but with the Protestant Reformation: the inordinate, isolating emphasis on the individual will.  But you neither expect nor even necessarily want nuance from a comedy film … even one made by a very erudite British comedy troupe.


Did I say all that?  No. 

The fact is, sometimes when I’m writing about sex, contraception, abortion and all that, I find myself starting to hum: “Ev’ry sperm is sacred; ev’ry sperm is great; if a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate ….”  It’s a kind of built-in reminder of the Last Law — “You have taken yourself too seriously.”

According to the Wikipedia article, pro-aborts sing the song outside clinics to bait pro-life protesters; it must fall a little flat when there are pro-life non-Catholics at the barricades.  Legal scholars say it “[exposes] the absurdity of the anti-choice argument when taken to its extreme,”[2]  while Richard Dawkins says it demonstrates the “surreal idiocy” of some pro-religion, pro-life arguments.[3]  I say that, since the song attacks a jumbo-sized straw man, it really shows off the danger of argument by sneer.

They’ve taken the song too seriously.  Largely because they’ve taken themselves too seriously.

It’s a fine line to walk.  On the one hand, we’re taking a very visible side in a war for the soul of our country.  Therefore, the fight should be taken seriously.  On the other hand, perhaps precisely because it is a war, usually what’s supposed to pass for humor is bitter, agonistic and snotty, the posturing of the self-absorbed and the self-righteous who are no longer interested in converting the enemy but rather subduing him, nay! bludgeoning him into surrender.

Why should there be any laughter, anyway?  Is fifty million plus dead children a source of humor?  Are human rights a joke?

No, but human folly is. 

Abraham Lincoln once said, “I laugh because I must not cry.”  Anger, given enough time and fuel, twists the soul out of shape; pondering the Western tragedy in its fullness can lead to despair.  Laughter is a function of hope; levitas prevents us from being crushed under the weight of gravitas.  It’s one of those human paradoxes that a sense of the ridiculous helps us retain our dignity.  People with healthy psyches can both make and take jokes about themselves because they’re not overly concerned with themselves.  The sociopath, the narcissist and the fanatic can’t stand any slight to their dignity.

Scripture tells us that the wisdom of this world is folly in the eyes of the Lord; by contrast, God’s wisdom appears as foolishness to sight made crooked by sin.  I laugh at things like “Every Sperm is Sacred” because I laugh at people who laugh at things they don’t really understand … like the presumably intelligent woman who wrote, in all seriousness, “Who says sex has anything to do with reproduction?”  Or the morons who compare God with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, which is sort of like comparing the USS Nimitz to a rubber ducky.

A satire is not an argument.  It derives its humor from concurrence in a particular worldview, a given set of values, not from logic or evidence.  Had the West been still possessed of the proper, historical Christian cosmology, which views God as radically present in all places and specially present in some, the humor of the song would have been greatly attenuated if not lost on a people that still viewed the marital act as something sacred.

Why sacred?  Because we can choose to love, to bond with each other for the rest of our lives, to raise children.  Other animals have no such choice; their reproductive behavior is hard-wired in a way and to a degree that ours isn’t.  Our participation in God’s creative act is dignified when we make it an active choice rather than depend on technology and chemicals to prevent our bodies from doing what they’re designed to do.

Contraception is the real joke.


[1] Music by André Jacquemin and David Howman; lyrics by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
[2] Emily Martin. “Body Narratives, Body Boundaries”. In Grossberg, Lawrence; Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler (1992). Cultural Studies. Routledge. pp. 409–23.
[3] Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 300.