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Ryan Rodrick Beiler: Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Christ-Worshipping Agnostic’

posted by gp_intern

I’m not an evangelical who reads only what affirms my theology, or failing that, tries to pretend that the artists I like somehow conform to my beliefs. (I tire of the endless debates in evangelical circles about whether Bono is a “real” Christian or not – as if meeting certain criteria would make his music or his activism any more or less legitimate.) I prefer to engage artists on their own terms, and allow them to challenge, provoke, and encourage me to hone my own beliefs – even if my faith is the target of their criticism or satire.

Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away last Wednesday at age 84, was and is my favorite author. If I’m honest, it’s mostly because he’s hilarious. Yes, he uses coarse language. Yes, he seemed to have difficulty with women, both as characters in his books and in his real-life relationships. But his ability to engage a suffering world with humor is what has endeared me most to his work. As he wrote:

Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward – and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.

That quote comes from Vonnegut’s book Palm Sunday, from a sermon he delivered on Palm Sunday in 1980. I recently bought this book after some belabored indecision among the decaying stacks in the used book store, really wanting a funny novel for honeymoon reading more than this compilation of essays and biography. But it was the day before my wedding on Palm Sunday Eve, and I couldn’t resist the convergence. Perhaps because of these deliberations, the book ended up costing me $256 due to a ticket I received for unwittingly parking in a poorly-marked handicapped zone. In the spirit of Vonnegut, I could only curse and laugh: So it goes.

With his death following only 12 days later, I’m glad now to have the added insight into his life that this book provided, filling in the cracks that before I had only pieced together from the biographical fragments present in his fiction. So, as my new wife and I enjoyed our first Sunday as a married couple at a remote West Virginia cabin, Vonnegut provided our Palm Sunday sermon, which I excerpt for you free of charge:

I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. …

I choose as my text the first eight verses of John 12, which deal not with Palm Sunday but with the night before – with Palm Sunday Eve, with what we might call “Spikenard Saturday.” I hope that will be close enough to Palm Sunday to leave you more or less satisfied. …

Now, as to the verses about Palm Sunday Eve: I choose them because Jesus says something in the eighth verse which many people I have known have taken as proof that Jesus himself occasionally got sick and tired of people who needed mercy all the time. I read from the Revised Standard Bible rather than the King James, because it is easier for me to understand. Also, I will argue afterward that Jesus was only joking, and it is impossible to joke in King James English. The funniest joke in the world, if told in King James English, is doomed to sound like Charlton Heston.

I read: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him supper; Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those at table with him.”

“Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”

“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him) said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ This, he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and, as he had the money box, he used to take what was put into it. “

“Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.’” …

Whatever it was that Jesus really said to Judas was said in Aramaic, of course – and has come to us through Hebrew and Greek and Latin and archaic English. Maybe he only said something a lot like, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Perhaps a little something has been lost in translation. And let us remember, too, that in translations jokes are commonly the first things to go.

I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation “For the poor always ye have with you.”

This is too much for that envious hypocrite Judas, who says, trying to be more Catholic than the Pope: “Hey-this is very un-Christian. Instead of wasting that stuff on Your feet, we should have sold it and given the money to the poor people.” To which Jesus replies in Aramaic: “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.”

This is about what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances.

If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well-suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.

“Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” Shall I re-garble it for you? “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.”

My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.

This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

If you doubt our evangelical creds for reading an agnostic to observe Palm Sunday, you may be alternately reassured that we watched The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday, un-reassured that we watched Life of Brian on Holy Saturday, and were once again sanctified by reading N.T. Wright on Easter as we drove the six hours back to D.C. We’ve now gone an entire week without sacrilege, and we could use a good laugh.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He is newly and happily married to Ingrid Rodrick Beiler.



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kevin s.

posted April 16, 2007 at 5:50 pm


I like Vonnegut, too. The best art makes accurate and interesting observations about life. I took more significance from “Brokeback Mountain” than I did from “Saved!”. The former was an honest portrayal of it’s characters, while the latter tried to be a religious message movie.



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Carl Copas

posted April 16, 2007 at 9:28 pm


Amazing that kevin s. and i actually agree on something. Vonnegut was a truly gifted writer and a humane chronicler of human foibles and weakness.



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Mike Hayes

posted April 16, 2007 at 9:38 pm


I haven’t read any of Kurt Vonnegut’s writings, but now I’ll look for an opportunity to do so. Jim Wallis pointed to that verse about “the poor you will have with you always” as the one response he always hears when he speaks about the importance of providing care for poor persons. I’m not sure whether that response is based upon objections to use of government funding for poverty programs. Maybe it is a more general concern that helping poor persons about voluntary charitable contributions Maybe it is said out of a concern that it is immoral to help poor persons. The logic perhaps being that they should be expected to care for themselves… a “strict father” version of morality.



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Rob Braun

posted April 16, 2007 at 10:18 pm


Great article! I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s books although, admittedly, it was many, many years ago. While I was a college student in the early seventies I was introduced to him in an English Lit class. There is indeed much to appreciate for those of us who dare to label ourselves Christian in what Vonnegut’s sermon has to say about us from the perspective of an Agnostic fan of Jesus. I always find it enlightening to find out what someone like Ricky Lee Jones or Kurt Vonnegut, who love Jesus but don t think they re Christians, think about us who say we are Christians. Their appreciation of Jesus teachings are, more often than not, as literal and authentic as those of us who confess his name as Lord. I personally find that they bring in a perspective that is genuine, uniquely fresh and outside the box of the usual Evangelical theological thinking. And, I confess, I too love The Life of Brian. It has been a wonderful tool for theological and historical discussion in my home for many, many years.



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Hali

posted April 17, 2007 at 2:10 am


Ryan, Thanks for that. Vonnegut had that wonderful gift of making one laugh and feel like screaming at the same time. I am always glad to be reminded of Jesus’s sense of humor. It is a wonderful way to communicate and a prominent feature of Middle Eastern cultures. (Try reading the Bible in an Israeli accent and see if you don’t get a different perspective.)



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Hali

posted April 17, 2007 at 2:11 am


Ryan, by the way, C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S !!!!



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Bren

posted April 17, 2007 at 4:49 am


I especially like Vonnegut’s urgings to us to be kind. It’s a message that many of the unbending types of evangelicals ought to listen to, carefully; leave the judging of others to God. And yes, humour; I find it funny that as I type this I see-just below the comment box- the beliefnet advertisement for 365 days of religious jokes for ones cellphone. Thankfully, I have no cellphone so it’s easy to turn down that offer. But I do like the joke: Next time you think you’re perfect, try walking on water!



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butch

posted April 17, 2007 at 6:50 am


Bren, you know about the dysletic atheist that didn’t believe in Dog?



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Eddie Felker

posted April 17, 2007 at 1:46 pm


First Ryan, Congratulations to you and your new bride. My wife and I just celebrated our first anniversary this past Sunday. Now to Vonnegut. We’ve lost a real gem with a true gift to make us laugh through the darkest circumstances imaginable. (I’m thinking “Cat’s Cradle” at the moment.) Thanks for your insight. I do believe the Lord has a sense of humor. Just look at the Duck-Billed Platapus. Peace, Eddie Felker



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Alicia

posted April 17, 2007 at 8:31 pm


Vonnegut is my brother’s favorite writer. Thanks very much from quoting from his wonderful sermon. (“Life of Brian” is also a personal fave.)



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Will

posted April 17, 2007 at 8:43 pm


I love Vonnegut, and Heller as well. For some reason those two go together for me. They have an interesting sense of humor, Vonnegut will surely be missed. Thanks for the post Ryan.



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bucket

posted April 18, 2007 at 12:31 am


To all the young emergents who are combining your last name and your spouse’s last name, therefore creating two last names….I have some questions. Do you still have a middle name? Have you thought through what your kids names are going to be? Will they also have two last names? Now what if your two-last-name kid marries somebody else’s two-last-name kid and they want to be cool and do the same thing? Four last names!!?!?!If this madness were to continue for just 14 generations (like there were from Abraham to David), these people would have 16,384 names!! Think about how long it would take to sign your name on a document! OK, shifting gears. If anyone ever uses that story (Jesus accepting the woman’s sacrificial gift of perfume) to say that means we shouldn’t look after poor people is not reading very carefully. I would tell this person to finish the sentence, because Jesus also said “but you will not always have me”. Today, we no longer have Jesus with us in bodily form. Therefore, take care of the poor. Good idea.



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Rachel

posted April 18, 2007 at 12:55 am


Ryan, congratulations on your wedding! My husband and I have been married for 14 years and it keeps getting better and better!



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HASH(0x118b51c0)

posted April 18, 2007 at 4:21 am


God bless you, Mr. Rosewater.



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peter

posted April 18, 2007 at 6:59 pm


thanks for this post ryan – i feel the same way about Vonnegut, in that his writing can be challenging and provoking. i read his short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ last week to my high school youth group as our lesson. Vonnegut has a lot to say to all of us through his amazing life and writings.



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Joe Ricke

posted April 19, 2007 at 11:06 pm


What? Your bashing of the Relevant Bono article is silly and insincere. It’s a pose, because the supposed theme which you pooh-pooh is not really what the article is about. No problem–engage artists on their own terms. But that doesn’t rule out engaging, challenging Christians for faulty theology. It may be that the writer’s is faulty, but we won’t know because you can’t lower yourself to think. That’s not artiste-ic. And, besides, why are you worried about what anyone in “evangelical circles” is doing?



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Julie

posted April 19, 2007 at 11:47 pm


I haven’t read much Vonnegut lately, but he will always have a special place in my heart. I read just about everything of his that I could get my hands on in my college days. I even have a copy of Palm Sunday that I got him to autograph back in 1983. It includes his infamous asterisk. As he signed an autograph for a rather ditzy girl she asked, “What’s that star in your signature?” I snorted. He glanced at the girl, he glanced at me, and went right back to signing, ignoring her question. If she actually read his books she would have known about his claims to be the only author who puts his “asshole in his autograph.” I was lucky enough to see the master in action. Julie



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Steven R

posted April 20, 2007 at 8:01 am


Great article. Great quote. Great Writer. Sad loss. Thanks Ryan My summary. —-PS. Um .. maybe The double-barreled surname quoter is misunderstanding things or maybe I am? Could it be that Ryan Rodrick Beiler is first name, middle name, surname rather than being a (usually hyphenated?) coupled name? Anyway, seems like a minor point and an easily solved one to me – why not create a new name from fusing both? Eg. Ted Slythes & Zahrah Vixenrod get married and become Mrs & Mr Slyvixen Carina Slyvixen marries Tobias Gelli-Fische and they become Slvigelfish.. ?



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Steven R

posted April 20, 2007 at 8:23 am


‘Life of Brian’ would have to be my favourite comedy. I also saw Gibson’s ‘The Passion” movie over Easter. It was brutally realistic but I think claimsitisanti-semitic are grossly overstated because it showed Jesus and the disciples as being very Jewish, of good people and bad people among both and quoted some key lines at key times like Jesus praying for forgiveness of Caiaphas and noting “No one takes my life, I lay it down willingly for the sheep as a good shepherd.” I think it paints Caipahas in a bad light sure – but then so does the Bible! It seems likely that he and the Sanhedrin as the powerfuland challenged Jewish authorities _did_ playa strong negative roile in causing Jesus crucification in reality – on all accounts we have available. I donot think this means Jews generally aretoblame for Jesus’es daeth nort do Ithink Gibson intended to convey that message.I thought ‘The Passion’ was confronting, gripping, moving and had moments of tenderness mixed with long, perhaps too-long spans of cruelty but NOT racially motivated or designed to single out and blame the religio-ethnico-tribal-national community that is the Jewish people.If anything contributes strongly to anti-Semitism these days – a problem well worth fighting, the key cause I think needs most focus is Israel’s own behaviour esp. their treatment of the Palestineans and other Muslim neighbours.If Israel really wants peace, if it really wants to diminish anti-Jewish feeling around the planet I think they would do themselves – and us all – a real favour by acknowledging the basic humanity and respecting the human rights and legitimate greivances of the Palestineans, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians etc ..After all it was the world’s most famous Jew who said “Live by the sword and you die by it. (&) Love thy neighbour” & so forth ..Be kind please O’Israel; Shalom, Salaam & Peace upon all could stem from a little bit of kindness and respect to others.



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Jim

posted April 20, 2007 at 8:50 pm


And so it goes.



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Brian Mannix

posted April 21, 2007 at 6:19 am


You spent your honeymoon READING?!



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Tom Copps

posted May 24, 2007 at 9:15 pm


I have not read any Vonnegut but would like to. Where do I start? Thanks for any suggestions.



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Graham

posted December 31, 2007 at 12:00 pm


I’m glad you posted this. Your mention of your faith and ability to reflect on other opinions with out letting your religious practices shape any preconceived notions of the way things ‘ought to be’ truly gives justice to his work and its power to express the basic need for human compassion and understanding. As for the last comment by Tom Copps, I recommend you start with Breakfast of Champions. I did, and I never looked back.



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