Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

God, in his mercy, sends preachers. Some are well-educated and institutionally-approved folk serving the faithful in fine old churches, but in these last days we should take no alarm that the same Lord who spoke through Balaam’s ass might again choose an eccentric instrument. His preachers are not necessarily welcomed even under ordinary circumstances – indeed, the urgency of the need and the warmth of the reception seem often enough to have an inverse relationship. Again, this should not surprise, because the preacher’s first word is a word of law, a word of death, the thunder from heaven that silences every voice and mocks every ambition.

The word of the Preacher*, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, is designed to offend. Pete Seeger songs aside, I know of no one who truly loves the book of Ecclesiastes. All is vanity, vapor – the Hebrew word is hebel, a mere breath, a here one moment gone the next puff of nothing. Wisdom and effort collapse, and one can forgive the reader who mistakes the sum for simple nihilism. It isn’t that, but it doesn’t seem terribly far off, either.

*There are significant arguments against this reading of the term qoheleth, but it’s traditional, and I don’t care.

All this to say that when an unexpected preacher comes into an unexpected place spouting the essential message of Ecclesiastes – and maybe more – we know how this is going to go. And it most certainly has. Recently, (formerly?) beloved, if undeniably tortured, Canadian(!) funny man Jim Carrey faux-blundered his way onto the red carpet at New York Fashion Week and gave a hard-working reporter from E! her career highlight to date. If you haven’t seen it, watch. If you have, watch it again:

Not residing inside the fashion world’s bubble of impermeable self-importance, we find this attack hilarious. We are with Carrey as long as his accusations are trained on a group of people who aren’t us, and whose obsessions are so obviously vacuous to us. But the Preacher says, “All is vanity,” and so the accusation cannot stop at “You know, there’s no meaning to any of this,” because this is ambiguous. It might just mean the red carpet, E!, NYFW, the fashion industry, or famous people on TV. So he presses on, because he has a Word for us, too:

“I don’t believe in personalities. I don’t believe that you exist, but there is a wonderful fragrance in the air…

Yeah, no, I don’t believe in icons, I don’t believe in personalities, I believe that peace lies beyond personality, beyond invention and disguise, beyond the red ‘s’ that you wear on your chest that makes bullets bounce off. I believe that it’s deeper than that. I believe that we’re a field of energy dancing for itself, and uh, I don’t care…

No, I didn’t get dressed up. There is no me…

There’s just things happening. There are clusters of tetrahedrons moving around together…

Here’s the thing—it’s not our world. That’s the key…Nope, nope. We don’t matter. We don’t matter. There’s the good news.”

Now that is how you speak categorically. It isn’t merely actions and associations that are vapor, others’ or ours, but we ourselves who are empty. We don’t matter. We are “invention and disguise,” as fictitious (and fictively invulnerable) as our superheroes. We aren’t liars – we are a lie. Accused of lying, the liar has some bedrock of truth to fall back on, but the lie isn’t even in control of itself. It cannot answer, except by pretending it has not heard. Ha ha, crazy Jim Carrey! What will he get up to next? He must be off his meds, or have imbibed too much new age quackery, or just be clowning. So the responses came to this interview, and so we must concur, because we simply must matter, and there can’t be any good news in admitting otherwise, can there?

Jim Carrey was not simply clowning. He came to preach, and as the puzzled responses to his sermon piled up, he revisited the topic, taking away absolutely nothing from the earlier remarks:

Here the Preacher does not even spare himself. All is vanity? Yes, all, I especially:

As an actor you play characters, and then if you go deep enough into those characters you realize that your own character’s pretty thin to begin with. and then you suddenly have this separation and you go, who’s Jim Carrey? Oh, he doesn’t exist actually. There’s just, a relative manifestation of consciousness, appearing, and then somebody gave him a bunch of ideas- they gave him a name and a religion and a nationality, and he clustered those together into something that’s supposed to be a personality.

Understand – the laughing dismissal of the morning news types is their only remaining defense against this savagery. One more Hollywood has-been gone goofy – but he’s not defensive, not at all. I have rarely seen such honesty from a public figure. The position he has assumed has utterly deprived him of righteousness, since one with a thin to nonexistent character cannot even purport to be a good person. Again, we might say this is nihilistic, but a man without hope ought to sound more bitter. Jim Carrey, though his troubles are many and well-documented, is not a man without hope. He spoke of good news – what could he mean by that?

This next video is longer, and stranger, but well worth a watch. The theology is as scattershot as one might expect, a curious blend of Catholicism, metaphysical speculation, recovery language, and the Bible. It dates from a few months back, and if you have not seen it, this is a talk Jim Carrey gave a few months back to a nonprofit called Homeboy Industries, founded in 1992 by a Jesuit priest, Father Gregory Boyle (author of Tattoos on the Heart, seen speaking at the beginning of the video). Homeboy Industries “provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community,” according to their own website. Carrey actively supports Boyle and this organization. Take a look:

If you are at all like me (God help you), you would be inclined to dismiss something like the above on the basis of its doctrinal imprecision regarding, and this is just a short list, choice and the bound will, law and gospel, works righteousness, divine ubiquity, and the Lord’s Supper. These things are important – supremely important. But for that very reason, I cannot dismiss this sermon – to close one’s ears to a preacher because he speaks in an unusual idiom and is loose with his words is nothing but the last gasp of a will bound to preserve itself. I might preach differently, but I was not called to stand in that room and preach to those men and women.

So we observe our strange preacher, wearing a shirt that says ‘Mentally Gone,’ and looking far more at home than in NY, begin with a confession of faith, and proceed to declare that his congregation, exclusively composed of the broken and lawless, are heroes to him.

Ultimately, I believe that suffering leads to salvation. And in fact, it’s the only way… You’ve made the decision to walk through the gate of forgiveness, to grace, just as Christ did on the cross. He suffered terribly, and he was broken by it, to the point of doubt and a feeling of absolute abandonment, which all of you have felt. And then there was a decision to be made, and the decision was to look upon the people who were causing that suffering, and the situation that was causing that suffering, with compassion, and with forgiveness. And that’s what opens the gates of heaven for all of us. So, I wish that for all of you, I wish that for myself. I know that no matter what I’ve suffered, most of you have suffered worse than that, but that’s why I admire you, because you’re here, and you will have grace, because this decision has been made. So I’m so glad to be with you, and to be a part of this. Thank you Father Greg…

There is some confusion here over the will, and so on the matter of grace and works. I won’t deny it. I will, however, insist on hearing this in the context of Carrey’s remarkable assault on the self. What does it mean to make a decision, when the very ‘I’ that I would suppose makes the decision is a non-thing, when the self has been so undermined that it has no place to stand and choose? These are not the words of a trained theologian or experienced preacher, but, shades of Amos, “no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.” They express something not uncommon to those who know only the language of free will, but have met a truth much deeper: that it is God alone who acts in all these things.

…So when you do good things, when you decide to transcend the negativity and attempt to do something positive for you, for your family, you are the heart of God. You are the eyes of God. When you speak from that place, you are God’s voice. And when you make a loaf of bread in this place, in this kitchen, that is a eucharist. You’re blessing people with your work. you’re serving the world with your work, with your effort. That is a eucharist. That is the body of Christ. And I thank you for everything you’re dong. You’re amazing. You’re champions. I admire you.

Mr. Carrey, who has spent his life pretending to be various people, most of all Jim Carrey, now finds himself curiously himself, precisely by virtue of not being himself. Accept for a moment that these talks are no artifice, no deeper descent into character, but that he means precisely what he said to the E! reporter – Jim’s not here, man. And that’s the good news. How? Only if Jim has found himself outside himself, in the life of another. This is the life of Galatians 2:20:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

My own character is rather thin – and who hasn’t feared that? The worry is real – not that I’ll lose stuff, or status, or power, but that I could lose me, that my hold on myself is already weak, that I just might not be what I think that I am. All my attempts at pinning myself down – online quizzes, personality inventories, excessively personal creative writing projects – succeed in fixing only a momentary representation, a kind of persistent fiction. A mask, as it were. (Come on, you knew that was coming. It didn’t hurt that bad, did it?) Just so much vapor.

But God is real. Jesus Christ is real, and there’s more than enough of him. That “omnipresence” Carrey refers to is not mere speculative weirdness – it has a basic Christian truth to it. Jesus Christ is, by his grace, present to, and in, his people. I do not know whether or when we will hear another confession, another sermon, from Jim Carrey. Perhaps never, as there is no guarantee that, even if his testimony continues, he will be sent to testify to us. But I am struck by the faith expressed already – that here, in the self that is not myself, there is freedom to speak, to preach, to confess, even if the world thinks you’re a deranged clown.