The Man Who Met John the Baptist in a Diner

“He’s Also Clued Me in on the Dying and Rising Business — Which Apparently You Never Even Heard of …”

Mockingbird / 8.13.21

Just a zany, but brilliant book, The Man Who Met God in a Bar is the kind of fictional story you’d expect from an ordained, grace-loving expert on Jesus’ parables. Robert Farrar Capon retells the tale of Jesus’s life, set in Cleveland in the 90s and told from the perspective of a salesman named Marvin. Capon mixes Bible scholarship with off-the-wall humor and genuine creativity.

After Marvin meets Jerry (i.e. Jesus) in a bar, he goes to see him a week later, only to run into Jerry’s cousin Spencer (i.e. John the Baptist). Spencer and Jerry are related, but they’re not exactly close. Or they were close once, but not anymore …

[Editor’s note: the names of the speakers are added throughout the dialogue for clarity.]

Marvin: “So the two of you talked about the world. Tell me, what did you decide you were going to do?”

Spencer: “Well, we came up with all the usual things, I suppose. Antiwar demonstrations, anti-nuclear protests, back-to the-land-movements, no exploitation of the environment, social justice, encouraging people to purge their bodies of the poisons of affluence, development of the inner self, meditation…”

Marvin: “Jerry was into that stuff, too? I must say, from my conversation with him, I’d never have guessed it.”

Spencer: “That’s precisely my problem. The nearer we get to the time we’re supposed to do something, the further apart we seem to be on the program. Why, I actually went so far as to move here to Cleveland a year ago — just so we could be closer, you know — and would you believe, I don’t think I’ve spent more than twenty-four hours with him in the whole time.”

I never like listening to complaints about people. Right away, I feel I have to make excuses for them. “Maybe he’s just busy. A chef has a six-day week at least.”

Spencer: “It’s not just the time, Marvin. It’s the way he’s been drifting. He just doesn’t seem to have his old zeal for the right things.”

Spencer goes quiet for a couple of seconds, then all of a sudden, his eyes pop wide open, and he gets wound up. “Why, I remember one day—I think it was back in ’71 or ’72—he actually went and messed up the Selective Service records of the entire city of Cleveland. Shee-it! You should’ve seen it. That was a miracle.”

Marvin: “It was good, huh?”

Spencer: “It was terrific! He took this toy walkie-talkie and just stood outside the Draft Board office on the sidewalk. Then he put everything he had into it and pushed the button. Glory be! He burned out every circuit in the computer. There was smoke pouring out the windows, and people running all over the place — they never did figure out what hit them. Took six months to get it all back together.”

Spencer had tears running down his cheeks he was so excited. Still, demonstrations are not my style, so I try to get him off the subject. “What about Jerry? He got angry that time, too?”

Spencer: Did he ever! He wasn’t fit to talk to for a week. Swore he’d never do anything like that again.”

Marvin: “And did he?”

Spencer: “No. Unfortunately.” Since Spencer’s face drops almost lower than his voice when he says this, I think maybe I can finally put my finger on what’s bothering him: “So that’s your problem, huh? He won’t do miracles anymore.”

Spencer: “No, Marvin. That’s still only part of it. I could see his argument that protests like that don’t produce much lasting benefit. What I couldn’t see was the way he started backing away from all the other good things we agreed on.”

This time, I can almost smell the lecture coming on brown rice and honey with pieces of wax in it. I decide to do an end run around his cousin’s connection with veal, butter, and cream. “You mean, like meditation or something? I don’t think you have any worries. Jerry made a point of telling me he prays.”

Spencer: “But what did he mean by that, Marvin? You know what he told me he does when he prays? He asks for answers!”

Spencer says this with a lot of force, so even though it doesn’t seem like such a horrible idea to me, I go along with him. “That’s bad, huh?”

Spencer: “Of course it is, Marvin. The purpose of meditation is to eliminate everything that disturbs a person’s Wa—to reach a state of complete acceptance of karma. Asking for anything simply sets you at odds with the universe.”

As I said, I’m slow to make comparisons. But now another one begins to dawn on me: in spite of the God business, Jerry is suddenly looking pretty good again. I mean, he at least sounds like somebody a regular person could spend an evening with. Between Spencer’s bag of seeds and his Wa, I’d be up the wall in an hour. Still, who am I to be critical? I ask him, “What’s a Wa?”

Spencer: “Harmony, Marvin. Harmony. It’s there for everyone, if only they’ll eliminate the things that disturb it.”

Marvin: “In my experience, that could be one hell of a lot of things.” This, I realize, is coming on stronger than I meant to, but then…

“Look, Spencer,” I say to him. “You ever think possibly this harmony business of yours might have just a little hot air in it? I’m no psychologist, but maybe if you didn’t make such a big deal about your Wa, your cousin wouldn’t be so much of a problem.”

Spencer: “What do you mean?”

Marvin: “I mean that there’s no way somebody like Jerry — somebody who claims he’s really God, that is — is not gonna disturb the hell out of everybody.”

Spencer: “But I’d be perfectly willing to believe he was God…”

Marvin: “No you wouldn’t, Spencer. You’d only believe him if he swore off what you consider ungodly things. Which is not exactly trusting somebody, you know. It’s more like asking him to pass a test.”

Spencer: “But the ungodly things — he agreed to swear off them once himself.”

Marvin: “Spencer! He was a kid then…” As I start to say this, the waitress comes by without even stopping and drops the check, so I hold up a finger to interrupt myself and pretend I’m figuring the tip I’m not giving her. I need a minute to think. What am I doing here, arguing for things I already said I didn’t believe? I decide to stand up and put on my coat before something even funnier happens.

Spencer gets up too, but he’s not about to let me go. “How does his being a kid enter into it if he’s really been God all along?”

“What?” I say to him. “Just because he’s God, he can’t get rid of a dim idea when he outgrows it?” Suddenly for some reason, I hear myself. Holy shit, I think. I’m beginning to sound exactly like Jerry.

We head for the cash register, but Spencer still can’t get off the subject. “Those things weren’t all dim ideas.”

Marvin: “Who’s to say? Maybe he’s just seen brighter ones.”

Spencer: “I really would like to believe that, you know.”

Marvin: “Yeah, I guess. But you never will if you keep wishing he was back munching vegetables and blowing up computers. Look, I talked to him. As far as I can see, he’s not going that way. If he’s the important one, you just have to trust him, period.”

Spencer: “You mean, with no ideal criteria involved at all?”

Marvin: “You got it, Spencer. Take me, for instance. I’m one up on you … as a matter of fact, make that two. First, I think his laid-back attitude is absolutely terrific, so I haven’t got your problems with it. But second, he’s also clued me in on the dying and rising business — which apparently you never even heard of…”

Spencer: “But do you think it was right for him not to tell me something as import…”

Marvin: “Spencer, don’t interrupt.” I give the cashier my money and turn back to him. “All I’m saying is that even though I’m two ahead of you, trusting him means trusting him, not just the things I happen to like about him. For all I know, in a couple of weeks he could come around completely changed — like no more Mr. Laid-Back, maybe, or with the idea of rising from the dead dumped in the trash can for good — whatever. The point is, if I want to go along with him, what’s got to count is what he says, whenever he says it — not a bunch of stuff I turned into my own pet ideas.”

Spencer stood there and rubbed his chin while I picked up my change. “You know?” he said. “I never thought of it that way. You really do trust him, don’t you?”

Marvin: “I didn’t till you talked me into it, Spencer. Tell Jerry I’ll see him next Friday.”

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