The Man Who Met God in a Bar, by Robert Farrar Capon – Preface to the Mockingbird Edition

If you haven’t yet gotten your hands on Mockingbird’s latest publication, a completely outrageous novel by […]

Mockingbird / 5.11.17

If you haven’t yet gotten your hands on Mockingbird’s latest publication, a completely outrageous novel by the late Robert Farrar Capon, you can now find it on Amazon and in our online store! The Man Who Met God in a Bar: The Gospel According to Marvin reimagines the gospel story as though it had happened in 1990s Cleveland, where Peter is a traveling salesman…and Mary is a yogi…and Jesus is a short-order cook…. You don’t want to miss this.

The following preface was written by the one and only Ethan Richardson:

If there were an award given for “Most Terrible Parable,” my vote would go straight for the one about the coins. Known traditionally as “The Parable of the Talents,” the story almost single-handedly drove me out of the church and into a spiritual detox. You may know it: the tale of a nobleman who is leaving town for a while and so offers three of his servants an investment opportunity, as shifty salesmen do, giving each one a different amount of money “according to their ability.” Amy All-Star gets five talents (or coins), Count-On-It Carl gets two, and the lowlife, who maybe we just call Larry, gets one. If you’re already getting nervous, just wait.

Each of them is given the same objective: to take care of what’s been entrusted to them. Larry, who sounds a lot like me if I’m being honest, is afraid he’s just one more demotion from the curb, so he wraps it up in a napkin and buries it. He thinks he’s being smart by not losing the one thing he’s been given. You can hear his thought process, can’t you? Oh man, just imagine what the boss’d say—I’m already on the rocks with the guy—if I lost this one, too…It’s not worth the risk. I’ve got to keep this job.

Predictably, the boss returns, and Amy and Carl have doubled their funds, now sitting in higher cotton than they were before this cruel experiment. Lowlife Larry, on the other hand, only falls farther. As he tries to explain to the nobleman why he buried the coin, how afraid he was of losing it, his boss silences him and tells him to pack up his desk. “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Jesus gives his listeners the following ominous warning: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

So, considering some of the nicer parables—about lost lambs found, about prodigal sons welcomed home, about the last being first—yeah, this one sticks out to me. Even if you seem more like All-Star Amy, and you view yourself as someone with quite a lot to be grateful for, you can’t not hear the conditionality lining this story.

Like a sore toe, this parable became impossible to ignore. It came to dictate the Jesus I believed in. And it wasn’t exactly the Sweet Jesus of Lambs and Orphans. It was the Very Serious Jesus of Judgment I had always been afraid was hiding behind the curtain. It’s not surprising that this picture of God—the expectant landlord, his threat of punishment, his focus on productivity—has provoked leagues of burnouts over the church’s tenure. Have you done enough? Invested wisely enough? Have you, too, chosen to sit on my opportunities for fear of losing them?

Which sets the scene for my first introduction to Robert Farrar Capon, at a Bible study which happened to be reading this exact parable. Suddenly, this terrible parable became new to me; in a moment, the Jesus of my Fears was met by the Jesus of our Faith, when the Bible study leader read the following passage from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment.  The nobleman is not angry at the squandered opportunity to turn a profit; the nobleman is angry because Larry (Capon calls him Arthur, actually) was too afraid of him to take any risks. So he takes the coin back, and gives Larry/Arthur a talking-to:

The gift of grace is not a reward for hard work or good behavior, it is a lark, a joke, a hilariously inequitable largesse: it is, in a word, a gift. Don’t you see, Arthur? It’s all a game. All that matters is that you play at all, not that you play well or badly. You could have earned a million with the money I gave you, or you could have earned two cents. You could even have blown it on the horses for all I care: at least that way you would have been a gambler after my own heart. But when you crawl in here and insult me—me, Mr. Risk Himself—by telling me you decided that I couldn’t be trusted enough for you to gamble on a two-bit loss, that I was some legalistic type who went only by the books, well…

In short, Capon told me, “You’ve got it all wrong, yellow belly!” Yes, this is a parable of judgment. No doubt about it. But not how you think. It is not a story about what you could’ve done and didn’t do. It is a story about what you never could’ve done and who did it for you. It is not God’s judgment on your missing the mark, it is God’s judgment on your wrong idea of him. The parable, in Capon’s estimation, imagines God not as the penny-pinching type but as the gambling type. He is a God who takes risks, who throws play money out into the expanses of his creation and wants his children to spend freely. The parable is a judgment on the God of your Fears. Jesus is saying, “If you see me as creditor, as teetotaler, as warden, go on. You obviously don’t know me.”

Just like Lowlife Larry (or Lowlife Arthur), I was suddenly found out. For all the years I had been going to Bible studies, making good choices, hoping to be a world-changer, I had been operating in good faith to the wrong God. Suddenly, in the worst of the worst parables, Jesus himself appeared to me, and so did his message of wild, profligate grace. I have Robert Farrar Capon to thank for that.

And so, of course, I couldn’t stop there. I bought Kingdom, Grace, Judgment and every other book of his I could find and, in no time, the man had flipped my entire biblical framework upside-down. Everything was made strange to me: the bad guys were actually the good guys, the ones I used to see as exemplars were actually the deadbeats. The images of the Kingdom that Jesus described, which I had always personalized as something I could “embody” or “engage” in culture, became beautiful pictures of what God has been doing, without me, forever. I felt the weights come off, and I felt the undeniable playfulness and freedom that faith in Jesus was always supposed to elicit.

Fast forward to the present and, dozens of Capon books later, I can safely say that this running theme of playfulness is the man’s signature. It is representative of his writing style, yes, but only because it is first representative of God’s Kingdom. Play is only possible when faith is no longer something you prove but something you’ve been given. When God is not waiting upon your “getting serious” about Him. Play happens when you are invited outside the cathedrals of your own inner sanctity, and you have the absence of mind to muck about in the world. School’s out and summer’s in. You are free to throw some paint around, build a fort, binge-watch a new show, make love, take a nap. Just like in that terrible parable, God asks only that we trust him at his word—you really are free!

Capon understood this preposterous invitation better than anyone. Churchman and food writer, he equated theology with fox hunting (the fox is never got) and onions with sacrament. Everything he’s written seems to be an extension of this playfulness, a riff on the joy of the Gospel message. Including this book that you hold in your hands. You cannot possibly see God as a “hard man” if you have the audacity to call his only begotten Son Jerry and make him a short order cook in Cleveland. To have written this book, in other words, you had to believe the Gospel, not as a call into the serious business of religious rectitude, but as a story so laughably good that it has to be mimicked, re-told, turned over, held up. You would have to believe not only that the story was worth retelling, but also that the One who held the rights for it would be slaphappy you did so. (Especially if you had a bum like Marvin telling it!)

Within all of this, of course, is the secret ingredient the Gospel of Jesus Christ lends of its own accord, humility. I have come to see, via Robert Capon himself, that faith in grace means humility, inasmuch as humility is the prerequisite of humor. Why take yourself so seriously, Arthur/Larry/Marvin, when you’re the great pearl already? What’s to prove? What’s the fixation on “getting it right” when the Host is here and shaking your martini?

I sometimes wonder about Jesus laughing—the Bible never says he did—and certainly the Cross is no laughing matter. Nor are many of the parables, for that matter. On the other hand, he called the silly, obnoxious kids around him and said the kingdom was for them; and then there was the slow-going and forgetful nobodies who followed him around—wasn’t this a time-sensitive ministry anyway? Perhaps Jesus wasn’t concerned with making much of himself. This is what Capon continues to teach me. Of the joy of Christ in the character of Jerry, that He died and rose again, that we may sit and wonder at what we’ve gotten all spun-around about, to feel relief for once in our jaws at night, and hurt in the gut from laughing at crude jokes.

And so, with his good blessing, I leave you to the man who met God, not in a church, but in a bar. His name is Marvin and, if you can get past the pain of admitting it, his story may sound like yours. By the end, you’ll even hope so.

The Man Who Met God in a Bar is available now!

Oh, and once you’ve gotten off the roller coaster, help spread the Gospel According to Marvin by writing a review on Amazon. Many thanks!

PS: Robert’s wife, our friend Valerie, wrote a short but stunning bio of Robert, which you’ll find on the back of the book. She writes:

Robert Farrar Capon, the author of this imaginative modern retelling of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, is also my husband and best friend of thirty-five years. It was easy to get caught up in Robert’s zest for life and living. His delight in all things visible and invisible was infectious. He loved preaching, teaching, theology, writing, cooking, history, playing the recorder, translating Greek, Latin and Hebrew, woodworking, jogging, nature and making people laugh. He ran four miles every morning but halfway through would stretch out on the grass of our local golf course and spend time looking for God’s fingerprints. He brought home treasures for me from his daily wanderings: wildflowers, horse chestnuts, marsh elder, scallop shells, freshly dug bamboo shoots in spring and pockets full of colored leaves in autumn. I asked how old he thought he was and he answered briefly, “Nine.” He never left childhood behind. When he was writing a book he wrote every day except Sunday. He proclaimed that Sunday was his day off and insisted that he had a vacation to the priesthood not a vocation. Celebrating Holy Communion and preaching the Gospel were Robert’s most selfless offerings to God. His abiding love for Jesus sparkled in the warm light of his eyes that magically tripled on Sundays. He also got very silly after church and stayed that way all day. We called it his Silly Sunday Mood.

We had fun. We had one another. We still do in Jesus. We had laughter, joy, yummy feasts and blessings without number all the days of our time together. I know Robert is at the Supper of the Lamb saving me a seat at the table.