While I’m at home writing my thesis, I’m taking a Theology class for kicks and giggles. One of my classmates is into the NT (as you well know, my jam is the Old Testament), and did a bit on Jesus the other day. The point was to identify the very human emotions the Gospels tell us Jesus experienced, and begin to think about Jesus as a man, who lived and breathed and went through life much like we do: alternately angry, joyful, frustrated, thrilled, empathetic…you get the drift. It was a great presentation, except that it left out my favorite aspect of Jesus’ humanity: Snark.
British author Evelyn Waugh was a Master of Snark. Remember Waugh? Somewhere along the way, you were assigned Brideshead Revisited, which is one of those books you really ought to reread as an adult, in your spare time between 2 and 2:05 am every night.
Waugh grew up among writers, the son of an editor and the brother of an author; he attended Oxford, where, he wrote to a friend, “I do no work … and never go to Chapel.” He was a heavy drinker, had affairs with both men and women, and was generally unmotivated to do anything much in the way of academics, despite being undeniably bright. After leaving Oxford (without a degree), he took a job as a school teacher, and was fired after attempting to seduce a school matron. He then attempted to become a painter, failed, and took up writing instead.
Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was Evelyn Gardiner. Apparently they were known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn to their friends…is it any wonder She-Evelyn ran off? Poor dear needed her own identity.
Not to mention, Waugh could be decidedly unpleasant. But he had a fantastic talent for pointing out the absurdities of English society. In that regard, he had a staunch ally in Nancy Mitford (More about Mitford in Word Nerd), and the two carried on a lengthy and hearty correspondence.
The writing of Waugh’s that delights me, however, is not a novel. Rather, it is a letter written to Waugh’s second wife, Laura Herbert, from Yugoslavia, where Waugh was stationed as a war correspondent. Here is a portion of the letter:
Darling, Laura, sweet whiskers, do try to write me better letters. Your last, dated 19 December received today, so eagerly expected, was a bitter disappointment. Do realize that a letter need not be a bald chronicle of events; I know you lead a dull life now, my heart bleeds for it, though I believe you could make it more interesting if you had the will. But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I am simply not interested in Bridget’s children. Do grasp that. A letter should be a form of conversation; write as though you were talking to me.
Lovely, no?! Where do we even begin with this letter?
Poor Laura, home with the children, takes the time to write her husband a letter, and his response is to call her life dull, criticize her for lacking the will to make it more interesting, and shame her for thinking he might have an interest in someone else’s children! (Apparently Waugh had very little interest in his own children — although his interest in his wife was enough to make seven of them).
I can say with some certainty that if I were Laura, that would have been the final correspondence between us. But I have to give Waugh props for packing so much snark into such a brief text. That takes mad skills.
Jesus managed to put serious snark into some of his interactions, too, if you read the parables as many scholars do. In Luke 7, verses 1-10, for instance, we get a peak at Snarky Jesus. Here’s the text (from the NRSV):
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Let’s unpack this, shall we? First of all, the centurion is a Roman — one of the occupying oppressors. Secondly, the word used here for “slave,” in the opinion of many scholars, carries a sexual connotation — but we can leave that alone and just understand the ill boy as a servant and not a boy toy, if it makes you happy.
Thirdly, the centurion has allocated funds to build a synagogue. Nice of him, right? Or perhaps just politically expedient, since doing so would tamp down civil unrest in the territory he’s been charged with overseeing…
Finally, it’s important to remember that Jesus lived in a culture based on honor. The centurion’s not a follower of Jesus; he has no faith in Jesus. He’s only “heard of” Jesus, and is laying down an honor challenge: “Let’s see if this Jesus guy lives up to his hype.” So the centurion insults Jesus by sending his minions out to meet him rather than greeting Jesus in person, with the lame excuse that he’s “not worthy” of hosting Jesus (a major insult in a hospitality culture). Finally, the centurion ends by bragging about himself and his supremacy – another challenge to Jesus’ so-called authority!
What does Jesus do, in return? He turns to the crowd and praises the centurion’s amazing faith! “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!”
This is some Waugh-Level Snark!
And to top it off, Jesus goes ahead and heals the servant (boy toy), without telling anyone. In your face, Feather Duster!
Snarky Jesus? You bet! Evelyn Waugh would have been proud….had he ever gone to Chapel.