We know you’ve heard this one before, but please bear with us:
So a Jewish grandmother walks on a beach with her beloved grandson when a big wave suddenly sweeps the boy underwater. “Dear God Almighty,” cries Grandma, “how can you do this to me? I suffered all my life and never lost faith. Shame on you!” Not a minute passed by, and another big wave brings the child back to her arms safe and sound. “Dear God Almighty,” she says, “that’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but where’s his hat?”
An oldie we know, but a true classic. What is this joke really about?
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Now look deeper. There is a bold theology therein. We are no longer joking.
Unlike most believers of most religions, our Grandma does not conflate faith with awe. She treats the Lord of Hosts with a healthy pinch of chutzpah. Scrupulous and stingy, impertinent and impolite, she is nevertheless magnificent in her unsentimental devotion. But devotion to whom, exactly? To her grandson or to God?
Careful. You don’t truly want to test these two grand-maternal devotions against each other. God himself doesn’t really want to know. And since we are personally acquainted with Grandma, we can tell you that after the joke officially ended, it is very likely that he humbly returned the hat.
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Three is a Jewish theology of chutzpah. It resides in the subtle juncture of faith, argumentativeness, and self-targeting humor. It amounts to a uniquely irreverent reverence.
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Our granny on the beach is not considered blasphemous to anyone we know. The Hebrew Bible set the tone with both Abraham and Job haggling with the Almighty over what they see as poor performance in the hands-on divine intervention. (192-194)
What I have to say here could easily be spun into a broad, whole-cultural analysis for, say, By Common Consent. But for today, I will content myself to deal with the—I will argue—false dichotomy between reverence and chutzpah within the realm of Mormon arts.
I remember once in the AML-List days writing a long essay called “Every Mormon Wants to Be a Jew” which included a theme song (based on this). Naturally, the post was moderated out of existence (in those days the list was limited to a certain amount of posts per day and I didn’t have the social capital to be heard very often), but I was hardly the only one making the observation. If I had a nickel for every time someone’s invoked Chaim Potok in discussion of Mormon literature, I could eat out at a very fancy hot-dog joint.
The reasons are obvious: A religion that behaves like an ethnicity! A history of persecution! A focus on learning and scripture! Of course, everything we do the Jews have done better—or at least for much longer—but observing Jewish interaction with the world of letters should inspire us, no matter how many holes get poked in the metaphor.
But maybe asking Where’s our Asher Lev? or Where’s our Alexander Portnoy? or Where’s our Gimpel the Fool? is not the lone place—or even the right place—to look to the Jews for inspiration.
Maybe we should start with their irreverent reverence.
As Latter-day Saints, we declare ourselves literal inheritors of the House of Israel. Certainly, we have a recent history that reflects the Abrahams and Moseses of yore. We believe in talking to God and getting answers. We believe in coming to him with proposals. We believe in our own authority to interpret scripture and we expect everyone to be a teacher.
We’ve arrived at this strange idea that reverence means folding your arms and closing your eyes—as if God’s role is to give us a nice surprise when we are sufficiently demure.
Where is our chutzpah?
Yes, yes, yes, accept the will of God, etc etc etc. But don’t just assume that what’s happening is the will of God. Push back! He expects it.
But how does this tie into the creation of art?
Let’s review my last two posts, real quick: James Goldberg‘s uncorrelated Jesus presents Jesus with equal amount of chutzpah and reverence. And Jack Harrell‘s call to arms is truly chutzpadik—it doesn’t ask us to make art that worships, but art that creates.
As Mormons, we believe in emulating God. That’s how our God wants to be worshiped. He wants us to become him.
Or, in other words, chutzpah may well be the highest form of reverence.
Now. What does balancing reverence and chutzpah look like in our art?