“Crazy Talk”: A Serious Review of a Zany Book

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I mentioned yesterday about my strange relationship with dictionaries–having read them as a kid, having been recruited to co-write one, and now actually recommending that others read one–cover to cover!–for themselves. Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms isn’t like any other theological dictionary I’ve (or likely you’ve) seen. It is humourous, sometimes sarcastic, and often manifests flashes of profundity. It takes its inspiration from the creative writer/theologian Frederich Buechner (it’s pronounced “Beek-ner”—-even that’s funny, isn’t it?) who wrote a book entitled, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. As one of the blurbs on the back of the book put it, “Crazy Talk reads like Frederick Buechner on steroids…” 

In 183 pages, the authors define about 100 theological terms ranging from “absolution” to “dogma” to “means of grace” to “YHWH” (apparently they couldn’t think of any “Z” terms). Each term is given a “one-liner” (think of a stand up comic’s punch line) definition, some of which are quite insightful, others of which are less so, others of which are actually quite cynical, and still others which are just plain zany. Each one-liner is usually followed by a couple of paragraphs in which the significance of the term is fleshed out, often with the help of a fictional character named “Duh” who dialogues “duh-like” with God, or with references to popular culture. While some of the explanations come off sounding like they were spoken with the straight-face of a theological lecturer, others reach out and slap you in the face with a mixture of sarcasm, slapstick, and some serious dry wit.

The six-author team wear their Lutheranism on their sleeve and the book is edited by a Lutheran Old Testament scholar. Their Lutheranism comes out especially with the overarching emphasis on the forgiveness of sin (it seems to be mentioned in about every third entry) and shows up plainly in entries like “sacraments,” “two kingdoms,” and of course “simultaneously saint and sinner.” 

Now whatever you might think about mixing theology and humour, I have to admit that I couldn’t put the book down. In fact I was reading it walking home yesterday and  (as humour columnist Dave Barry is apt to say, “I’m not making this up!!”) I nearly bumped into a stop sign. Needless to say, I snorted out loud more than a few times–but oddly enough,  I also found myself often thinking,  “Hmmmm….I’d never thought of it that way before!” 

So, yeah, there were times I howled while reading it. Like when I read the one-liner on “ecclesiology“: “The ultimate form of spiritual group navel gazing.”

Or the definition for “creed“:  “Not to be confused with the boxer who pummelled Rocky Balboa, a personal statement of belief, written by someone else, for use in pummeling heretics.” 

Did you know that inclusive language is “the arrangement of the grammatical furniture in such a way that no one sits comfortably?” 

And one of my favourites: “Council“: “A huddle of the entire church’s bishops for the sake of clarifying some puzzle that was probably caused by one or more bishops.”

At other times, I was actually startled by the simple but profund way that a term was defined. Thus, Crazy Talk defines “kingdom of God” as “A time that hasn’t happened yet but already has begun; a place that doesn’t exist yet but where you already live.” Does that not simply but profoundly capture the dialectic of the “already/not yet”, or what? And what else is”theodicy” but “the attempt to explain why the one who created everything and saved everyone doesn’t live up to our expectations.” Yes, I know these definitions don’t capture nearly everything that needs to be said about these important concepts; if you think they should, well, you just don’t get it. But in certain respects, these are just some samples of some of  the best short and thought provoking definitions I’ve ever heard.

At other times, it seems like Crazy Talk is even trying to provoke an argument or take a shot at giving a virtual bloody nose. Take their definition of “atheism”: “The personal choice to be at the whim of earthly powers because you can’t handle being at the whim of God.” Now them’s fightin’ words! Oh, and if you are a committed dispensationalist with a temper, you probably should skip the page where they define “rapture.” (Of course I’m not going to tell you what they say about the rapture—-find out for yourself!) 

So why did I like the book so much? Well, it’s certainly not because the book is a definitive piece of theological insight and information. Sure, it presents itself as a dictionary, but I wouldn’t suggest using it as an authoritative source in a research paper–necessarily. But in a sermon–without a doubt, go for it! 

But what appeals to me is that this is such a good example of how it is actually possible to enjoy the study of theology. Karl Barth often said that theology, more than any other discipline, should be a “happy science.” Now for those who have actually talked with a professional theologian, or participated in conferences where the room was full of professional theologians, you might think Barth’s idea of theology as a happy science might sound—-crazy. That’s because professional theologians have a tendency to take absolutely everything they talk about as if it were a matter of life and death, and in such situations, humour appears to have taken a permanent vacation. (And you can see why this is so because in reality, theology IS about life and death and serious theologians are proof that they actually believe it!) This isn’t to say that the authors of Crazy Talk don’t think theology is serious business. On the contrary, they take theology seriously precisely by not taking themselves too seriously. Theology is, after all, a task undertaken by fallen, often foolish, humans who are trying to say something meaningful about God and the world. And, well, when you think about it…what are mere humans that they think they can do this? That’s just crazy!

But paradoxically, when we remember that theology is the happy science (with the help of an important reminder from a book like Crazy Talk), we can joyfully enjoy the experience of thinking deeply–and happily and even with a good laugh from the gut–about the God who shows up in a feeding trough in first century Palestine. Now that’s crazy! Now read the book–and enjoy!

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3 thoughts on ““Crazy Talk”: A Serious Review of a Zany Book

  1. Theology a “happy science”? …now that’s funny 😉

    Jon, maybe a little satire will keep us from feeling like a sad-tire…holey.

    I guess my humor was a little flat.

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