Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
In a recent episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show, Gaffigan (playing a fictional version of himself) is outed as a Christian when a picture of him holding a Bible lands on the front page of The Huffington Post. Not knowing how the world will react to his faith, Gaffigan grows paranoid. “The perception is that people who believe in God are stupid,” he says to his wife Jeannie during one scene. “I don’t want to get involved in the culture war.”
The real Jim Gaffigan, a self-proclaimed “pale” comic most famous for his side-splitting riffs on bacon and large families, may not be a carbon copy of his on-screen persona, but the issues of public perception loom large over his career. Like their fictional counterparts, the Gaffigans are members of a New York Catholic Church—a decision he says is “spiritual” rather than cultural. They attend service every Sunday, have a large family (five children), and take the rituals of their faith seriously—Gaffigan calls his wife a “Shiite Catholic.”In a world where the latest celebrity Christian convert is usually paraded about as a new mascot of the faith, Gaffigan’s approach to religion might just be pointing at something greater.
After growing up in a nominally Catholic home, Gaffigan stopped attending church during early adulthood. When he met his future wife Jeannie, his outlook on Christianity began to change. “Faith is kind of like healthy eating, it’s much easier to not eat healthy,” Gaffigan told Pete Holmes during an interview on the You Made It Weird podcast. “Am I perfect about it? Not at all. But I just feel like for me personally, it makes perfect sense. There’s just been too many things, there’s too much mercy that has been given to me. It escapes all logic.”
This commitment doesn’t mean navigating the entertainment world comes easy. In many ways, the above episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show serves as an analogy of sorts for Jim’s qualms about how his religious views are perceived by the world. “There is a real bigotry that exists in our country towards people of faith. And understandably. There [are] a lot of whack jobs.” Gaffigan also remarked to Holmes. “It’s okay for a recovering alcoholic or heroin addict to believe in a higher power, but everyone else who does is somehow a moron.” Despite the awkwardness that religious conversations often create, the Gaffigans ultimately decided not to trivialize or downgrade their personal faith in the new show—a move that partly led to the pilot not being aired by one major network. For Jim and Jeannie, the central storyline of The Jim Gaffigan Show wasn’t a choice between religion and real life; their faith is their real life.
While news of Gaffigan’s Christianity might seem new to many, his Catholicism has always formed the backdrop to his career in comedy. His material is relatively tame by industry standards—a decision Gaffigan says is more pragmatic than puritanical. It’s simply who he is. Gaffigan also devotes large amounts of stage time to cracking jokes about his ever-expanding family and their decision to live in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City.
“Big families are like waterbed stores; they used to be everywhere, and now they’re just weird.”
“You want to know what it’s like having a fourth kid? Imagine you’re drowning. Then someone hands you a baby.”
Yet, despite Gaffigan’s child-centric tirades, there lies in the belly of his material a sense of paternal celebration rather than hostility or regret. This shouldn’t be surprising given his church’s views on family. “Occasionally I receive comments that associate my musing with being anti-family, or somehow dissuading people to have kids,” Jim writes in his hilariously insightful parenting book, Dad Is Fat. “This could not be further from the truth. I love being a parent and enjoy finding the humor in parenting…If parents don’t like being a parent, they don’t talk about being a parent. They are absent.”
In fact, Gaffigan might unintentionally be one of the biggest proponents of the pro-family movement. Gaffigan’s wife, Jeannie, is more than just a supportive spouse. The couple co-writes Gaffigan’s material together, with Jeannie also serving as an executive producer on Jim’s new show. During long tours, the family travels together in a bus, stopping at historical landmarks along the way.
Plus, Gaffigan is really funny. Not “Christian” funny, but funny in general. While his faith pervades and infuses his art, Gaffigan doesn’t feel the need to sermonize in every comedy set or joke. When he does occasionally mention religion, it seems to flow from wit rather than necessity.
But, like his character in The Jim Gaffigan Show, Gaffigan is careful in how he balances his work as a comedian and his public faith. “He still has a point of view, but he’s not going to take a stand because there are people who love Jim who are atheists, and who love Jim and are of all faiths.” Jeannie said in one interview. “The Christian ghetto is a hard one to get out of if I’m only preaching to the choir.” Rather than living as a voice crying in the wilderness, Gaffigan says he just wants to do jokes about “avocados.”
Even while Gaffigan shies away from controversy, he’s not ashamed of his Christianity—though he’s quick to point out he’s no theologian. “I know nothing. And so I don’t want to be presented as someone who knows what they are talking about,” Gaffigan remarked when a fan asked him if it was scary to talk in the open about his faith. This is another trait of Gaffigan’s religion: humility. Gaffigan knows what he is good at (talking about avocados and bacon) and knows what to leave up to the professionals (arguments over societal morality).
In a 2014 Washington Post article titled, “Is Comic Jim Gaffigan the Catholic Church’s Newest Evangelizer?” Michelle Boorstein writes, “Gaffigan seems to effortlessly embody the idea the Catholic Church and other denominations are desperately promoting: You can be a devout member of mainstream American life. You don’t have to leave God in order to live in the regular world.” The article (which inspired “The Bible Story” episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show) raises the question of whether Gaffigan, for all those jokes about food and at-home childbirth, might be one of the most authentic examples of Catholicism done right. The Gaffigans are devout Catholics, but they don’t come across as judgmental or offensive. They are a part of a local church, while still making a name for themselves outside of Christian circles. And though cool is relative, they make having a large family and attending church with a double stroller seem rather cool. Gaffigan has even been invited to an event with Pope Francis in the fall. Talk about hitting it big.
Perhaps, all of these factors are what makes Gaffigan such an interesting character in the subject of faith and art. Rather than simply mentioning God and Christianity, and expressing indifference or disinterest in the local church, Gaffigan is ardently committed to both.
Gaffigan’s art garners respect from both the public and those within the entertainment industry (his show features cameos from Republicans, Democrats, and atheists—Macaulay Culkin even stops by) all while he visibly lives out his personal and corporate faith. Gaffigan seems to realize that he does have a voice in the realm of religious conversation—as evidenced from the The Jim Gaffigan Show—but his more organic approach to the intersection between his personal life and comedy creates a natural, rather than explicit, response to religious conversation and the culture wars. He’s a comedian who’s also a Christian, rather than a Christian who happens to be a comedian.
In the end, Gaffigan might be known as the pale entertainer who can endlessly riff on McDonald’s, but it’s his normal, everyday approach to faith that just might be the most profound.
Take that, bacon.
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