I fear that John Zmirak’s The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism will be a failure. This is not because the book is bad, but because it is too good. Too good, for the dull religious reader.
The problem is that Zmirak has done the unthinkable and made theology fun. Not only has he made theology fun he has made it funny. Furthermore, not only has he made theology fun and funny, but he has made orthodox Catholic theology fun and funny.
This stands things on their head. We are used to the theology of the modernists being funny. Modernist theology is funny because it is ridiculous, and even more funny because while it is ridiculous the modernists take it so seriously. The theology of the modernists is funny as the naked emperor is funny.
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On the other hand, Zmirak’s theology is funny because Zmirak is funny. His book on the catechism should be taken very seriously because Zmirak does not take himself seriously. He has discovered not only that true words are spoken in jest, but that jest is the best way to speak true words. This is because a joke makes connections that no one has seen before, and that is also the essence of good theology: it makes connections that no one would ever have thought of, but which, once seen make one say, “Aha!”
Zmirak’s book is very good but I fear it will fail because too many Christians are suspicious of humor. They expect their theology to be glum or even gloomy. These are the dour and sour Christians of whom C.S.Lewis said, “You can tell they are the pillars of the church because their faces look like stone.” They don’t want their theology to be fun or funny, and may turn away in bewilderment or disgust at Zmirak’s zany jesting.
While the religious people don’t want a book on the catechism to be funny, the rest of the world don’t want their funny books to be about religion. They don’t really want to read a book about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They want the comics not the catechism.
However, for those readers who have both humility and a sense of humor, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism provides a rollicking roller coaster ride through the complexities of the Catholic faith. Zmirak uses the old question and answer method to draw the reader into a running dialogue with a pretend enquirer who is sometimes smart and more often smart aleck. The author, in a kind of disguise, then replies to the wise guy’s questions with answers that are witty and wise.
Zmirak’s learning is prodigious. His roller coaster takes unexpected turns as he zooms off into delightful tangents– launching the reader into explanations of Christological heresies, gutsy rants on women’s ordination or corrupt hierarchs, paeans of praise for the love of beagles or the evils of fast food and strip malls along with reverent passages on the sanctity of saints, the beautiful complexities of theology and the exquisite eternal verities of the Mass. Like that old wooden roller coaster, Zmirak’s book lurches, rattles and rolls–rocketing you through the catechism at a breath taking rate, and like that roller coaster, when you catch your breath and step off onto the platform and put down the book, the first thing you do is cry, “Let’s do it again!”
The problem with the book is the shadow side of it’s strength. Zmirak is so smart and so fast-talking and so full of energy and ideas and wisdom that it is hard to keep up. Because the pace is fast you are tempted to speed read the book, but this is precisely what you should not do. Because there is so much crammed into so small a space the reader must slow down and enjoy the show. The book is like an old fashioned country antique store—so many fascinating and unexpected treasure that you need to slow down and snoop slowly.
The other problem is that Zmirak’s vast learning and intellect sometimes overwhelms you. It’s nice that he assumes you know as much as he does and is as smart as he is, but at times he leaves you with your head spinning — a bit like talking to that zany professor with a pocket protector who is enthusiastically explaining quantum physics and calculus to you.
However, this is no reason to abandon the book. Indeed, this is every reason to persevere. Too many books are dumbed down or dumbed up. That is to say, they dumb down a complex and beautiful subject or they dumb up and make complicated what is essentially rather mundane and shallow. Zmirak makes no apologies for his apologetics. He offers a detailed explanation that makes you work, but he also offers a delightful entertainment that makes you laugh.
Finally, amidst all the fun and frolic—amidst all the intellectual fireworks, the roller coaster arguments, the jalapeno hot opinions and the delicious rants, Zmirak unfolds his faith with conviction, poignancy and a nice touch of genuine emotion.
This is not just a catechism learned by heart, but a catechism written from the heart, and this is what makes Zmirak’s book really good: that it comes not only from a head full of the knowledge of God, but also from a heart that is full of the love of God.
This is never communicated with false piety or sentimental religiosity, instead we find wisdom in a wise crack and a zest and zeal that is uniquely Zmirak.
Editor’s Note: The image above painted by Joshua Reynolds depicts Samuel Johnson.