On religion: the serious and mysterious faith of comedian Norm Macdonald |


When discussing heretics, the early Christians used the Greek term “hypostasis” – meaning “substance” and “sustenance” – to help define their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus as one person, but with divine natures and human.

This “hypostatic union” is not the sort of topic a comedian typically brings up on a TV talk show while discussing mortality with a Hollywood legend. Once again, Norm Macdonald – who died Sept. 14 after a secret nine-year battle with cancer – was not your typical funny man. He openly identified himself as a Christian, while making it clear that he did not consider himself a very good one.

During an episode of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” the former “Saturday Night Live” star asked Jane Fonda – who at one point briefly embraced evangelical Christianity – this question: “Are you a religious person? “

“I have faith,” Fonda said. The host quickly asked, “In Jesus Christ? Hesitantly, Fonda called herself a “work in progress,” saying she accepted “the historical Jesus.”

Macdonald replied, “But do you believe in the hypostatic Jesus?

When Fonda said ‘no’ he added, ‘So you are not a Christian. But you believe, you believe in something.

Raised vaguely Protestant in Canada, Macdonald did not discuss the hallmark specifics of his faith even when struggling with his own demons, like the usual game. Yet he could be surprisingly precise when approaching critiques of Christian beliefs. As a judge on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” he quietly took down a contestant who trashed the Bible before praising the Harry Potter series.

“I think if you want to embrace an entire religion, maybe you should know what you’re talking about,” Macdonald said. “JK Rowling is a Christian, and JK Rowling said if you know the scriptures you can easily guess the end of her book.”

The result was a public figure full of paradoxes – a daring and courageous comic who often seemed indifferent whether his job appealed to the public or his employers. Nonetheless, superstars such as David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart and others hailed him as a deadpan comic book genius and mourned his passing at the age of 61.

“I am absolutely devastated by Norm Macdonald,” tweeted Conan O’Brien, who has previously argued with network executives over how often he could introduce Macdonald as a guest. “Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered, and he was so funny and uncompromising. I will never laugh so hard again.

In a tribute titled “Norm Macdonald – Dostoyevsky in front of a red brick wall,” Ricochet editor-in-chief Jon Gabriel presented this summary: “The smartest comedians present themselves as the dumbest; Norm Macdonald was the best in this sleight of hand. He graduated from high school at age 14, read Russian literature in his spare time, and had long philosophical discussions with the clergy. … Macdonald was first a student of human nature, then of comedy.

During his decade with cancer, Macdonald – as a talk show host and guest – frequently discussed death and death and the big issues that loom behind it.

In one such encounter, talk show giant Larry King turned the tide and asked Macdonald to respond, once and for all, to years of media chatter about his “religious views.”

“I am a Christian,” Macdonald replied. “It’s not elegant to say that now.”

King continued, “Are you devout? … Do you believe in the Lord?

“Yeah, I think so,” Macdonald said.

Unaware that he was interviewing a man with cancer, King asked, “Do you think you’re going somewhere when (life) ends?”

“Well, I don’t believe it,” Macdonald replied, uttering the word “believe” in a way that added verbal quotes. “What people don’t understand about faith is that you have to CHOOSE. You know what I mean? They think you believe it, but you have to choose.

When King said he just couldn’t believe, due to the presence of evil in the world, the comedian joked, “Looks like you’ve got a God-shaped hole in your heart.”

Macdonald was even more concise in a tweet published on October 17, 2017 – the date of the annual “Reformation Day” celebrations observed, alongside All Saints’ Day, by Lutherans and some other Protestants.

“Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, glory of God,” Macdonald wrote. “The intelligent man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.

(Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a Principal Investigator at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)


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