Well, I must admit, I woke up this morning early, knowing it was time to get to work on this little tribute, and began fussing around the house like most mornings, in a complete torrent, running up and down the stairs, forgetting one thing, grabbing the wrong thing, going back, talking to myself. I don’t usually eat much for breakfast, so it’s no surprise I forgot to eat and sat down instead with an empty sheet of paper. “Capon, in Memoriam,” I wrote, and sat stuck a minute, until I turned the paper over. I went back into the kitchen, and had a real, genuine feast. I made my own kind of migas: talking fried eggs, salsa fresca, baked corn tortillas, some leftover flank steak; I had a slice of hot milk cake and an orange on the side, a cup of fresh coffee, a glass of whole milk. I ate for about thirty minutes, and now I’m back.
Robert Farrar Capon might say that prelude is more important than what I’m about to say, and he’s probably right, but I’ll do it anyway. If anyone asked me in the last four years what I’d like to do with my life, what would really be ideal, I’ve told them I want to have the life of Robert Capon. I mean this both intellectually and aesthetically. What other priest writes about baking for the New York Times? What other priest-writer is photographed for a book (below), fat stogie in hand, button-up shirt half-buttoned, a thumb nonchalantly in the beltline of his pants? To be this cool. Capon’s worldly for sure—he’s never bashful about a good glass of brandy or an after-dinner cigarette. His author page for Hunting the Divine Fox states “Besides cooking (“I am a typical male cook. I do all the fancy work and leave my wife with the drudgery.”), his many hobbies include music, woodworking, and model making.” He represents an honest-to-God priest as he should be: first and foremost, a human being who, by God, loves the world and the good things in it (like fine hotel soap, as PZ hath said). For Capon, the love of God isn’t utilized to love the world better, God’s love is right there, in the steak au poivre of the world, to be liberally consumed and enjoyed. In other words, Capon’s Christianity has no issue just enjoying, being the butt of its own party fouls, so long as it takes the jackets off the guests and gets them to boogie down for once. I wonder what his favorite bourbon was.
It’s not difficult to see, then, how Capon’s career was so illusive. His novel and his cookbooks read like theological love stories, his theology works read like parables he’d just made up. Genres cross with Capon in a way most theologians or priests would never feel comfortable. He is never apologetic about this. Instead, he splashes water back at the sticks in the mud, heckles them into the stream, and I believe it’s because the man was insatiably unbound. More than anyone else I’ve read, Capon doesn’t just “make sense” of the Bible, he bears out the Bible’s sense of the world into his way of writing.
This changed everything for me, to laugh out loud with a theologian and a parable, the parable like a funny little almond torte on the coffee table between us. My first read was Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, and it continues to be the resource for my reading of Jesus’ parables. There’s three ideas (images? concepts? pastries?) that Capon has introduced, that have changed the way I’ve come to read the Bible and understand the ministry and mystery of Jesus Christ.
1) Hiddenness and “Catholicity”. Capon calls the Parable of the Sower “the watershed” of parables. In it a man is sowing seed everywhere, “willy-nilly” as he calls it; on the road, in the bushes, on the ground beyond the soil, on the soil. There is no no-man’s-land to this Sower’s silly farming technique, the Divine Administer of the Word. It falls everywhere. And what’s interesting: you cannot see it. Once a seed falls, it is nearly impossible to detect from the dirt around it. Like yeast in dough, you have no idea there is invisible power in the works. These two ideas, catholicity—the widespread totality of God’s work in Christ—and that work’s hiddenness in the world at large, help make sense of most of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom-talk, and also the nature of a life in faith.
What Jesus turns out to be—since he is the Word—is the seed sown. But note what that in turn means. It means that on the plain terms of the parable, Jesus has already, and literally, been sown everywhere in the world—and quite without a single bit of earthly cooperation or consent. But can you tell me that Christians in general have ever for long acted as if that were the case? Have not acted instead as if the Word wasn’t anywhere until we got there with him?
…That is the second thing about seeds: they disappear. In the obvious sense, they do so because of their need to be covered over with earth in order to function…But in the profound sense, they disappear because once they are thus covered, they eventually become not only unrecognizable but undiscoverable as well; as far as their own being is concerned, they simply die and disappear. Think of what that says about Jesus and how it reechoes through his whole ministry. He, as the Word, comes to his own and his own receive him not. He is despised. He is the stone the builders rejected…And to cap his whole career as the Word sown in the field of the world, he dies, rises, and vanishes. His entire work proceeds as does the word of a seed: it takes place in a mystery, in secret—in a way that, as Luther said, can neither be known nor felt, but only believed, trusted.
2) Hell. I’ve never known what to think of hell, and maybe I still don’t, but I will never not think of Capon on the Elder Brother (Luke 15), arms crossed over himself, outside the party, in the hell of his own refusing, because of his own entitlement to deserving. For Capon, hell is our own decision not to accept the acceptance we’ve been given. To hold out on the party of losers, because you’re still waiting for the party of winners.
Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You own this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rule about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and everybody else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink.
…The last judgment will vindicate everybody, for the simple reason that everybody will have passed the only test God has, namely, that they are all dead and risen in Jesus. Nobody will be kicked out for having a rotten life, because nobody there will have any life but the life of Jesus. God will say to everybody, “You were dead and are alive again; you were lost and are found: put on a funny hat and step inside.”
If, at that happy point, some dumbbell wants to try proving he really isn’t dead…well, there is a place for such party poopers. God thinks of everything.
3) Risk and Play. This describes the Kingdom of God as much as it describes Capon’s writing style, both of which have been influential to my faith. If any parable sticks out as “production-based,” it is the Parable of the Talents. Three tenants bring back different amounts of gold back, and they are rewarded respective to their profit. Damnation comes for the worker who hides his coin and sits on his rear. Capon says this is not about production, but about the freedom bestowed by the Good Landlord, to take risks, to lose it all or gain it all, but to have fun playing in the freedom to which they’ve been entrusted.
It is about the “one thing necessary”: the response of trust, of faith in Jesus’ free acceptance of us by the grace of his death and resurrection…Jesus our Death is with us now; Jesus our Resurrection is with us now; and Jesus our Vindicating Judge is with us now—if only now we will believe. Not think, because all we will ever think of on our own is the godawful God we have made in the image of our worst fears. Not raciocinate, because drawing logical conclusions from our habitual, dreadful premises will only make us more fearful still. And not reason and not speculate and not theologize; just trust. Just, “Yes, Jesus. Thank you.” …We are in the business not of going back to him in time but of going down to him in faith—of taking the whole weird Jesus we now find in the Scriptures, and whole, even weirder Jesus we now have to up with in the church, and the whole, quintessentially weird Jesus now present to us in everything, nice or not nice—and of laying hold, in him, of the salvation we already have, now.
Within all of this, of course, is the secret ingredient (har har) the Gospel of Jesus Christ lends of its own accord, humility. I have come to see, via Robert Capon, that faith in grace means humility, inasmuch as humility means humor. Why take yourself so seriously, Arthur, when you’re the great pearl already? What’s to prove? What’s the fixation on “getting it right” when the Host is here and shaking your martini?
I sometimes wonder about Jesus laughing—the Bible never says he did—and certainly the Cross is no laughing matter. Nor are many of the parables, for that matter. On the other hand, he called the silly boys and girls to him and said the kingdom was for them, and then the dense and forgetting nobodies who followed him around—wasn’t this a time-sensitive ministry anyways? Perhaps Jesus wasn’t concerned with making much of himself. This is what Capon is teaching me. Of the joy of Christ, that He died and rose again, that we may sit and wonder at what we’ve gotten all spun-around about, to feel relief for once in our jaws at night, and hurt in the gut from laughing at crude jokes.
Tov! Tov! Amen and amen, and now for a cigarette, and a nap.