A Roller Coaster Ride Through the Catechism

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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.

the-bad-catholics-guide-catechismOn 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.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

By

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    My copy arrived yesterday.

    Unlike you, Father – you being bi-lingual and all that – many of the US-specific illustrations and examples will leave me scratching my head – on top of the other features of Zmirak’s usual whacky writing style – but just having ‘Schmoctrine’ and ‘Krapma’ to pull out of my hat at every opportunity was well worth the price of the book!

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  • Ford Oxaal

    Zmirak is a blast. I want this book.

  • tedseeber

    I’m not sure how to take John Zmirak’s work- especially since he’s on record for dissenting against CST, preferring instead the empty atheism of Milton Friedman and Ludwig Von Mises. But he is funny. I may buy this book anyway.

    • Tony W

      Mr. Seeber,
      Your comment grossly misrepresents John Zmirak’s views on politics and economics. To acknowledge and accept the insights of Mises or Friedman on some matters is hardly to embrace their atheism or even the entirety of their thought on economics. And Zmirak has never dissented from Catholic social teaching. He has expressed disagreement with certain prudential judgments of bishops and popes – with good reason in my opinion.

      • tedseeber

        That’s what all the libertarians say; that they just disagree with certain prudential judgements of the bishops and Popes (or in John Zimrak’s case, in one article, Matthew Chapter 25). The sad thing is, that’s also what the sexual libertines say about pro-life issues.

        Americanism and Catholicism are not compatible.

  • Will Edmonson

    The link in your profile for this post is broken. The “www.dwightlongenecker.com” link. Just FYI.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Mr.
    Zmirak’s Bad Catholic Guides are consistently witty, humorous, enlightening,
    and (mirabile dictu) orthodox. However, until he composes the Bad Catholic’s
    Guide to New York City, his opus will lack magnum and he will have failed to
    accomplish, whether he realizes it or not, one of the basic purposes for which
    he was placed on this earth. A travel guide to New York City would be the
    greatest thing Mr. Zmirak can write. His love of the City is palpable and when
    he writes about it he waxes eloquent. Such a project would allow him to indulge
    his interests literary, historical, aesthetic, and political. And, to be
    perfectly honest, Zmirak is the only writer I know who could stand up as a
    worthy successor to Diedrich Knickerbocker, nay, who could surpass the Dutchman
    for undiluted snark. (Okay, that last part is a little kiss-assy but I’m trying
    to goad the man, who has hitherto consistently ignored my pleas to write this
    book, proud Slav that he is.) Finally, a Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Big Apple
    would allow him to start putting recipes back into his books, something I miss
    from the earlier Guides.
    So, as a
    long-time fan of your writing and a not-to-proud-to-beg Slovene, I urge you Mr.
    Zmirak to begin writing this book. And, in the event that Mr. Zmirak does not
    read com-boxes, I appeal to you, Fr. Longenecker, and all readers of satire of
    good-will (or is that all readers of good-will of satire, whatever), to
    encourage Mr. Zmirak to consider undertaking the task at hand. The result, I am
    firmly convinced, would be epic satire. Peace.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    I don’t want to leave the impression that Mr. Zmirak is all snark and no substance. He is satirical in the Horatian sense of the word, i.e. he speaks the truth with a grin (ridentem dicere verum).

  • Charles Lewis

    I have never heard of John Zmirak today but simply because you said the book is humorous I’m going to buy a copy. Remember what Belloc said:

    “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
    There’s always laughter and good red wine.
    At least I’ve always found it so.
    Benedicamus Domino!”

    • John Rayner

      My version of Belloc’s verse runs:-
      “In lands where a Catholic Sun doth shine
      There’s laughter, music and good red wine.
      At least I have always found it so
      Benedicamus Domino”

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  • Tony W

    Since Fr. Longebecker’s fine review offers the opportunity, I will say that John Zmirak is the most enjoyable columnist I have read over the last five or six years. I was sorely disappointed when his columns were suddenly discontinued here and I strongly recommend that they be brought back, if possible.

    • Tom ATK

      “I strongly recommend that they be brought back”
      Hear, hear!

  • jaymis

    Based on recommendation of Fr DL, I went to amazon and read the reviews. Purchased the whole series. Looking forward to them. How fortunate we are to be Catholics and have the fullness of truth and, the sacraments, most especially Christs’ real presence in the Eucharist, plus the scripture, tradition, the magisterium, all of which is protected by the Holy Spirit. In short we have it all in the One True Faith founded by the Son of God. If that is not enough to make one really happy…then seek professional help.

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  • Jennifer Fitz

    Fr. L, Need an opinion: I have a request from a under-catechized parishioner for an RCIA-refresher course. (She’s a convert). I’m trying to figure out where to begin. I asked what she was looking for, and the answer was, “I don’t know!” There’s just a longing to know more about the faith, from an intelligent, well-educated, but catechetically-deprived grown-up.

    Would you recommend this for a small lay study group? I’m looking for something solid that will provide a good grounding, neither too “Meet the Church!” nor too intense. I’m thinking that Zmirak’s combination of humor and catechesis might be the right mix of interesting & interesting.

    What say you?

  • ColdStanding

    Nice use of juxtaposition. If you had only displayed a command of historical reference, it would have been positively Rutlerian.

  • FrankW

    I love Zmirak’s work, and I miss his columns being posted here.

    His column on Safe Drunk Driving was both hilarious and the most intelligent dose of common sense I’ve read in recent years on the whole “if it feels good, do it” approach to life embraced by many aimless young people today.

    I will be sure to purchase “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism” very soon. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Charles

    Zmirak is beyond Hahn, Voris or Weigel as the “Thinker’s Apologist for all Things Catholic.” WINE,WHISKEY AND SONG was a meal in itself, but I bought three extra copies of BCG to the CATECHISM for our pastor, director of the Way (alternative RCIA) and a chorister, former SSPX guy. How does he absorb the whole earth culture?

  • Christopher O Landreneau

    I have never read any of this author’s writings and I am by nature a very humorous person who is a faithful authentic catholic. The concern I have is with the title. Wouldn’t it fuel the misguided notion of many who harbor resentments towards the catholic faith to say, “See, one of their own even calls them Bad Catholics!”

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