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by Terry Mattingly
While debating heretics, early Christians used the Greek term “hypostasis” — meaning “substance” and “subsistence” — to help define their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus as one person, yet with divine and human natures.
This “hypostatic union” is not the kind of subject a comedian typically raises on a TV talk show while chatting about mortality with a Hollywood legend. Then again, Norm Macdonald — who died on Sept. 14 after a secret nine- year fight with cancer — wasn’t a typical funny man. He open- ly identified as a Christian, while making it clear that he didn’t 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,” said Fonda. The host quickly asked, “In Jesus Christ?” Hesitating, Fonda called herself “a work in progress,” saying she accepted “the historical Jesus.”
Macdonald responded: “But do you believe in the hypostatic Jesus?”
When Fonda said “no,” he added, “So, you’re not a Christian. But you believe, you believe in something.”
Raised vaguely Protestant in Canada, Macdonald didn’t dis- cuss the brand-name specifics of his faith even as he wrestled with his own demons, such as habitual gambling. Yet he could be stunningly specific when addressing criticisms of Christian beliefs. As a judge on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” he quietly shot down a contestant who trashed the Bible before prais- ing the Harry Potter series.
“I think if you’re going to take on an entire religion, you should maybe know what you’re talking about,” said Macdonald. “J.K. Rowling is a Christian, and J.K. Rowling famously said that if you’re familiar with the scriptures, you could easily guess the ending of her book.”
The result was a public per- sona laced with paradoxes — an edgy, courageous comic who often seemed uncon- cerned if his work pleased the public or his employers. Nevertheless, superstars such as David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart and others hailed him as a dead- pan comic genius, and mourned his passing at the age of 61.
“I am absolutely devastated about Norm Macdonald,” tweeted Conan O’Brien, who once clashed with network leaders about how often he could feature Macdonald as a guest. “Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered, and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again.”
In a tribute entitled “Norm Macdonald — Dostoyevsky in Front of a Red Brick Wall,” Ricochet editor Jon Gabriel offered this summary: “The smartest comedians portray themselves as the dumbest; Norm Macdonald was the best at this sleight of hand. He graduated high school at 14, read Russian literature in his downtime and had long philo- sophical discussions with cler- gy. … Macdonald was a stu- dent of human nature first, comedy second.”
During his decade with cancer, Macdonald — as a talk- show host and guest — frequently discussed death and dying and the Big Issues loom- ing in the background.
During one such encounter, talk-show giant Larry King turned the tables and asked Macdonald to, once and for all, address years of media chatter about his “religious views.”
“I’m a Christian,” Macdonald replied. “It’s not stylish to say that now.”
King pushed on: “Are you devout? … You believe in the Lord?”
“Yes, I do,” Macdonald said.
Unaware that he was inter- viewing a man with cancer, King asked: “You think that you’re going somewhere when (life) ends?”
“Well, I don’t BELIEVE it,” Macdonald replied, saying the word “believe” in a way that added verbal quotation marks. “What people don’t under- stand about faith is that you have to CHOOSE. You know
what I mean? They think that you believe it — but you have to choose.”
When King said that he sim- ply could not believe, because of the presence of evil in the world, the comedian quipped: “It sounds like you have a God-shaped hole in your heart.”
Macdonald was even more concise in a tweet posted on Oct. 17, 2017 — the date of annual “Reformation Day” cel- ebrations observed, alongside All Hallows’ Eve, by Lutherans and some other Protestants.
“Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, Glory of God,” wrote Macdonald. “Smart man says nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.