Paul Whitehouse: you’ll always be my comedy hero – but you’re wrong about God

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Photo credit: BBC

My earliest comedy memories are of sitting down with my parents to watch The Two Ronnies on Friday nights. It was obviously deemed an Important Family Bonding Activity, as my Mum – usually super-strict about bedtimes – allowed me to stay up till the end (although no doubt already in my PJs so I could be whisked off to bed as soon as the credits began to roll).

Fast-forward a few years, and at the age of 13/14, I discovered Harry Enfield and Chums. This is the first comedy show I remember finding independently, i.e. without my parents (in fact I think I got them watching it eventually).

I’d found the type of comedy I loved. Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke were superb – but it was Paul Whitehouse, with his amazing accents and gibberish that sounded like a passable foreign accent (Julio Geordio springs to mind), who stood out. I bought the video (it was the 90s, remember), watched it regularly and memerised lines.

This show set me up admirably for the ‘alternative comedy’ that I still enjoy. It proved the perfect vehicle for introducing me to The Fast Show, Smack the Pony and Big Train – all shows which were hugely enjoyed in my late teens.

At one stage I even dated a Paul Whitehouse – sadly not the real deal though. (I think that would have been frowned upon, even in the 90s.)

I’m so out of touch with TV these days, that it was by pure chance that DD and I caught this week’s episode of Gone Fishing (watch it here). The premise is that Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer (the hubs is a big Reeves and Mortimer fan), having both had near-fatal health problems in the last few years, take to Britain’s rivers to fish and chat about life, death and everything in between. (This interesting article gives a bit more depth to how the show came about.)

As you can imagine, the conversation is effortlessly humorous – poignancy mixed with laugh-out-loud banter.

And, as you can imagine, with death having recently been a close-call for these two men, there is some chat about religion. Bob suggests asking a vicar what happens after we die.

Paul responds, “What – d’you think they’ve got the answers? They’re not gonna know, are they? They’re not gonna have the answers.”

Approaching the church, Bob wants to know whether Paul thinks he’s going to heaven or hell.

“What – either of those imaginary places? No, I don’t think I’ll go to either, ’cause they don’t exist.”

And then they meet the vicar. [Side-note: She seems like a nice lady – sadly, not the sort of vicar who believes the Bible, but hey this is the Church of England in the 21st century, and don’t anyone say we’re not inclusive.]

At one point, she asks Paul whether judgement worries him. “It doesn’t particularly worry me, I don’t think I’m going to be judged, no… Let’s hope not. No – I’m quite nice. I’ve done some bad things, but I haven’t committed genocide or anything like that…”

“Oh well done, Paul,” Bob mocks sarcastically.

Now I could address each of Paul’s points from a theological perspective – but that would seem just a little unfair. He was musing aloud, and we’re all allowed to do that. Cut the man some slack. If he wants answers, there are plenty of places he can go and find them.

No, I want to make just one simple point: we all think we’re entitled to know who God is, how He functions and what He should be doing for us – but, ultimately, God is God. We don’t form His character or create His thoughts.

To try and mold God into our own preferred shape is a bit like modelling a few figures out of plasticine, who then come to life and try and tell you what to do. A bit of a ridiculous analogy maybe, but if offers a glimpse into the ridiculousness of us trying to decide how the God who made us should act.

What Paul Whitehouse thinks God is or isn’t going to do, what Paul Whitehouse believes are God’s standards, is kind of irrelevant, because God is God, does what He likes, and sets His own standards.

As the theologian Karl Barth eloquently put it, “man as man is not only in need but beyond all hope of saving himself… one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice”.

I’m not just picking on Paul Whitehouse here. I think we all try and squeeze God into our own idea of what He should be like. I made this very mistake myself earlier on today – in fact, it was actually this, rather than Gone Fishing, which inspired this blog post.

I was practising some songs ahead of leading worship at church tomorrow, and stood up to get a better view of the laptop which was perched on top of the piano, in order to get the tune of a lesser-known-song from YouTube. Above our piano is a mirror, and before I knew what I was doing, I was watching myself as I sang, checking I looked OK, with just the right amount of passion and restraint, intensity and peace. Did my hair look cool enough? Had I chosen the right jewellery?

In case you needed the irony spelt out: here I was, singing words of praise to God, when really all I was worshipping was my own reflection in the mirror.

What am I doing?! I snapped out of the moment quickly enough, but it was an ugly reminder of how easily I elevate myself to a god-like status in my own life.

Of course, Atheists believe there is no God, and so none of this really washes. That’s fine – we’ve all been given free will to believe what we like.

But there is a strange kind of ‘no-man’s-land’ where those who claim to be Atheists still speak of God – albeit in negative tones, He is still there in their consciousness.

This God – far from the image of the detached, evil dictator in the sky who throws out random calamities as it amuses Him – wanted a relationship with us so much, that He sent His only Son down to this damaged and suffering world to make it possible.

God would be well within His rights to act cruelly and mercilessly – but He wouldn’t be within His character, which is Love, always Love.

Paul Whitehouse, I will always laugh at your impeccable comic timing, droll expression, and many, many cleverly-observed characters (and I’m looking forward to next week’s episode of Gone Fishing). But I also hope you come to know the God who loves you and gifted you in this way before your next health scare.

return to the rising sun

In 1963, two lovebirds got engaged – and promptly parted company. He left for mission work in Japan, while she stayed in England, delayed by the necessity to finish Bible college before moving abroad.

And so began an engagement of letters. For 20 months, the pair didn’t see or speak to each other. Phone communication and overseas travel were both so expensive that they may as well not have existed. When she finally made it to Japan in 1965 (after a 5-week boat journey), the pair were married within a week – no family, no friends from home, no bridesmaids, a service conducted in English and Japanese. These were the demands made of overseas missionaries at the time – and they willingly sacrificed these expectations for the privilege of taking the gospel overseas.

Now, in their 48th year of marriage, my parents are returning to Japan. Not for the 15-year stretch they did the first time round, but for three months, to support a couple who lead a church and run a school. They will be teaching in the school, but no doubt picking up other tasks too, as their gifts, wisdom and experience lead them.

This time round the sacrifices aren’t nearly as immense as the first time round – but they are there none the less. It has taken a little while just to find an organisation who are keen to take on board a couple of crazy septuagenarian God-pursuers. They’ve had to brush up their Japanese, organise for others to use their house and car while they’re gone, and prepare for the long flight.They will miss their family (I hope! – we will certainly miss them), and also that most important comfort: familiarity. Retired people ‘settle down’, right? They find a house and a location where they feel comfortable, and this familiarity is good because, at a later stage in life, it takes less energy than gallivanting around the world.

But my parents aren’t interested in taking life easy if it’s not what God wants. They have been serving God faithfully in their home church, through ups and downs, for the last 14 years of retirement – and they will continue to do so on their return, for as long as God allows. But, for the next three months, He clearly wants them in Japan – and so they’re going. He’s blessed them with good health, and they’re using it for His work.

I hope I have this much faith when I’m as old as they are. I’m incredibly proud of my parents, and wish them well on this God-adventure.

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