A Satirist’s Salvation

Spinal Tap, National Lampoon and SPY Magazine Alumnus, Tony Hendra, Gets Serious About His Faith

Don Imus’ plugs
I first spotted Father Joe, Tony Hendra’s new spiritual autobiography, on a bookshelf in our office. At Commonweal magazine we receive dozens of books a month from various religious publishers. Most of it, I have to admit, is not my particular cup of tea. Books with titles like At Sea With God and Finding God in the Questions. When I first came upon it, I figured Father Joe?with the not-so-subtle subtitle The Man Who Saved My Soul?was the same sort of thing.

I decided to read Hendra’s book after hearing Don Imus plug it on his show. It was only then that I made the connection between Tony Hendra and Ian Faith, the rock manager in This is Spinal Tap , a movie that my college roommate saw, approximately, 842 times. (You might remember Faith as the man who once said: “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.”) I was intrigued. What would Ian Faith have to say about faith?

Lots, actually. I read Father Joe over a long weekend and I was continually astonished by its intellectual and spiritual depth. This is not “Tuesdays with Father Joe,” but a compelling and surprisingly sophisticated story of one man’s journey of faith. Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking that this is what it must have been like for people of a certain age to read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain . Here is a man of the world writing about the charms of Catholicism in an absolutely funny, engaging, and yes, inspiring way. Father Joe would have been accomplishment in any age. The fact that it was written at a time when religion is viewed with suspicion and spiritual books are greeted with skepticism even by the faithful makes it truly a remarkable achievement.

S-s-sining, S-s-spying & S-S-Sullivan
Hendra grew up in England , the son of an agnostic father and a Catholic mother. The book begins as he is embarking on an affair with a married woman. When he is found out, his catechist brings him to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight . Enter Father Joe Warrilow , a gentle, good-natured soul who assures young Tony that he didn’t commit a mortal sin: “You’ve done nothing truly wrong, Tony dear. God’s love has brought you here before any real harm could be done. The only sin you’ve committed is the sin of “s-s-selfishness.”

Over the years, Hendra returns again and again to the monastery, first as a potential, recruit, later as a successful satirist. (He edited both Spy and National Lampoon, the latter during its glory days in the early 1970s.) Each time, Father Joe, never chides him for his indiscretions, sexual and otherwise. (Hendra hints at some heavy partying, giving lie to Ian Faith’s claim that “there’s no sex, drugs, and rock’n roll for Ian.”) Instead, he tries to subtly steer him back toward his wife and family, and, more subtly, God.

I don’t want to give away the ending. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in his review in the New York Times, this is a book every Catholic should savor, especially those looking for a respite from the bad news of the last few years. Still, I could not help but feel a pang of regret while reading the scenes between Father Joe and the young Tony. For centuries, priests have mentored thousands of young schoolboys in just this way. Unfortunately, with the scandal of the last few years, the one-on-one time that made this kind of relationship possible is no longer allowed. Given what’s happened, this is totally understandable. But it’s still saddening.

To push or pull
A minor leitmotif in Father Joe is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair , a book which Tony reads as a teenager. Hendra’s invocation of Greene seems appropriate, but perhaps a more apt comparison might be made to Evelyn Waugh , another Englishman known for his satire. Hendra’s vision of God is remarkably similar to Waugh’s. Reading Father Joe, I was reminded of a line from G.K. Chesteron’s Father Brown mysteries which is used to theological effect in Brideshead Revisited: “I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with the twitch of a thread.” This is the God Tony Hendra discovers thanks to Father Joe. One who gently guides him on his journey, sometimes letting him go his own way, sometimes tugging him in the right direction. A God who never pushes, only pulls.