by Sam Buntz
In 2012, Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain fired Duncan Brannan, the long-time voice of the company’s mascot. Shortly thereafter, Brannan posted a farewell message online, concluding with the words: “…And, if being the voice of Chuck E. Cheese for any length of time has meant anything to me, it was never about a paycheck because God will always provide for His children in one way or another. No. What it was about, what my sincere hope is is that you — you fans, you parents, and all you kids who have loved Chuck E. Cheese over the years — have seen, heard, or experienced Jesus Christ in and through my life in some way. For He is all that matters, now and for all eternity.”
I think this fairly bursts with all the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition— principally, in that human beings want to do great things, but are given absurd and seemingly inadequate materials to accomplish their aims. In this case, a dude wants to save people from suffering an eternity in hellfire. (He makes that pretty clear in an earlier part of the message I didn’t quote.) In and of itself, this is a strange conceit, but undoubtedly audacious. If you are someone who actually believes that the vast majority of humans are all rushing ignorantly and headlong into hell, then saving people from this fate would probably be the best way to occupy your time. If you didn’t, you’d be somewhat irresponsible, to say the least, letting countless souls tumble into perdition. But, here’s the kicker, the pinch of unexpected spice: the only tool at your disposal is your ability to voice a fictitious mouse. Sometimes the mouse appears in cartoon form, sometimes as a live-action mascot, but every day you must struggle to use this mouse’s voice, reciting scripted lines advertising a pizza and video game franchise devoid of any overt religious message or symbolism, in order to help manifest Christ’s love in the world, thus furthering the redemption of the human race.
I find this simultaneously moving and claustrophobically terrifying. It’s like one of Kafka’s fever dreams. No one really commented on this in a serious way back in 2012, aside from a lot of scurrilous blogger mofos, turning it into some big joke… which it obviously is, of course. But it’s so much more than that, too. If I’m still carrying it around with me in 2015, how could it not be? It’s haunted me for nearly three years.
In a way, Brannan’s pizza-loving-mouse-based evangelism encapsulates what people mean when they say that something is “postmodern.” (Although at this point, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals may have fully talked-out postmodernism—like with “hipsters” and “the internet.” Lines of inquiry feel exhausted. It’s all like some conversation from 2006.) Of course, outside of decent universities and their satellite spawning grounds, people don’t walk around saying, “That’s so postmodern.” But if they did they would definitely say it about Brannan’s unique way of expressing Christ’s love. It’s postmodern because it exists beyond any humanly conceived notion of an ordered universe. It is an instance of a man trying to impose a plot, a religious narrative, on a world that refuses to be pinned down by any totalizing narrative (including atheistic and secular narratives as well, I believe. We live in Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, where our theories can never be fully comprehensive; there’s always a flaw, a gap, some information that just won’t fit into the model… Godel was a religious man, though, by the way). This is a cosmos without a single narrative that can fully do it justice. Maybe the only comprehensive narrative would be all the narratives absorbed at once—chaos and a plethora of meaning simultaneously. This is why Duncan Brannan can only try to secure the salvation of humanity by providing the vocals for a cheese-craving rodent pizza-mascot. His evangelical narrative can only remain coherent within his own private world, but when he tries to express it in the broader universe, it becomes dyed in the hue of postmodern absurdity. Yet he quests onwards in spite of this, a latter day Don Quixote. Windmills are giants. Ads for a pizza chain are a coup for Christ.
I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear at any point in the past few paragraphs, but I’d say that I’m basically pro-Brannan. It’s impossible not to be. The pop culture websites that reported this pseudo-story back when it came out mainly just used it as an occasion to mock human weirdness and, potentially, highlight the lameness of contemporary Christianity. But it’s bigger than that, because it’s a symbol for what anyone who tries to actually live a myth in today’s world has to do. And I don’t mean that Christianity is a “myth” as in something untrue. I mean that it is a certain species of story that envisions an underlying narrative, couched beneath the world of appearances. It proposes a hidden order, just like any other religion, or even, in a counter-intuitive way, like the-order-that-isn’t-really-an-order, the Blind Watchmaker Cosmos of atheists like Richard Dawkins. All these mythologies attempt to author the text of reality, but reality, I believe, always evades being pinned down by one specific story (as stated moments earlier). God is either all gods or no god. Brannan’s courage isn’t so much that he clings to a rigid belief system, full of brimstone. It’s that he continues to let his story manufacture a meaning for his life under circumstances that wouldn’t seem to fit that story.
In a way, I suppose that Jesus’ death on the cross is itself an example of a story that braves its own seeming negation in order to come out okay on the other side. (Which means that Jesus himself was “postmodern”?? Should I have refused to use pseudo-intellectual buzzwords in this article altogether???) No one would expect God to be humiliated and murdered. People would probably expect him to use his God powers to strengthen his dominion of the universe; like, he would appoint himself Supreme Emperor of the world in an actual, political manner. In fact, everyone at the time expected the Messiah to institute his rule with an iron fist, which is how the Book of Revelation actually does depict Jesus. But the Gospel story shockingly subverts that expectation. The exact opposite of what you would expect to happen happens, and it turns out to be the one really necessary event, cosmically inevitable and unambiguously good.
I think Brannan might feel the same way about being Chuck E. Cheese. It doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform for introducing the love of Christ, but its very absurdity makes it more Christian, more in line with Jesus’ own triumph through absurdity. (An early Church Father, Tertullian, once said, somewhat paradoxically, “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, it’s too weird to be fiction.) So, in a way, I guess I’m saying that Brannan is a great example of a postmodern Christian, or of any postmodern religious believer. His narrative is his cross: an absurd problem that, nonetheless and against all expectations, manages to redeem him.