“WHAT IS FIRE?” ASKS PETE HOLMES.
It sounds trippy, but it’s not. Not to Holmes anyway, who’s been asking the question for a while—so much that it’s become sort of his shorthand for the big, esoteric questions about the universe.
“Someone would be like, ‘Well, it’s the relationship of this and this and oxygen,’” Holmes continues. “And I’d be like, ‘No. What is fire?’ You know what I mean?”
You probably do. The feeling Holmes is talking about is not uncommon, but it is hard to describe. But that’s a big part of how he’s become one of the most popular comedians of his generation—by giving words to things that are hard to express. He’s a comedian—a successful one by any definition of the term, with his show Crashing gearing up for its second season on HBO and his You Made It Weird podcast consistently ranking as one of iTunes’ most popular.
And like any successful comedian, brutal honesty is his bread and butter. And the brutal, honest truth is that Holmes is laying his life bare with his comedy—be it podcast, stand-up or HBO show—and for every one of the many laughs his work provokes, there’s another moment that profoundly aches.
As often as not, the two moments are linked; even simultaneous.
“I have no problem thinking of myself in Christian terms,” Holmes says.
That probably comes as no surprise to anyone who’s paid much attention to his career. Holmes can discuss the evangelical subculture and its attending worldview nimbly. He was raised in a Christian church. He went to a Christian college, even briefly wanted to be a youth pastor—the whole deal. But then life threw him a curveball via the disintegration of his marriage.
Holmes married young and moved to Chicago in an attempt to break into comedy. At first, he had almost no luck. Meanwhile, his then-wife started having an affair (If you’ve seen the first season of Crashing, you’ve seen the only slightly fictionalized depiction of all this.). Their marriage ended shortly thereafter, and his faith wasn’t far behind.
“You protect yourself by saying, ‘She was never [the one], and she wasn’t,” he says of his ex-wife. “This is true. She wasn’t the one for me. But it would be wrong to say that when I went in—kind of like the way I went into my faith, which ended up not being right for me either—both endeavors were very earnest and well-meaning, and I thought they were going to last forever. The two of them ending at the same time was … it felt a little cruel, but it was also kind of appropriate.”
Holmes talks about the time in his life when he was enchanted by the positive vibes of megachurch prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s best-seller Your Best Life Now, saying it had “changed [his] life.” And after the divorce? Not so much.
“After my wife left me, I tried to listen to Your Best Life Now again, and it might as well have been in Aramaic,” Holmes says. “I couldn’t hear it because I experienced pain for the first time in my life.
“I put on this guy going, ‘Just go out there and be good and God will give you what you want.’ And I’m like, ‘Buddy, I did everything I was supposed to.’”
To hear Holmes tell it, he gave atheism a half-hearted go, but it didn’t take. “I read part of The God Delusion,” he says, referring to Richard Dawkins’ infamous atheist tome. “I couldn’t finish it. It just wasn’t for me.”
Instead, Holmes started dabbling in other communities. He started making friends with atheists and dating non-Christians. He didn’t reject his faith entirely, but the substance of it became fair game for interrogation.
“It’s not that I thought, ‘There is no God,’” he explains. “I didn’t have a conclusion. But certainly, without being able to articulate it, I went, ‘What I knew clearly isn’t the case.’”
Holmes has this story about The Book of Eli. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s a middling post-apocalyptic flick in which Denzel Washington spends a lot of time rescuing Mila Kunis. To get at why this story matters, we’ll need to venture into some spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned.
The Book of Eli is actually about Washington’s character protecting Earth’s last copy of the Bible.
Holmes doesn’t defend the movie’s quality (“It’s like a 38 percent on Rotten Tomatoes,” he says), but he can’t deny that it started something fresh in him.
“I felt really, really sad and afraid,” he says of the first time he saw the movie. “Not of hell. Just kind of like, ‘Oh, no. The tragedy of life took something from me.’”
After seeing the movie, Holmes remembers going back to his office and weeping alone.
“I just sat at my desk and just cried a little bit and sat there, really allowing …,” he says. “Well, there’s a lot of things to miss. I missed God in that moment, and I was like, ‘S***.’ It’s like waking up from a dream, remembering that that was so important to you.”
The Book of Eli sparked a renewed spiritual odyssey that inspired Holmes to explore the works of famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, spiritual author Ram Dass, Franciscan friar Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, who has since become a close friend and frequent colleague of Holmes’.
So what is Holmes certain of now? Less than ever, to hear him say it.
“I think what you realize is the point isn’t having something concrete,” he says, and then relates a conversation he had with Bell about the historicity of the Bible. “I said, ‘Is the Bible true, or is it a metaphor?’ And [Bell] goes, ‘Yes.’”
If you’re familiar with Bell’s work, that answer probably doesn’t come as a shock to you, but Holmes found it enlightening.
“It’s like, that’s the correct answer!” he says. “If we’re going to read a Semitic book, we need to look at it through Semitic eyes, and that’s a perfectly Semitic answer. We’ve turned God into something that you can Amazon Prime.”
So Holmes isn’t looking at God as some- thing you order on demand anymore. A better metaphor might be that he’s looking at God as a forest to be explored. Or maybe that God is the metaphor.
“A great quote that I love is, ‘God is the name of the blanket we put over the mystery to give it shape,’” Holmes says. “We’re trying to talk about something undiscussable, and I love it. Ram Dass says the truth isn’t in these discussions. It’s in the spaces between the words that we get a transmission. Christians call this grace, where something is happening beyond our thinking mind, and I became fascinated with that.
“A virgin birth or a physical death and resurrection is not that wild for me to toy with, but then what?” Holmes asks. “What is your goal? Ram Dass says our goal in the West is to know and to know that we know. But the mystics say, ‘Lay that down, dude. You’re missing the point. It’s not knowing and knowing that you know. It’s basking in something that’s beyond your brain.’”
How much of this will the second season of Crashing get into? Holmes hesitates to respond. “This is the sort of interview that if [Crashing producer, Judd Apatow] were here, he’d be kicking me under the table,” Holmes says. “He’s like, ‘When you do press, please just talk about how funny the show is.’”
The show is funny and, according to Holmes, the second season is funnier. It also continues Holmes’ character’s spiritual and emotional
journey, as he experiences what Holmes calls “that elastic thing where it’s not just, ‘I don’t believe now.’ It’s kind of like, ‘I want to believe. I don’t know how to believe.’”
Holmes seems to know how to believe—or, at least, he knows he doesn’t believe he needs to know how to believe. This would have frustrated his younger self, but that’s not something he’s overly concerned about. Given the hypothetical opportunity to go back and warn his young, believing self about what was to come, he says, “I wouldn’t interfere, because it’s beautiful.”
“Jesus says, ‘Don’t lay up your treasure where dust and moth can corrupt,’” Holmes says. “That’s what he’s talking about. That breaking point of my wife turning my world upside down and then losing my faith was the best thing that could happen to me. I wouldn’t go back and stop that.”
It’s a little hard to explain but then, that’s Holmes’ specialty.
Alexa Edwards lives in Austin and writes about faith and culture.