Hands down, Mr. Methuselah was the crankiest man at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School held last week at Buena Vista University.
The wise-cracking, flannel-wearing latex puppet was given voice by maybe the least-cranky person among the 625 in attendance, the Rev. Bob Wollenberg, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Washington, Iowa, and Synod School’s associate dean.
With the help of a straight man — in this case, a woman, Synod School Dean Tammy Rider — Wollenberg allowed Mr. Methuselah to voice all number of complaints in three public appearances.
His dorm room was so cold, he complained, “I nearly froze my testimony.”
The crank couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to bring his television into evening worship. “‘Jeopardy!’ starts in 10 minutes,” Mr. M. said.
Wollenberg, a former children’s entertainer, breaks out a puppet named Victor the Vulture nearly every Sunday during children’s time back home in southeast Iowa.
Victor — like Mr. Methuselah — “says things that people may be thinking, but would never say, like ‘Church is boring!’ or ‘When is that guy (Wollenberg, the preacher) ever going to stop talking?’” he said.
It’s the job of the straight man — never played by Wollenberg — to admonish the puppet with warnings like, “We don’t say that in church.”
That doesn’t stop Victor or Mr. Methuselah from making their feelings known.
“The closer I get to retirement age,” Wallenberg said with a smile, “the freer I feel to speak my mind.”
Children identify with puppets in part because they’re a little like children are, he said, and in part because children have little power. Some children in his congregation know who brings Victor and his cousin Vinnie to life, but others “don’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.”
Even when he walked on stage and ducked behind a puppet theater at Synod School, a fair number of children asked him afterward, “Are you Mr. Methuselah?”
Well, is he?
Yes and no. We humans just can’t get away with the things our alter-egos can. It goes back to Wollenberg’s early days as a clown.
When a circus tightrope walker starts to lose her balance, those in attendance suck in their breath, Wollenberg said. But when a clown does the same thing atop a tightrope, people just laugh.
“A clown isn’t a real person,” he explained. “He doesn’t have to follow the rules of gravity.
“I transfer some of that to how I do puppets,” he said. “By being rule-breakers, (puppets) allow us to re-examine our lives.
“The Christian faith is about breaking rules. Death has no power over us.”
Wollenberg tells children that Mr. Methuselah is 3,000 years old.
“He could have been there for biblical events,” he said, but when the puppet tells Bible stories to children, he keeps getting his facts wrong. That allows the straight man or woman that day to repeat the correct information three or four times — a key to children’s learning.
“It’s classic comedy, the straight man and the foil,” he said. “The puppet never teaches the serious lesson. He’s always the acerbic one.”
Mike Ferguson is a member of United Presbyterian Church in Lone Tree, Iowa, and a reporter for The Muscatine Journal, the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start. He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.