Beyond Funny

What’s going on these days with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? As many readers know, these two men are, respectively, the hosts of the Comedy Central programs The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Both are “fake” news shows and both contain just enough bleeped-out language and sexual innuendo to offend a good many Christians. Mr. Colbert began working under Stewart in the early years of The Daily Show, eventually morphing himself into a faux arch-conservative who played off of Mr. Stewart’s (not-so-faux) arch-liberal points of view and comments.

What both men have going for them is incredible wit and humor, but more than that they both have honed the weapon of satire to a fine edge. Anyone who has ever taken an English survey course in college no doubt associates satire principally with Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal.” To skewer the predatory practices of the British in his day, Swift recommended that the British follow their practices to their logical conclusion and simply begin to eat, in a literal sense, the children of the Irish whom their political policies were already devouring in a symbolic sense. The title itself, “A Modest Proposal,” was at once deeply ironic in that there was nothing modest at all about the idea of cannibalistic roasting and eating of Irish children. Yet the title was equally biting, in that Swift’s proposal could indeed almost seem modest. His whole point was that the leap from the British policies to the actual slaughter of children was not really that big of a jump at all.

Both Stewart and Colbert have become highly adept at this art. Stewart typically takes the comments of a given senator, reveals what is basically ridiculous about the comments as they stand, and then fastforwards those ideas to the next level in order to show that if we really did what this person was saying … well, some pretty startling things might happen. For his part, Mr. Colbert does the same thing, but in character, playing the part of the ultimate conservative. He frequently states his own positions in an outrageous manner that is actually not so far from what real-life people (who are not playing a part) are saying. Neither Stewart nor Colbert are typically so ham-fisted as to say overtly, “Senator So-and-So’s position is foolish” but they reveal folly through the satirical art of letting speeches and positions play themselves out to their logical conclusion.

Preachers and church leaders who promote the cause of Jesus Christ ought not be first and foremost known as satirists. Indeed, the sneering and the edge of anger that frequently characterizes satiric commentators have no place in sermons. But there may be lessons to draw from the likes of Stewart and Colbert. Both men have in recent days said and done things that seemed to make a genuine difference. Or at least they said things that contained sharp truths, the likes of which preachers and church leaders sometimes seem too timid to point out themselves.

When Congress voted down a bill that would have provided additional funds for healthcare services for the people who nobly and bravely worked for weeks and months on “the pile” that was the wreckage of the Twin Towers, Mr. Stewart played a video montage of all the politicians who voted “no” on the bill but who had for years exploited 9/11 in their election advertisements. Mr. Stewart’s message: if you’re not going to help the people who worked on the 9/11 disaster, you may no longer use 9/11 to get yourself re-elected. Then Stewart devoted an entire episode of his “comedy” show to a very non-funny panel discussion of 9/11 first responders who talked about how and why they need the funding for healthcare that Congress was denying them. While no one claims Mr. Stewart is solely responsible, when a new version of the 9/11 healthcare bill came before Congress, it sailed on through.

I was even more struck by a recent Stephen Colbert clip that circulated my way via Facebook. In this pre-Christmas “news commentary,” Mr. Colbert lampooned American selfishness by juxtaposing politicians posturing on the importance of Christmas with the economic policies of those same politicians. Their economic policies, Mr. Colbert suggested, disadvantage the poor in ways that are at direct variance with the ways Jesus talked about and treated the poor. By the time this startling five-minute commentary was finished, Mr. Colbert uncovered the blatant hypocrisy of those who claim the Christ of Christmas for themselves but display precious little interest in living like that Christ. To paraphrase Colbert, either we need to stop making over Jesus in our own image or finally admit that Jesus had certain ideas regarding just treatment of the poor that we simply don’t want to accept.

Seldom have I heard–and, alas, too seldom have I preached–sermons that were as direct. If I blurred my eyes while watching this video clip, I could picture the shepherd of Tekoa saying the same things in his day:

You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts (Amos 5:10-12).

I wonder how many preachers would have the courage to target such genuine disconnects in our society (and yes, also in our churches) in ways as blatant as the funnyman Colbert did. Satire may not be the proper posture for preachers, but when it provides such a window on truth, perhaps satire can, after all, be one of the lenses preachers train on society.

Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan and an editor of Perspectives.