Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Colbert’

It is no secret that Stephen Colbert is a devout Catholic, but in a just-posted profile at The New York Times writer Charles McGrath offers this glimpse:

In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England.

“There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.”

He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

That’s as far as the discussion of faith goes in the article, leaving me curious to hear more.  For on-air expressions of Colbert’s faith, see here, here, and here.

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Stephen Colbert recently engaged in one of his classic takedowns, this time at the expense of Bill O’Reilly, whose early December column on the extension of unemployment benefits concluded on this note:

Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like (Washington state Rep. Jim) McDermott don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to “provide,” no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive.

The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?

Colbert “endorsed” O’Reilly’s position, denouncing McDermott’s “flagrant injection of charity into the Christmas season” and praising O’Reilly for understanding that “Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it.” His withering satire ended with a call to get the baby Jesus out of Christmas because:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition — and then admit we just don’t want to do it.

I couldn’t help but laugh at such a potent critique, but it was an uneasy laugh. As I’ve re-watched and reflected on this segment I found myself going back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discussion of cheap grace:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

However righteous Colbert’s critique of O’Reilly may be, and however much it invites me to join in righteous indignation, if this critique begins and ends with satire its righteousness is cheap — just like the grace that Bonhoeffer laments. Cheap righteousness is the willingness to demand of others what we don’t deliver ourselves. It is the proud posturing of the Pharisees, who prided themselves in following the letter of the law while hollowing out its spirit.

Don’t get me wrong — O’Reilly’s argument deserved a strong response, and Colbert offered it. But in the end that response circles back on me, cutting through the laughter like a boomerang. I must be willing to see that. If I’m going to disapprove of O’Reilly from the comforts of my suburban home, then what am I willing to do that’s different?

If all I do is laugh, without dropping to my knees to reflect on how I might live differently, then am I just being cheap?

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As if Tuesday was bad enough, I found this issue of Newsweek staring back at me when I picked up my mail. Yes, the new management at Newsweek took its best shot at listing its top 50 “pundits and politicos.”

Though I understand their attraction, lists are one of the more overused (if not inane) story forms in journalism. But while academics have long fretted about the size and power of media corporations, this list shows us that individual media figures have become corporations unto themselves — led by Rush Limbaugh’s annual income of $58.7 million. The rest of the top five:

Glenn Beck, $33 million

Sean Hannity $22 million

Bill O’Reilly, $20 million

Jon Stewart, $15 million

In all, 31 of the top 50 on Newsweek’s list are media personalities (not counting Sarah Palin, who is a category unto herself), and including the just-suspended Keith Olbermann (No. 9, $7.5 million). 

This list is based on pay, anchored in the assumption that higher pay equates with bigger influence, as in the case of Limbaugh:

No adviser, to any president, is likely to have the kind of influence that Rush Limbaugh has right now.

This kind of platform and power, vested in those who possess authority with audiences but bear no responsibility for the consequences of their advocacy, merits some serious reflection  — or lamentation. But you really won’t find that kind of critical perspective in Newsweek’s largely fawning and often vapid presentation.  Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (No. 14, $5 million), who offer more constructive work through satire than a dozen (or two) CNN commentators, should be included in the discussion.

But the loudest voices bring in the biggest bucks — and fattest paychecks — while old-school outlets like Newsweek struggle to survive by bowing prostrate before the Power 50.

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The press is in full-bore analysis mode as it assesses the significance of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Of course, what irony-challenged pundits often miss is that they themselves are among the rally’s main targets — hence Stewart and Colbert estimating the rally’s turnout as somewhere between “10 million” and “6 billion.”

What I liked best were the signs: “More Sanity, Less Hannity” and “Use Your Inside Voice” were among the good ones compiled in a slide shows here and here at Talking Points Memo.

Still, of the commentaries I’ve read so far Christopher Beam’s discussion at Slate captures best what was going on:

The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear, held on the National Mall Saturday afternoon, ridiculed the whole idea of a political rally. But it also managed to send a message about the broken political system, how the media abets it, and why it’s OK to care—even for professional ironists.

If you spend any time watching Stewart and Colbert (and if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I do), below the surface of the sometimes (OK, often) profane skits and pin-point mockery is a very serious critique of our media system and political process. As Bean notes:

Stewart has always walked the line between irony and sincerity. He’s a jokester, but he cares about political discourse, if not the minutiae of policymaking.

Stewart and Colbert can veer toward being smug at times, but far more often they help us laugh — otherwise we’d be in tears. However “successful” the rally was (and how do you define success?) their dissection of our politics has often been far more incisive than the national press, which too often serves as facilitator of all that is broken in D.C. If you watch Stewart enough, you can see it slip through that he’s not just angry about the national press — he’s also broken-hearted.

Brian Stelter at The New York Times picked up on this theme, calling the rally a class in “Media Criticism 301.” Stewart’s closing statement also was  telling:

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times — not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.

The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen — or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing.

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That’s what the Rev. James Martin suggests to Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service, who has examined Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith. Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America, says:

Anytime you talk about Jesus or Christianity respectfully the way he does, it is evangelization. He is preaching the gospel, but I think he is doing it in a very postmodern way.

Martin doesn’t really explain what he means by that (or maybe he did explain, and it never made it into the story). But part of that appeal is Colbert’s use of that postmodern tool, irony. As Martin notes:

He manages to raise the big questions very deftly. I think that is a great catechesis for many people because he might be reaching Catholics who never go to church and he is speaking to them in language they can understand.

Martin also notes that students at Catholic universities always ask about Colbert’s faith, and “they are delighted” to know that he is a believer, adding:

He shows them they can be Catholic and be thoughtful and provocative and funny and they don’t have to be deadly serious about religion.

I’ve posted several times before when Colbert’s faith has peeked through his comedy, most recently for his appearance before Congress. (Also see here, here and here). But I’ve found that I can’t compete with a blog called Catholic Colbert, devoted solely to following Colbert’s comments on faith. Diane Houdek, creator of the blog, tells Winston:

“He is moving in an extremely secular world – it is hard to get a lot more secular than Comedy Central,” Houdek said. “Yet I feel he is able to witness to his faith in a very subtle way, a very quiet way to an audience that has maybe never encountered this before.”

It’s particularly powerful to Catholics, Houdek said, when the lines blur between Colbert’s personal faith and that of his on-air alter ego. She pointed to a 2007 segment in which his character reveled in Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that non-Catholic faiths were “defective.”

“Catholicism is clearly superior,” Colbert crowed beside a picture of the pope. “Don’t believe me? Name one Protestant denomination that can afford a $660 million sexual abuse settlement.” It wasn’t just funny, Houdek said, but “powerful.”

I recently stumbled upon another example of Colbert’s faith popping up on his show, a 2008 interview with Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, during which the pair sparred over the relationship between God and evil. When Zimbardo complemented Colbert for paying attention during Sunday School, Colbert replied … well, I’ll leave it to you to watch it yourself.

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In the midst of last Friday’s testimony during a congressional hearing, Stephen Colbert stepped out of his fine-tuned persona and (as Andrew Sullivan notes) let his Catholic roots show through:

I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me, and um… You know, “whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,” and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.

It’s a moment like this that makes Colbert much more than just another comedian. He is a jester in the king’s court, and his best satire does more than shred our pretensions and expose our folly; it exudes the expectation that people owe one another a sense of decency and care.

With a statement like that, I know I risk overhyping Colbert, for I’ve watched plenty of moments when his bits misfire and I cringe. But still, there’s something different that emerges from Colbert’s comedy when you watch him consistently and see how his gems outweigh the chunks of coal.

He does not forget the least of these.

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That’s the Word of advice that Stephen Colbert offers to help President Obama dispel the rumors that he is Muslim. The quote is Colbert’s (very) fanciful “take” on Matthew 5:47 (i.e., he made it up), but when I watch the clip I can’t shake the sense that Colbert was informed more by Matthew 6:5-14.

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