Nobody likes to be the butt of a joke. On the school yard, at the family dinner table - we like it when people laugh with us, not at us. Above all, we don’t like it when people make sport of what we hold dear. Like our faith.
Christians complain about unfair portrayals of “people of faith” in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect ridicule from atheist comedians like Bill Maher or Ricky Gervais. But Stephen Colbert is supposed to be one of us.
Tonight, Colbert wraps up nine years on The Colbert Report, Comedy Central’s hugely successful fake news show, before taking over for the retiring David Letterman. While Colbert is praised for his comedic genius, he is also a practicing Catholic who has taught Sunday school. Some find it odd that Colbert serves up so many Jesus jokes. Religion is a favorite topic for Colbert. He frequently features bits and segments targeting popes, piety and Presbyterians, many of which have been highlighted here at TC. Colbert once identified his Ash Wednesday forehead smudge as an entrance stamp for “Club Heaven.” He has scolded American nuns for their leftist charitable acts. He has assumed a God’s-eye-view in recurring segments such as “Yahweh or No Way.”
While this may seem faith-eroding, I’d argue it is faith-building. The function of comedy is to question our assumptions and investigate what we profess to believe. Comedy serves Truth not by giving answers, but by asking pointed questions. “Is that what you really believe?”
Jokes about ethnicity are funny when they undermine our assumptions and stereotypes. Jokes about sex are funny when they present us with contradictions between what we pretend to think and what we really think. Jokes about faith are funny when they expose a gap between what we say we believe and how we live and act.
Comedy tests the quality of our faith.
This corrective is necessary. Just as every good thesis needs a counter argument, poking fun at our faith (or the stuff that gets done in the name of faith) allows us to consider whether what we believe “holds up.” Comedy pokes at our foundations and asks us (as Jesus did at the culmination of the Sermon on the Mount) whether our religious buildings have been erected on sand or rock.
We all know that every manner of corrosive thing has been perpetrated in the name of religion. Sadly, it is easy to find instances of sexual scandal, money scandal, hateful practice and abuse carried out in the name of Christianity. Just because someone tacks the word “God” or “holy” on something does not make it holy or godly.
Comedy tests the quality of our faith. We should always ask ourselves: is what gets mocked by a religious joke truly sacred or is it something unholy masquerading under the guise of religiosity? Are we offended because of an infringement on sanctity or a violation of a sacred cow we’ve come to revere?
Psychoanalysts have known this for decades: if a given topic strikes a nerve or offends - pay attention! God is not threatened or diminished by question, critique or comedy. Should we be?