Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

There's lots of love out there right now in the religious world – well, in the Comedy Central-watching religious left world, anyway – for Stephen Colbert.  Several outlets have picked up on a Religious News Service (RNS) piece, Behind Colbert's right-wing funnyman, a quiet faith, and it is making its rounds among my friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook.  But count me among the less-than-impressed.

Stephen Colbert is funny and has good hair, and he often makes great and biting commentary through the faux smile of his conservative caricature.  Those who know religion can catch his subtle references to maters of faith and can appreciate that his comfort with matters of faith is rooted, by all accounts, in his own deeply-held personal faith commitments.  Most recently, Colbert went before a congressional subcommittee and, after a testimony offered in persona as the right wing commentator blowhard, he offered what seemed like a heart-felt and authentic plea for the better treatment of migrant workers, who he identified with "the least of these" in Jesus' famous words from Matthew 25:40.

Stephen_colbert-9310 But there's one problem: Colbert is phony.  For someone who is a comedian, authenticity isn't Goal #1 – laughs are.  Phoniness is part of the gig, making him funny … in an exaggerated and contrived way.  There's almost a Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat quality to Colbert when he is in persona.  But, when isn't he in persona?  We don't really get any sense of who Stephen Colbert himself actually is – except, perhaps, when he laughs at his own absurdity, temporarily falling out of character.  We don't know where the line separating his eponymous role from his own self is drawn.  It is this inherent quality of caricature in Stephen Colbert that makes him unsettlingly funny … but which, by contrast, prevents us viewers from having any clue with whom we're actually dealing. 

When an actor portrays a role in a movie or television show, the rules are clear – the actor is acting.  But when Stephen Colbert "acts" in a role named after himself, and when he comments on political and social issues of current interest in that role, we're not sure what we're seeing any longer.  Where does the shtick end and the reality begin?  Again, it's funny.  But – and now in reference to this RNS piece about his faith – it is this inability to trust just who or what we're dealing with when we watch Stephen Colbert that diminishes any impact his unique testimony of faith might have.  For how can we tell if his faith is part of the act or perhaps something authentic?  That too was the problem with his testimony before Congress.  His testimony was an act.  The form in which he offered his testimony detracted from any serious message he may have had to share with our elected leaders.

That's why, in the contest between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I'm on the side of Jon Stewart.  Stewart isn't a caricature.

Jon Stewart is a comic, but he is also more than a comic.  He is either "the smartest funny man or the funniest smart man" on television, as Paul Begala described him on an ill-fated episode of Crossfire six years ago.  But he's even more than a smart social commentator mixed with comedic relief.  Stewart is, dare I say, real, in a world full of fakes.  What is real?  I'll leave that question to the philosophers and to Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix.  But whatever real is, I believe that Jon Stewart is it. 

Six years ago Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's Crossfire, not in any persona, but as himself – a comedian, yes, but also as an American passionately worried about our nation and the state of its political discourse, insisting that shows such as Crossfire are "hurting America."  Whatever you think of him and his views, Stewart that day spoke honestly and earnestly and, almost single-handedly, brought down a show that epitomized the worst of American political discourse.  That's his appeal, and that's why I like him so much.  When on The Daily Show Stewart is blasting FOX News on one hand and is exasperated at the Democrats on the other, we sense that this is not an act but the brilliantly-delivered insights of a left-of-center comic who is one of the few people willing to say that none of the political emperors are wearing any clothes.

Shift to the church.  Who are we ministers when we step into the pulpit?  Are we phony preachers putting on a show, trying to portray a particular persona of faith and piety?  Or are we able to be ourselves in our own skin, trying less to play a role than we are trying to share a message in a compelling yet personal way?  We follow a script, yes, but are we following one that makes room for and gives voice to authenticity in message and in self?  I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8; italics my emphasis).

In his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers a commentary on preachers through the observations of a cynical Holden Caulfield.

If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback edition, 1991), pg. 100.

How often do we who lead churches try to play the role, speaking in our best "Holy Joe voices" (literally or figuratively) when a good ol' "inside voice" without any bravado or vibrato would do just fine?  And how many people in the pews and in our neighborhoods see right through the phoniness of our clergy and our churches and opt instead for the authenticity of other relationships, communities and causes?

May we who lead churches steer clear of Holy Joe voices and leave faux personas behind.  Instead, may we strive to conduct our ministry authentically, honestly, and faithfully, for in so doing we follow the way of our Lord Jesus, the Word of God, who came not with bluster or grandeur or in any "role," but who came to us in the simplicity and down-to-earth authenticity of a crying baby, truth-telling storyteller, and the suffering of one dying unjustly.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

  1. I can’t comment much about Colbert and Jon Stewart. I don’t watch them much.
    But I will comment about “clergy authenticity.” As a pew-sitter, I am frankly not interested in hearing the preacher “in his own voice,” any more than I am interested in hearing the preacher’s personal opinions or insights; I am interested in hearing the Word of God. When the pastor is in the pulpit, he is there “in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ” just as much as he is in persona Christi when he is at the altar or when he is pronouncing absolution. If the preacher is truly proclaiming the Gospel, he is doing so in the name of Christ and with the authority of Christ. It is hardly surprising if a proclamation that is authoritative has a different tone from a lecture based on the speaker’s own research, analysis, and informed opinion.
    That is not to say that the preacher needs a Holy Joe voice, or that he can’t “be himself.” But never forget that you stand in the pulpit in the name of Christ. Don’t speak in “your own voice”; speak in His.

  2. Is there not a certain “performance” element in preaching? Well-timed physical gestures, shifts in tone or volume of voice, pregnant pauses…all of these serve to underscore the important points of a sermon. All of these can be employed without compromising pastoral authenticity.
    I speak differently when I preach than I do when I speak to my children, or to my spouse, or to my buddies while we are having a beer and watching a game. I am my authentic self in all of these situations.
    Besides, the older I have gotten the more I have realized that Holden Caulfield is a typical, spoiled, entitled, ungrateful, teenage punk who needs to grow up. 😉 (but I still Salinger!)

  3. Too many preachers attempt to ingratiate themselves to their listeners by speaking in their own voices. It’s bad apologetics: if I can get them on my side, I can then hit them with the gospel. Yes, you have to be “yourself,” but as Chris Jones comments, that’s not really the goal, is it. It is to speak on behalf of an Other. But please: I’m not accusing Chris D of bad apologetics. As an occasional preacher, I can testify it’s a tricky thing. I’ve blown it plenty of times.
    Regarding Colbert, some words of the great Ed Friedman may be good for consideration:
    “Have you ever noticed that while you can make your horse prance and perhaps even your dog dance, you cannot play with your pet alligator, salamander, turtle, or snake? They are deadly serious creatures. It is out of the question to expect them to behave mischievously, let alone irreverently. It is also rare to see them develop a relationship that is nurturing. Playfulness and nurturing appear to have evolved simultaneously, perhaps even as part of one another, and are part of our mammalian heritage. Is it far-fetched to say, therefore, that in all human communication when we have forgotten ‘the importance of *not* being earnest,’ at such moments we have committed a reptilian regression?” Friedman’s Fables, p. 155.
    Personally, I don’t believe I *know* any media personality, no matter how serious he or she appears. I’m not sure I really care that I don’t know them in any way other than what I see before me.
    Good prompts, Chris…

  4. Thanks, gentlemen. You’re giving me more to think about.
    Clearly we don’t leave ourselves behind when we stand behind the altar or step into the pulpit – that’s just not possible. Culture, personality, training, physical presence … it’s all there on display when we strive to stand in the place of Christ, speaking for God. How can we be honest about the fact that our ministry is influenced by our own beings, both what we do liturgically and what we do in non-liturgical pastoral encounters? And being honest about that inevitable influence, what do we make of the very real mixture of Word and flesh that takes place when we fallen creatures dare to speak with broken words the living and infallible Word of God?
    More thoughts next week, if I have any … 😉

  5. Great, thought provoking post. Dr. Richard Carlson, Epistles and Greek prof at LTSG says that the epistles were not only read to the churches, but performed. You and others who have commented have given us a lot to think about–transparency, authenticity, being ourselves, and yet realizing who we are speaking for.

  6. Great post and comments.
    I think you’re ALL right.
    It wouldn’t occur to me to use Colbert or Stewart in a discussion about ‘authenticity’ as I think at best they both reflect the cynical and critical spirit of this postmodern age. I guess you could argue that they do THAT with ‘authenticity’. As Christians, we have been given and are transformed by a Word that comes from outside of time and space and it is absolutely ‘authentic’ in any age.
    We (clergy) are charged with the task of proclaiming that same Word which has the power to transform its hearers. You could say that our own personal ‘authenticity’ is irrelevant to the power of that Word, however, we are charged by that same Word to speak the truth in love which is itself a wrapping of ‘authenticity’.
    It would seem natural then that the Law I proclaim would bring an authentic and empathetic tear to my eye as I speak that which shattered me and it would seem natural that the Gospel I announce would authentically delight me all over again.

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