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.