Colbert and Catechesis

Friday, February 7, 2014 - 7:19am
Colbert and Catechesis

Can something positive appear on a popular TV comedy show? An analysis of the "edgy Catholic Sunday School teacher and TV host as a catechist who can teach other catechists much."

Commentary by:
Martin E. Marty,  Special Contributor for Sightings
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Comedy talk show host Stephen Colbert introduces Fr. James Martin on a segment about Pope Francis' emphasis on economic justice and the importance of caring for the poor.

“The devil should not have all the best tunes.” We baroque-loving church folk like to quote that, when justifying our devotion to jazz or, though not in my case, rock music. Think today of Christian jazz or “Christian rock.”

Others who monitor “religion and American life” explore analogies in other pop-culture art forms. Should the devil have all the best tattoos? One Lutheran minister’s arms are full of liturgical symbols as she mixes radical Christian orthodoxy with profane-sounding preaching.

Now, ask: why should the devil have all the televised comedy programs? That much on these programs is cynical or nihilistic is obvious; that something positive can also appear on them is the subject of new inquiry and publicity.

One out of many examples is “Truth and Truthiness,” subtitled “What Catholic catechists can learn from Stephen Colbert.” Patrick R. Manning, with ties to Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, analyzes an on-camera colloquy between America magazine editor James C. Martin, S.J., and Mr. Colbert to make some points about catechesis, a Mr. Manning specialty.

What a reach: to talk of “Catechesis” or “Catechists” or “Catechism” in popular culture! Such terms relate to missionaries, nuns of yore, volunteer lay teachers, and overworked ministers, don’t they? Today cultural historians are revisiting the catechetical scene and coming up with more positive readings than the old stereotypes permitted. What about such fields today?

Mr. Manning, observing Stephen Colbert, sees that edgy Catholic Sunday School teacher and TV host as a catechist who can teach other catechists much. To make his point, Mr. Manning reaches back to Saint Augustine for lessons, using Mr. Colbert as exemplar.

For example, first, the comic is devoted to “truthiness,” a coinage of his that has made its way into as least one dictionary. Don’t catechists, who distill scriptures, doctrines, and revelations aspire to bring their “truthinesses” to memorable ends?

Second, Mr. Colbert’s audiences are catechized the way classic Christian learners were, as they were asked to put their creeds and stories into action. Mr. Manning, with Augustine’s help, is only getting started here.

Stephen Colbert, he contends, has his huge following among young viewers because he is interesting and lively. Augustine: “A hearer must be delighted, so that he can be gripped and made to listen.” With “tongue-in-cheek, wink-of-the-eye demeanor” Mr. Colbert holds his delighted audiences. Must all religious catechesis be dull? Mr. Manning does not suggest that catechists or anyone but Mr. Colbert can replicate his “delighted/delighting” approach, but they can learn from him as a model.

Back to Augustine via Mr. Manning in the case of Stephen Colbert: “Augustine also emphasized the importance of instructing the audience.” “A Christian teacher’s primary aim is not to entertain but rather to hand on God’s saving truth;" the best method is not by amusing "but rather one by which the listener hears the truth and understands what he hears.”

Finally, Augustine “underscores the need to persuade one’s audience. . . [T]he person who still needs to be enticed with delightful speech to do the right thing has not yet fully grasped the meaning of [in this case] Christ’s truth.” Patrick Manning finds it impressive that Stephen Colbert can persuade and instruct audiences to take moral actions. “Fake-news host” though he is, he is explicit about action—and inspires it.

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Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com

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8Reflections

We are regularly encouraged to "Lift up" our hearts. Perhaps we should move in to the upcoming penitential season and "Let's End Negative Thinking." Consider doing something good daily and smiling with thanksgiving.

The history of positive and positive religious/spiritual "messages" in TV comedy is decades old. "The Flying Nun" comes to mind. "Andy Griffith" comes to mind. Dick van Dyke.

"Modern Family". "My Name Is Earl"

I'm happy you're finally noticing. The tendency to put down most/all of society so you can hold your topic out to be "the star among the dung" is a popular approach in media, but quite tired and not all that genuine...

Shorter introduction, more pith please. This is not really a commentary; I wanted to read more about the how and why of Colbert, not the what. Colbert's faith is so genuine, it is obvious even when he is poking fun at Christians. I remember telling my kids, when he was still doing the God spot on the Daily Show, that this man is a Christian. He never said he was at that time, but it was infused in his being, which is why he is credible when he talks about religion. One of the ways he reveals truth is, in the manner of a catechism, by asking questions and getting answers from the catechised. He plays the seeker, the devil's advocate, not the teacher; but in drawing out the response, the teaching comes.

Bravo to Jim Martin! I did not envy him facing the rapid and sure fire-power of Mr. Colbert. I admire how The Official Chaplain answered the questions - all good ones I might add -- with simplicity and openness. And congratulations to Mr. Colbert, who asked questions that any Catholic should being asking now and then of his/herself and of his/her Church. I doubt if they were as spontaneous as Mr. Colbert made them seem.

Shorter introduction, more pith please. This is not really a commentary; I wanted to read more about the how and why of Colbert, not the what. Colbert's faith is so genuine, it is obvious even when he is poking fun at Christians. I remember telling my kids, when he was still doing the God spot on the Daily Show, that this man is a Christian. He never said he was at that time, but it was infused in his being, which is why he is credible when he talks about religion. One of the ways he reveals truth is, in the manner of a catechism, by asking questions and getting answers from the catechised. He plays the seeker, the devil's advocate, not the teacher; but in drawing out the response, the teaching comes.

Trent Gilliss's picture

If you're looking for part of the answer to the why question, as you say, I recommend reading Patrick Manning's piece for America magazine. It goes into great detail. Also, this is part of what we do for the podcast. We're working on getting Mr. Colbert on the show. Hopefully soon!

Comedy and laughter, what a wonderful new approach and ON TELEVISION!

I have a question. Are you using the same definition of "truthiness" that Mr. Colbert uses? If so, saying catechists employ truthiness is not a positive comment on catechists, and Colbert's "truthiness,' which is meant as satire, is not a quality to emulate.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, truthiness is "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."

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