It was in N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, where he observes that both laughter and tears clue us into the fact that something has gone wrong in the world. This statement came alive to me while reading a recent blog post. The author came up with 15 episode ideas for Seinfeld if it were still running today. The beauty of Seinfeld was that it took scenarios that we would describe as common, mundane, and typical and would point out their insanity. The show subverted our values/neurosis with brilliance and seemingly lack of effort.
In this way, comedy actually plays a prophetic role in our society.
Now by prophecy I am not talking about a power to predict the future, but prophecy in terms of the ancient prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Prophets were given a special kind of authority by God, usually empowered by the Spirit, in order to urge their people to see the error of their ways and repent. Prophecy is truth telling through powerful, symbolic acts with the goal of righteousness and justice. Prophets had a heightened sensitivity to the injustices around them, which usually led to their own despair (i.e. Jeremiah).
Comedy is a gift because it is one of the few forms of truth telling that our society is willing to hear. And the truth it is trying to tell us is that something has gone drastically wrong. Comedy depends on this for every punch line (okay, maybe not knock, knock jokes). Think of the following as prime examples of this: Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Stuff Christians Like, Stuff White People Like, The Onion, and the list goes on.
Through the guise of shallow entertainment we have invited these comedians into our hearts. They’re clever lines aim right for our subconscious and consciences. Now sometimes they miss and go straight over our heads, but for those with eyes to see and ears to listen we start to hear the cries of the victims of our broken world.
I wish the American church had half of the prophetic power of these comedians. Truth telling is a vital role of the church, but we have warped it in the same way we have a warped our understanding of prophecy (Left Behind…need I say more). We are so obsessed with assigning blame for the evil around us (i.e. “Thanks, Obama”) that we miss the evil that resides within us. Truth telling has become a power play– a way to fill up the seats.
So what has made these comedians so successful and what, if anything, can the church learn from them?
1. Comedians consider their audience. A good comedian knows what kind of demographic they’re going to attract and tailors their material accordingly (Jeff Foxworthy comes to mind). This is rhetoric 101. If you want to move or stir your audience, you have to consider what they value and how they think. This does not mean that we change what the gospel is, but that, as Paul says, we become “all things to all people.”
I was at an assembly where an elder stood in front of a largely teenage audience and said that America was going to fall into ruin because of its tolerance of homosexuality. Here is a classic example of the church thinking they are taking on the role of a prophet when in truth they’re just being a jerk. Truth telling is not bullying, and if you’re not sure of the difference I recommend befriending a homosexual or any other person who has been marginalized/victimized by the church. The American church for far too long has played the victim, when they are more often than not the bully.
2. A Comedians’ worldview is shaped by their task. I loved the show Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the writers came to work and shared that he had accidentally recorded over his wedding video. On the night of their anniversary he popped in the video and to his and his wife’s horror, their wedding day was now a football game. The writers knew that his unfortunate mistake was a goldmine for the show and immediately started writing the episode for it. They confessed at the end of the series that many of their episodes were drawn from their own lives.
A comedian is never off the job. Every experience could be a potential punch line or sketch. They can’t afford to turn off this part of their brain because they might miss something. Most comedians are saturated in their craft, which means that they can’t help but think a bit differently than the rest of us.
Christians need to adopt this kind of transformative thinking. Our minds need to be saturated with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the cries of Lamentations, and the prayers of the saints. Perhaps when we have become so saturated our truth telling will seem more authentic and feel less like a party line.
Unlike these comedians, the prophets of Israel were not very popular with their audience. Speaking the truth confronts injustice and so it will always ruffle some feathers. Nevertheless, the church has a vital role to play by simply speaking the truth. This is why we must constantly examine our hearts to fight against any hidden agendas or desires for power. Truth speaking is always cruciform (cross–shaped). The church will never be the city on a hill by casting stones, but by taking sin’s weight (with all of its guilt, shame, and despair) off of the world and placing it on its shoulders. For when we take on the wounds of the world we start to look a whole lot more like Jesus.