Comedian as Prophet (part 1)

Several weeks ago, I proposed this as a blog post that I wanted to write: the Comedian as Prophet.

I’m a fairly devoted Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert fan. Not that I watch every episode. But if there’s a big story going on, I want to hear their take on it. And, perhaps more telling, if I am feeling down and out and demoralized about the state of the news, I find that watching them helps me feel better.

It’s partly because they make me laugh. Which makes me worry less. A few years ago, I found this amazing interview with Colbert about his conversion back to Christianity, motivated by rediscovering by the Matthew “do not worry” passage. The core quote here? “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” I think Colbert clearly sees his work as a Christian vocation.

Side note: Anyone here a nice little segue into the Teresa of Avila prayer here?

Nada te turbe, nada te espante. Quien a Dios tiene en nada le falta.

Nada te turbe, nada te espante. Solo Dios basta.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.

Whoever has God is missing nothing…God alone is enough.

If you substitute the word “anxious” for the word “afraid”, I find that Colbert and Stewart fit right in with my understanding of systems theory (I’m a big fan of this stuff). They seem to be well aware that the whole system that is our country (and, arguably, the whole system that is the world) is anxious. Murray Bowen, the high head guru of systems, had an eighth concept in his theory, “Societal Emotional Process” in which he argued that systems theory applied not just to family systems to to society as well. He noticed an ongoing echo-chamber of anxiety in our society in the mid to late 20th century, and if you read him thoroughly on this, many of his predictions of how this would play out are frighteningly spot-on. (Bowen as a prophet might be another post…)

What’s really interesting, then, is when you throw in the fact that Bowen thought that humor played an important part in diffusing anxiety. Edwin Friedman, the rabbi who brought Bowen theory to religious leaders, especially emphasized this, saying that humor and paradox were invaluable tools for breaking through anxiety.

But, back to Colbert and Stewart:

I’m beginning to think they are the major prophetic voices in our society. I know that if you lean far to the right in the political spectrum, this statement probably bothers you. Sorry. But really, I don’t say this because they may well lean toward the left politically. I say it because I think they are finding ways in their work to interpret what is happening in our society honestly, thoughtfully, and in a way that gives us some idea of what God’s perspective on the whole mess might be.

The popular view of prophecy is that prophets predict the future. But the Biblical prophet often has the role as well of interpreting what is happening right now. The analogy I remember from seminary is that prophets are interpreting both the foothills (the right-now, which you can see before you even see the mountains) and the great mountain range  beyond (the future, which is often obscured by your view of the foothills). Both foothills and mountains are part of the geological range, but one is immediate and one is yet to come.

I don’t know that I’m willing to start attributing Colbert and Stewart the ability to prophecy about the mountains, but I do wonder if they are our best interpreters of foothills right now.

Coming in up on this topic (maybe in the following order):

  • prophets as societal insiders or outsiders
  • Jon Stewart and Jesus and my paltry knowledge of the rabbinic tradition
  • should we be worried that comedians are our prophets
  • anything else?

2 Responses to “Comedian as Prophet (part 1)”

  1. Jenn M-K Says:

    I have parenting friends who, when their children start whining, require them to whine while smiling. It’s very, very difficult to do, just like being afraid and laughing…

  2. John Vest Says:

    You are right on with this. At one point in our history, legitimate news media did this–think about the way Edward R. Murrow was portrayed in Good Night, and Good Luck (since we are too young to remember him in person). The comedy news people have definitely assumed this mantle today.