Comedian as Prophet (part 2): Insiders and Outsiders

Moving ahead with the exploration of Comedian as Prophet, prompted by my niggling sense that Comedy Central’s news programs may be taking the role of prophetic voice when it comes to American Politics…

First, a disclaimer. I know full well that there are some ideas I’m batting around here and connecting that may have been covered by other sources. Things I read in seminary, conversations with my brother or my husband about their Ph.D research, other things I’ve read since. I would love love love to be able to attribute and footnote and refer you to these sources.

But I can’t. Because I haven’t been living the academic life and keeping good notes. So apologies in advance if there’s something in here that should be attributed. Hey, if you want to give a source in the comments, go for it. But, as far as I can tell, most of the work of synthesis is my own.

On, then, to the prophet as insider or outsider.

At some point a few years ago I remember my brother (who is working on a Political Science Ph.D) talking about some work he was doing and how related to the idea of prophets as internal or external.

For example, Nathan is an internal prophet. He has access to King David’s court, the king’s ear, and, even though he says things the kings don’t want to hear sometimes, he maintains (overall) a place within the court. You get the idea that if Nathan showed up to deliver a message, David might invite him to spend the night.

Then there’s Elijah, who is at odds with the court. He is not a welcome visitor of King Ahab. If Ahab asked him to spend the night, you’d suspect that Ahab was plotting about how to kill Elijah in his bad.

You can say things a bit differently if you are an internal prophet or an external prophet. Nathan, while being honest, still maintains his connection to the court. Elijah…not so much pressure to sugar coat things. Each has a role.

Here’s a preaching analogy. There are things you can say when you’re an ongoing part of a community and things you can say when you’re not. This summer, at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, we started the week with a sermon by Bruce Reyes-Chow and ended with a sermon by Tony Campolo.

Bruce: former moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). Internal prophet, right? He can say things from the perspective of “we”. And that can be the basis for his challenge to the congregation. A great prophetic sermon. But shaped by the fact that he has to continue hanging out with the PC(USA) after the sermon.

Tony: Baptist. Not main-line. External prophet. There were things he could do that a PC(USA) preacher couldn’t. Compliment “us”. Point out some of our foibles. Call us out. Also a great prophetic sermon. But from a different angle. Because he’s not stuck to the PC(USA) in the same way as Bruce.

Now, translate that a bit to a modern context. We don’t have a court, but we do have places that have power. You could say it’s about who is in the inner circle of the upper levels of government and who isn’t. But it also goes beyond government. Let’s just work from the premise that the news media has power. Humor me…

I recognize that, looking at this at this point in time, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert DO have enormous power in the media.

But what about when the Daily Show began years ago? Yes, at that point, Stewart had a cable program, so he had power in the grand scheme of things. However, even without exact statistics, I’m sure that the ratings are much much better than they were back then!

Even now, though, Stewart and Colbert still stand outside, external to, the main “courts” of the media. And, even in a time when the president appears on the Daily Show, Stewart is still able to ask some pretty sharp questions. There are limits to what you can say to the president on TV, I suppose, but I often find that the questions asked on these programs are the kind I wish the mainstream media had the guts to ask.

So, at least in their critique of the media, and arguably in critique of the government, they stand as external prophets. And you can criticize from the interior, but an exterior critique has a different sort of force.