Colbert and Catechesis

Friday, February 7, 2014 - 7:19 am

Colbert and Catechesis

“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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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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