Ridicule and Rationality: Jon Stewart’s Interfaith Dialogue

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Posted on January 14th, 2014 | Filed under Featured, Interfaith, News, Popular Culture
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Jon Stewart at the Rally To Restore Sanity.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Interfaith dialogue is typically a tame affair: good liberals know that religious beliefs are to be shared and celebrated, but not criticized and certainly not ridiculed -- at least in polite company.

In the real world, interfaith relations aren't so well-behaved.  Take Jon Stewart: this Jewish comedian makes some of his best jokes at the expense of conservative Christians, mocking them for their inconsistency, their hypocrisy, sometimes their manifest absurdity.  

One of his favorite strategies is to quote the Bible at Christians who claim to uphold 'Biblical' viewpoints.  Last November, the British Supreme Court ruled against two Christian owners of a bed and breakfast, who had a policy of refusing service to gay (and other unmarried) couples.  In a statement, the couple justified themselves by quoting the 'Biblical' definition of marriage as 'the union of one man and one woman.'

Stewart had some choice words for them: 'that's bull-s***!'  But he was not, as one might expect, directly attacking their sexual ethics.  Rather, Stewart was mocking them for their failure to show hospitality to strangers: 'If you were Christians, you wouldn't charge weary travelers to stay in your home in the first place,' he said.  'That's just Jesus 101!'  And to make the point, he hammered them with the New Testament, quoting chapter and verse: 'Romans 15:7 -- therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God! . . . 1 Peter 4:9 -- Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.'  And for good measure: 'Olive Garden 24:7 - when one is with you, he is family!'

In his backhanded way, Stewart not implausibly suggests that the Bible's teachings about hospitality might require a tolerant welcome even of those whose lifestyle one rejects.  His ironic pseudo-quotation of 'Olive Garden 24:7' further implies that, if even capitalism preaches hospitality to sell bread-sticks, how much more should Christians practice it to obey Jesus?  One thinks of Jesus' refrain in the Sermon on the Mount: 'do not even the pagans do that?'

OK, so it's all a lot funnier when Jon Stewart says it -- nothing kills a good joke like explaining it. (Stewart's comedy is also a fascinating example of how Scripture is interpreted between members of different religious traditions in the public sphere, which is the topic of an upcoming graduate student conference I and my colleagues are organizing at UVA.  Perhaps this post will inspire you to submit a paper proposal on our theme, Public Scripture: the deadline is January 20th!)

So unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Stewart doesn't blast Christians because all religion is fundamentally backwards and irrational.  Instead, Stewart ridicules the narrowness and one-sidedness of their particular form of Christianity, attacking them on Christian grounds by citing some of the countless New Testament texts that most Christians ignore.

Ironically, Stewart's scathing comedy takes Christian faith more seriously than those who approach religion with earnest but uncritical kid gloves.  He assumes there are more and less consistent versions of Christianity, better and worse readings of the Bible.  His comedy holds conservative Christians to their own 'Biblical' standards, precisely by unmasking the inconsistency and hypocrisy of those who appeal to Scripture only when it suits their interests and agrees with their ideology.

In short, Stewart is committed to a certain basic rationality that applies even between members of different religions. Remember that it was Stewart and Stephen Colbert who brought us a Rally to Restore Sanity.  'Sanity' refers precisely to these common sense standards of rationality, like consistency and fairness, the standards he skewers his victims for flouting.  By including religious people among the skewered, Stewart treats religion too as something that might -- though it often does not -- live up to basic standards of sanity.

Obviously Jon Stewart extends the same courtesy to more secular adversaries, especially the conservative ideologues at Fox News.  Sometimes Stewart is so evidently indignant at the hypocrisy of his targets that his underlying moral seriousness comes to the fore, and his jokes morph into something more like severe, prophetic jeremiads.  (Colbert shares Stewart's moral earnestness, but he is consistently funnier because irony is built into the basic premise of his show.)  Prophecy and comedy are close kin -- the moral indignation of the biblical prophets could also morph into ironic comedy. Isaiah 44:12-20, which mocks idolaters for worshipping the same wood they cook by, is a case in point.

The usual forms of interfaith dialogue seem more respectful of religion than either comic mockery or prophetic critique.  But I submit that where 'respect' for religion tries to exempt religion from rational criticism, such 'respect' tacitly treats religion as fundamentally irrational.  Dawkins draws less polite conclusions, but his underlying view of religion is not so different.

 Jon Stewart's brand of interfaith dialogue shows religion greater respect precisely because his comedy takes religion seriously enough to suppose it is legitimately subject to criticism.  I say this as a Christian who grew up within the conservative evangelicalism that Stewart so frequently mocks.  From an early age, I found the one-sidedness of its 'Biblical' moral vision baffling.  In middle school I gained a reputation as a 'Devil's advocate' by doing exactly what Stewart does: quoting ignored Bible verses back at my teachers.  (The fact that quoting texts about, say, fighting poverty, could qualify me as an advocate for the Devil now appears to me as a pretty severe indictment of conservative Christianity).  I already sensed what Stewart so effectively exploits, that conservative Christianity is inconsistent on its own terms.  That's why an increasing number of evangelicals are responding, well, rationally: by seeking to resolve the inconsistencies and root out the hypocrisies of contemporary evangelicalism.  Consequently, today's evangelicals are increasingly concerned about poverty, human trafficking, prison reform, and a whole range of other issues outside the old, inconsistently Biblical, list of 'family values.'

This is interfaith dialogue, respect for other religionsas it plays out in the real world.  When Christians fall far short of what Jesus teaches, a Jewish comedian calls them back to the gospel by making them look ridiculous. 

Image is in the public domain.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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12 Responses to “Ridicule and Rationality: Jon Stewart’s Interfaith Dialogue”

  1. Jay Sample says:

    Great reflection! Thank you.

  2. […] Read more at State of Formation. […]

  3. Esther says:

    Thank you for sharing this – as a fan of Jon Stewart’s particular brand of comment and comedy I appreciate your insight into the ways he critiques religion. I completely agree with your assessment – we sometimes treat religious beliefs or claims as though they are distinct from rational thought and therefore cannot be challenged for their consistency or rationality, but that isn’t showing those religious views respect, only distance. Perhaps with more voices willing to critique religious claims we can begin to not only practice respectful and intelligent critique, but also how to be respectfully criticized and challenged in ways that result in more fruitful dialogue.

  4. I really appreciate aspects of this essay. Your point about how the Bible is quoted variously to make arguments from different positions and between different religious communities is an important one. I cringe when I hear Evangelicals quote the Qur’an to “prove” that Islam is really a religion of evil. In so doing they miss the point your raise in this piece, not to mention forgetting violent aspects of their own scriptural tradition.

    You also correctly note that there are new voices within Evangelicalism. On the subject of interfaith engagement, for example, there is my own work with the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, soon to be at http://www.EvangelicalFRD.org but for now found at
    http://johnwmorehea5.wix.com/evangelicalfrd. Our mission is to prepare Evangelicals to more closely imitate the way of Christ in interreligious encounters. We do this in part through education, and pointing out neglected biblical passages, such as Jesus teaching and example love of neighbors and hospitality in regards to Gentiles and Samaritans. There is much in the Judeo-Christian tradition that can transform interfaith assumptions of defensiveness toward benevolence in Jesus’ way.

    Thanks again for this piece. I hope it’s a conversation starter.

    • Mark Randall James says:

      Thanks for your comments — evangelicals certainly have a lot to learn in this area. At the same time, I always found growing up that being an evangelical made me constantly involved in interfaith ‘dialogue,’ asking questions of my friends and learning about their religion.

      From your description here and on your website, some of your work looks a lot like the practice of Scriptural Reasoning: http://jsrforum.lib.virginia.edu/. My friend Kelly has a blog post on State of Formation about her experience with it:

      http://www.stateofformation.org/2011/02/come%e2%80%a6-read-my-sacred-texts-as-if-they-were-yours%e2%80%a6/

      Of course, we sometimes find that looking at difficult or awkward texts from the New Testament — and the Qur’an — is just as rewarding as looking at meek and mild ones. ;)

  5. Thanks for the interaction, Mark. I’ll take a look at Scriptural Reasoning. I think this new perspective for Evangelicals needs to be based on the ignored “not so difficult” texts, such as love your neighbor as yourself. But as I’ve mentioned in a post on my blog, Evangelicals must also wrestle with the difficult texts too, especially while pointing fingers at Islam: http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com/2012/07/laying-down-scriptural-swords.html

  6. terry shoemaker says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for this post. It is interesting to think about the public hermeneutics of religious texts. Further, it is interesting to note that Stewart is willing to engage conservative Christians with their own scriptures.

    I know this is outside of the realm of this particular post, but I’m curious if you think that there are power dynamics at play in this situation (as there are in many prophetic proclamations)? More specifically for this situation, do you think that political power combined with the intense focus on political engagement by Evangelicals uniquely positions conservative Christians for such critiques in the context of the United States?

  7. Mark Randall James says:

    Terry, thanks for your difficult question. No doubt there are power dynamics in every situation, and certainly this blog post would have been more difficult if it had been about, say, a conservative Christian comedian cracking jokes about Jews or Muslims.

    My intuition is that the ability to make jokes that are implicitly constructive in their critique (rather than purely abusive or shaming) requires, among other things, a certain familiarity. And my guess is that those in power have to work a lot harder to gain that kind of familiarity with the ways of the powerless, whereas the powerless live and die by their ability to navigate the rules of the powerful.

    That said, the liberal consensus represented by Jon Stewart has a huge amount of cultural and political power as well. And liberal Christianity can be quite politically engaged too — I think of e.g. fair trade issues, gender and sexuality issues, etc.

    My particular interest here, of course, is that Stewart loves to mock internal contradictions, and this sort of joke is an implicit argument. And while I know conservative Christianity has many internal contradictions, no doubt there is plenty to laugh at about liberal religion as well. I’m most familiar with liberal Christianity, but I imagine liberal Jews and Muslims face similar contradictions — and thus, may provide fodder for comedy too.

  8. Im haven’t watched TV in four years, but I am into interfaith relations or interreligious dialogue. And much of this article made me feel like I’m having my teeth pulled!

    The holy and not so holy books of the world worth reading that deal with human existence all try to point to that “common ground” all humanity finds itself in. This “common ground “is infinite and beyond total comprehension by any and all faiths, nonfaiths or cultures. First, I am a human being; and second I may or may not believe what is politically or religiously or atheistically correct to believe. But I’m still a human being deserving of respect, dammit!

    Yes, we kill our prophets and then erect monuments or found organizations in their honor. Some of these martyrs have something to say that transcends cultures and times. The problem is that what deeply inspires me may not be understood or may be feared by another.

    Peace, Pax, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste, etc.

  9. Gustavo says:

    I love the way you highlight the need to be more “consistent”. I totally agree. Now, to confuse lack of consistency with being hypocrite is, for me, a mistake. Both terms and ideas included are different. Yes all hypocrites are inconsistent, but not all people lacking consistency are hypocrites. While you can tell people being inconsistent “Hey, you are forgetting this”, they dont want to give an image of what they are not. They need to review what they may be missing, not applying, and think about it. Hypocrisy is, like a child say “having two faces”, and you do this mostly on purpose. Its a sin, so you know you are doing it, and you keep doing it. So for a better conversation about these topics, lets make the proper differences.

  10. Al Neuman says:

    Jon Stewart (born Jon Leibowitz) is a self-hating Jew, who among his other failings, bashes Israel, the Mideast’s only human and religious rights observing country, in pathetic attempts to curry favor with his mostly non-observant Christian Left-leaning audiences.

    Stewart’s “humor” also includes swipes at mainstream and evangelical Christians, which his way liberal audiences generally like too. Stewart is a hypocritical and insecure jerk who uses his celebrity to dishonestly bash Israel (and hurt very much his own family and background), just to try garnering laughs from a Leftist audience.

    In the process, Stewart has become a liar about who is really at fault in the Mideast–the same folks who brought you ISIS and murderous terrorism around the world–fanatic Islamists.

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Mark Randall James is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. His work focuses on Jewish and Christian interpretation of Scripture and the distinctive rationalities of scriptural religious traditions. Follow his Twitter feed @interpretweeter for running classical Jewish and Christian commentary on Scripture.


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