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 religions, as 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.