But now that he has accepted a contract to replace David Letterman on the “Late Show,” I fear that he may not be able to do or say some of the things he could on Comedy Central.
Here’s why I think Colbert is a brilliant theologian.
1. Colbert functions as a voice from within the religious community. He is not an outsider looking in. As a committed Catholic, he understands the doctrines and activities of his own tradition as well as those of other Protestant denominations. He’s a smart guy, well-read and knowledgeable about institutional Christianity. Unlike Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, who present a constant fare of irreverent and unauthoritative criticism, Colbert has earned the right to offer critique because he is one of us.
2. Colbert puts on a persona to deliver his theology. Irony is a powerful tool for helping people reflect on life, and as Colbert has proven, especially on religious life. He’s not the first to develop a satirical character to help convey religious meaning. Most famously, C.S. Lewis used this strategy in his Screwtape Letters, when he positioned the senior devil Screwtape as the mentor of the younger demon Wormwood. Bono did the same when he took on the role of MacPhisto on U2’s ZooTV tour in the mid-90s, often espousing the "virtues" of self-gratification, media saturation and overindulgence, all the while suffering the effects of his devilish alter-ego run amok. Even the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live effectively used irony to help us reflect on our theological inconsistencies. The gospel is irony and Colbert helps us see the irony of the gospel.
3. Using his ultra-conservative façade, Colbert appeals to a huge demographic. He finds an audience in both liberals and conservatives, especially in young adults. In a remarkable study and subsequent dissertation, Jill Dierberg concluded that Christian emerging adults of both right and left political leanings were challenged to think about the theology and application of their own faith through viewing The Colbert Report. This is quite an astounding conclusion, signaling the unique nature of Colbert’s ability to engage a broad religio-political audience. The study also confirmed the ability of a popular entertainer to use mainstream media—traditionally seen as the enemy of religion—to effectively promote theological reflection.
4. The gospel is ironic in ways that we often can’t detect because we are too comfortable with our preconceived notions of what we think it's saying. That’s why irony works so well as a form of gospel communication. What are some of the theological themes that Colbert has consistently brought to the forefront? There are many, but here are a few that I’ve enjoyed.
a. Poverty and justice. Colbert has routinely called attention to issues of oppression, injustice and the poor, but always through his twisted ironic sensibilities.
“Jesus wants me to prosper,” Colbert retorts with his guest, Sister Simone Campbell. “It is Christmas time. Why do we have to talk about the poor? Keep it light. It’s a happy time of the year.” “Did Jesus choose to be poor? Yes. Then I believe that poor people choose to be poor.” (source)
b. Church. Colbert has demonstrated like no one else the absurdities of the churches that you and I attend. Again, not as an outsider, but as someone who attends church, he functions as a credible critic. When a church in Kentucky gave away guns as an incentive to attract men, Colbert provided some much needed commentary, suggesting a “Jesus-blowie-man” might be better than a banner.
“No other religion out there will be able to compete with a gun giveaway!” “But you know what else guys love other than steaks and guns? Guys love strippers and unlimited shrimp. I say just fill in the baptismal font with cocktail sauce, swap out that giant cross for a brass pole.” “But bottom line, you gotta bring them to Jesus by any means necessary, even if that means weapons. Remember, Jesus said 'all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.' And if churches give out enough weapons, we can bring a lot of people home to Jesus for good.” (source)
c. Jesus. Colbert’s seemingly untheological, over simplistic descriptions of Christ usually reveal something we’ve forgotten about him.
"Jesus was the ‘Original Hipster.’ After all, He was into Christianity way before it went mainstream. I don’t know how i didn’t see this sooner, folks! An unemployed 33-year-old, who homebrews His own water into wine and thinks He’s God’s Gift to Humanity? …And Jesus was as ironic as it gets. When everyone else went swimming, Jesus was like, ‘Nah, I’d rather go for a walk.’ Even His Death was ironic. ‘Sup, Romans? Yeah, I was dead for a while, but then I got bored. YOLO.'” (source)
d. American Christianity. In a rare moment of almost breaking character, Colbert offered this one Christmas.
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition — and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” (source)
Will Colbert be able to keep his unique blend of media, irony and theology? Probably not in the same way he has for the last nine years. It’s certain that he won’t retain his savvy, self-assured, far-right persona. The new Colbert will have a tough challenge ahead, but I’ll be glad to give him the opportunity. He’s the best. I hope he continues to be.
Colbert is dead. Long live Colbert!