Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 17, 2013

Colbert for Pope (You Sly Dog, You)

Stephen Colbert in New York City at Border's s...

Stephen Colbert in New York City at Border’s signing copies for his book I Am America (And So Can You!) The photographer dedicates this portrait of Stephen Colbert to Wikipedia editor Pete Forsyth of Portland, Oregon, who has improved Wikipedia in immeasurable ways. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As expected, Stephen Colbert of tv’s Colbert Report has lately been having a blast –what with Pope Benedict’s resignation, Lent’s beginning, and other interesting developments in matters of faith (…umm… for Christians, anyway… with Rosh Hashanah and Stephen’s 1-800-ooPs-Jew bit in the rearview mirror, and with Ramadan several months– no, wait!… let’s back up …all true “conservatives” believe that Islam is a myth– if they ignore it, it will go away… so I’ll take my cue from them, even though I’m just a fake conservative like Stephen).

Early this past week, Stephen had author, journalist, and famous Catholic Gary Wills on his show, whose new book “Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition” will be the first ever to get the Papal Bump in sales. What timing! Or is it the will of God? Or a vast conspiracy to let the liberal Catholics take over?

Add in the growing international awareness of CNN’s recent “Mea Maxima Culpa” documentary about the priest sexual abuse scandals, and February is turning out to be a month where being Roman Catholic is suddenly hip again. When’s the last time that happened? Oops. Wait. It just ended. We missed it. Rosaries are irrelevant again.

As an amateur biblical scholar and  occasional teacher/preacher (in Protestant circles), I was fascinated by the discussion between Wills and Colbert. First of all both, but especially Stephen, were quoting Scripture left and right– and accurately! On a comedy show! They discussed the unknown authorship and merits of the book of Hebrews AND who Melchizidek was, AND the importance of priests -or not– in the implied ecclesiology Jesus models in the gospels, AND the absence of strong biblical defense for establishing a pope or leader to rule over it all.

What? No priests? No supreme leader? How would that work? (Hint: Do-it-yourself Christianity… open the book, read, pray, love, honor and talk with friends and family, eat supper and then go feed the poor, pray again, love God and man, love your enemy, eat, pray, love, and repeat as needed.)

So who is this guy Gary Wills, an anarchist? No, but a reformer. Which I knew going in. And for the most part, as a semi-Catholic these days, I agree with Wills. (Note: I attend Lutheran weekly worship, and espouse a more Anabaptist theology overall, but I do maintain membership in some very Catholic-heavy groups and causes, so I never really “left” the RC’s, just dating around some…). I agree that we give over too much responsibility for our individual faith and engagement with God to the priests, the so-called experts or intermediaries. I believe God wants to deal with each of us directly, not through ministers, not even through the bible, which is only a tool… though a sharp one, with great power and specific purposes. But then, I’m closer to an anarchist than Wills is, so feel free to ignore what I have to say…

But what thrilled me most was the following question and answer exchange, which was sort of the set-up for another of Stephen’s jokes, and thus the depth of this moment’s importance was probably missed by most viewers:

Coming out of debating transubstantiation (communion bread literally becoming Jesus’ body), with Stephen trying to make a point that acts of God don’t have to be scientifically plausible, the two went to the following simple exchange:

Colbert: Is Jesus God?

Wills: Yes.

Not no, or maybe, or even probably.


Excuse me, but… WOW! First time I ever heard THAT on a late night secular talkshow.

Not even “Yes, but….”  Just Yes. A yes that they both accept as fact: Jesus is God.

And note that Stephen didn’t ask “Was Jesus God?” That past-tense was would would place Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, in a different theological position than Stephen believes He occupies. As in “Yeah, Jesus, was God. But then he died.” This is the still living, still working Jesus of the Trinity that both men are talking about, even taking as a given. There was no rebuttal from a third guest, or the probably half-Jewish writing team for the show, or the audience. They just said the words above, and moved on. The semi-joke that Colbert moved on to right after this was even a Trinity paradox joke –as in “How can God be in two places at once?… check and mate!”

Unfortunately, various political, theological, and/or denominational overlays get thrown around too casually these days. To me it all starts looking like a great divide-and-conquer strategy of Satan. (Yes, I believe in the devil. Not the pitchfork dude with the horns, but a supernatural being or force that is out to create chaos, or undo the work of God, to trash God’s great and ongoing artistry… namely me, among other great wonders of God -ha! Well so what! Come and get me, Lucifer! My dad’s bigger than your dad… wait, what’s that? My dad IS your dad?!? How’s that work? Urp. Theology too slippery. I’m going down… help me, Jesus!)

Okay, enough. I’ll leave the comedy to Stephen. But comedy does have a place in the lives of the faithful. If we lose our sense of humor, we’re being lured away from God… who, trust me on this one, is HILARIOUS. I’m being serious here, kiddos. See for yourself. (Open the book, pray… see above for details.) In our drive to be right, or distinctive, we forget to embrace the basics, the beliefs and behaviors that knit all Christians together as family.

And this is one of them: Jesus is God.

This is what the experts (not that we need them, but they are sometimes helpful) call orthodoxy.

I may be wandering in various neighbors’ barns and fields, but I can still say the creeds with conviction. I may seek to understand the vague but important linkages with other traditions –like ancient Sufi Muslim mystical poets, present-day Tibetan Buddhist protesters, or Hindu/Krishna ex-Beatles– but I still know Jesus loves me, and you, and that nothing else will ever matter as much as that.

Speaking of orthodoxy, one of the fundamental contemplative prayers practiced by Greek Orthodox believers and especially monks, has been very useful to me in focusing and re-focusing my awareness of God’s healing, loving, forgiving presence. They call it the Jesus Prayer. I’ll leave it here below at the door for you, as a gift. Repeat it, over-and-over almost like a mantra, for an extended period. Think about it, chew on it, let it penetrate. I’m not going to say something will happen, because I don’t know you or your history or your inner nature. But something could happen, if you want it to. I know God wants it to happen. So does Jesus.

Same diff, right?…

The Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


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