I’m biased, because I have gotten to know the man a little over the years, and have barely missed a single show since he started, but I have to agree with Jessica Winter that, in an era in which Catholicism, until very recently, has seemed positively callous, distant and authoritarian, Stephen Colbert is “the greatest thing to happen to American Catholics since Vatican II”:
He provides day-to-day proof that devout Catholicism can coexist with critical thinking, irreverence, a guiding belief in equal rights, and a fundamentally anti-authoritarian worldview – by, for example, dishing on the papal doctrine of social justice for the poor with Colbert Report chaplain Jim Martin (editor of America magazine), or breaking character during a congressional panel on rights for migrant farm workers by paraphrasing Scripture: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.” Colbert is America’s Sunday school teacher and “Catholicism’s best pitch man,” as Patheos.com’s Matt Emerson put it in a beautifully argued 2011 piece. But until now, what he’s been pitching hasn’t necessarily been what the Vatican has been selling.
That’s all changed now. Catholics have a pope who loves the poor, embraces critical thinking, and has a delightful sense of humor – the same holy trinity of virtues that Stephen Colbert, the new America’s Catholic, exemplifies.
And what Colbert does is talk to a generation that has largely turned off any public statements from the American Catholic hierarchy. The Millennials have been a lost generation to Christianity – because, in my view, the most prominent representatives of Christianity are simply from a different universe than those building lives and loves in the 21st Century. Colbert shows that Catholics can be hilarious and serious, ironic and yet deeply sincere.
If I were to sum up the various forms of popular culture that I have come to love in this century, I’d say they both start from a place of total irony and yet express beyond it a deep, humane sincerity. Living in 2013 means living in a world saturated in knowingness, framed by quotation marks, awash in the mash-ups of post-everything fragments of a once-more coherent and uniform culture. There is no going back. But there are two core choices in this ironic age: to wallow in its relativist chaos, or to love it for what it says about our freedom in modernity and refuse to give in to cynicism or nihilism. Indeed to insist on the constant possibility of redemption in an agnostic, atheist as well as religious sense.
South Park does this. It’s shockingly blasphemous in both secular and religious meanings of that word. And yet it is deeply sincere and has a clear, consistent moral worldview. The same can be said of the Simpsons. And, yes, what I love about the Pet Shop Boys is that they revel in modernity’s irony and technology and yet return again and again to the need for compassion, empathy, hope and love. Colbert is arguably the most skilled at the furthest edges of irony and sincerity. Nothing on television is as ironic as his stock character; and yet you cannot watch his arch, hilarious, scathing performances night after night and not feel the deeply serious call to decency and love underneath.
He’s a good man, Stephen Colbert. And his irony – which masks everything – becomes, after a while, a kind of humility. He has given me a lot of hope these past few years – because, for all his jokes, he has never lost sight of either faith or charity.