Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Can a Christian Watch Jon Stewart?"

“Can a Christian watch Jon Stewart” he asked me. I’ve never watched the Daily Show, so I didn’t know how to answer, I just asked for more clarification. He told me that he liked Jon Stewart’s willingness to skewer partisans on both sides of the aisle. Stewart lampoons both Democrats and Republicans with cutting precision. My friend said that Stewart is very very very funny.

Yet he’s still disturbed – for all Stewart does is mock – he tears down without ever offering any constructive solutions. And the bible has a few things to say about mockers.

“Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife. Quarrels and insults are ended.”
(Prov 22:10)

“The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” (Prov14:6)

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1)
And so on. However, things are not so simple. We also have biblical examples of mocking from some not-so-detestable sources. Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I kings 18:27ff). Paul indulges in mockery in Galatians 5:12. The challenge is to discern the difference between

a) mockery as one of many rhetorical tools in the hands of a master commentator (see Jonathan Swift for instance), and

b) the mocker who knows how to do little else than snigger about naughty bits and excuse himself with “Hey, it’s only a joke.”

Is it fair to draw such a line? I think so -- After all, I’m one of those curious sorts that has tuned in to that radio train wreck called Howard Stern. I have from time to time turned on Jerry Springer, just to see his parade of transvestite nazi alien abductees. I went to see Borat, and sadly, I paid money for it. Occasionally, I’ve tuned in to South Park or the Family Guy, just to gape in awe that people think this is funny. Yes, I’ve consumed mockery served up by our vast cultural all you can eat buffet. And I’ve found that it doesn’t settle well on my stomach.

As a consumer of pop culture, I know that simply saying “don’t watch that” has the effectiveness of a knitted umbrella. “If you don’t like it then turn it off,” is the immediate stock reply. Impatience with incessant nannying (like the tag on the superman suit that says “wearing of suit does not enable you to fly”) has devolved into intolerance of good horse sense. So you can imagine my hesitancy to render a judgment on whether Jon Stewart is acceptable fare for Christians.

On my shelf sits an amazing tome of Richard Baxter’s – the 17th century Puritan pastor of Kidderminster. Baxter is one of the more prolific of the Puritans, and this volume, titled A Christian Directory is nearly 1000 pages of small print advice for practical Christian living. Baxter, in laying out instruction on “redeeming the time” talks about a dozen or so little things that sap our strength and distract our minds. One of these topics is idle chatter:
“Another time wasting sin is idle talk. What abundance of precious time
doth this consume? Hearken to most men’s discourse when they are sitting
together, or working together, or traveling together, and you shall hear how
little of it is any better than silence: and if not better it is worse. So
full are those persons of vanity who are empty, even to silence, of any thing
that is good, that they can find and feed a discourse of nothing, many hours and
days together; and as they think, with such fecundity and floridness of style,
as deserve acceptance if not applause. I have marveled oft at some wordy
preachers, with how little matter they can handsomely fill up an hour! But
one would wonder more to hear people fill up, not an hour, but a great part of
their day, and of their lives….with words, which if you should write them all
down and peruse them, you would find that the sum and conclusion of them is
nothing!” (pg 244 of the 2000 Soli Deo Gloria Edition)
Ouch! Quite convicting as to my own preaching and my own habits. But also quite helpful in thinking about consuming the words of mockers. When I first came across this passage, I couldn’t help but think about the premise of Seinfeld – “it’s a show about nothing!”

I’m not the thinker or pastor that Baxter is, so rather than making a definitive declaration, I’ll simply pose a few questions:

Last I checked, the evidence of growing faith is that you have certain fruit developing in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Does our media consumption help or hinder that growth? Is a show like Jon Stewart’s more like a well balanced meal or like a burger and fries? You can certainly live on the spiritual equivalent of burgers and fries, but does it advance your well being? Will an occasional meal of burgers and fries destroy you?

When we take in the witty commentary of the mockers, do we feel more joyful? Or do we simply feel more sophisticated than the prigs that they’ve cut down to size?

When we enjoy the practical jokes of the mockers, are we made to be kinder to others, more peaceful and patient? Or do we feel self-satisfied that those rubes who were taken in ought to have been more careful.

When we relish the outrageousness of the mockers in their attempt to find someone to offend, do we feel good, like we’ve actually enjoyed something beautiful? Are we proud to point to that time and say it was well spent? Or do we defensively justify ourselves with lame excuses that accuse the questioner of Puritanism?

When I think of these questions, I begin to see that if there’s more than a morsel of mockery in my mental diet, then I feel greasy, dirty and cynical. I prefer to consume great works of art that stir within me the desire for goodness and being better.

“If you don’t like it, just change the channel” – fine – I’m done. I’ve come to the conclusion that the less of this stuff, the better for me. However, each person must answer for themselves – do you really enjoy what this stuff does to you? Do you really like being that way? Do you really like the results this stuff produces in you?

Let the mockers have themselves for fodder and entertainment – give me the cleanliness of earnestness any day.