In an interview more than eight years ago, late-night TV show host Stephen Colbert shocked and delighted the faithful in his audience by rebuking a guest’s arguments against Catholic doctrine and declaring in a censored statement that he is a Sunday school teacher.
“I teach Sunday school,” said Colbert, who then used a term that would make Oedipus blush to describe his guest that evening.
Although it may have been somewhat shocking for some to hear a Christian apologist using vulgar language in such a proud defense of the faith, Virginia Wesleyan College professor and author Terry Lindvall says vulgar wit has been commonplace in religious satire for centuries.
Lindvall, author of “God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert,” spoke at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on Saturday evening as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.
During the talk, Lindvall shared his thoughts about religious satire today, particularly how Colbert has continued a tradition that author and theologian C.S. Lewis trumpeted through the course of his career in the early 20th century.
“Both of them have rebranded and revived Christianity for a different generation,” Lindvall said.
The lecture was hosted by Theological Horizons, an academia-focused Christian nonprofit, in partnership with the book festival.
“When I started teaching church history, I realized there’s a lot of funny stuff in here. You think of the Church as this dour, solemn place where everyone is so serious, but that was never the case,” Lindvall said in an interview after the event.
Peter Hartwig, director of operations for Theological Horizons, said, “Terry has a special angle and a very unique research interest in the way he’s trying to tie together humor and religious thought, and that’s a special thing in and of itself.”
Hartwig said his organization has partnered with the book festival in the past, but he said Saturday’s event was a departure from more rigidly theological lectures and presentations of previous years.
“It’s easy in American life to relegate the religious to the religious. The notion that people’s religious convictions are so central to their lives that it would appear in something as a-religious as humor is important to keep in mind,” he said about why Lindvall was invited to speak Saturday.
In his lecture, Lindvall shared his insights about Lewis and Colbert, presenting passages from Lewis’ novels and his life, as well as moments from Colbert’s programs where he has revealed his devotion to his Catholic faith in either a satirical or forthright manner.
After seeing Colbert, who hosts “The Late Show” on CBS, with a cross on his forehead on Ash Wednesday several years ago, Lindvall said he was interested in learning more about Colbert’s religious convictions. Since then, Lindvall said he’s made references to Colbert, as well as Lewis, in other books he’s written. With Colbert’s name in the title of his new book, Lindvall joked that he hopes he’ll receive the coveted “Colbert bump” that will bring him more recognition.
Comparing a few of Lewis’ novels to the blowhard conservative character that Colbert played on his former show on Comedy Central, Lindvall said he likes that both men sharply have satirized and attacked a “high apostate hierarchy” in the church and faith community. “They’re both people of faith that like to laugh,” Lindvall said. “They can see the incongruity of their life and faith.”