Useful provocation

The Agnostic Pentecostal” is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs, because Dave, the blog’s author, insists on asking hard questions and providing brutally, sometimes painfully, honest answers.

One of his recent posts hits home hard for me because I find myself square in the middle of it … I don’t have to look any farther than the first and second paragraphs, in which he asks, “Who’s really a ‘true’ Christian?” And follows the question up with an all-too-familiar scenario:

It seems every time someone points out a flaw about Christianity, perhaps calling out the questionable behavior of a Christian leader or even something more subtle, other Christians use the defense, “That’s right! But they’re not a true Christian.” Some examples:

When non-Christians speak of the failings of Ted Haggard or Eddie Long as proof that Christianity is worthless, liberal-progressive Christians like to point out how they’re not like that, or even use it as an example of how their form of faith is better. How that (conservative, Charismatic, megachurch) stream of Christianity is not the real Christianity. How real Christianity is about social justice and sound reasoning and such.

And he goes on to provide example after example of Christians entangling themselves – or more accurately, ourselves – painfully and obviously in a one No True Scotsman after another. Instead, he tells us – or better, me – to shut up. And he’s right. Or at least I think he is.

I talk too much. I think too much. And as a result, I don’t act enough. Sometimes I get preoccupied with philosophy, or theology, or science – all good things. Other times I get into sometimes friendly sometimes not so friendly talks with atheists about God’s existence and whether or not God’s existence matters to us homo sapiens habiting Earth – which in my view, is a good thing. And other times, I busy myself with convincing others that this criminal televangelist that steals from the poor or that child-molesting youth pastor isn’t what Christianity is all about.

Good things or not, fact is, it’s all talk. And if Dave’s right … then maybe all that talk’s not as valuable as I want it to be. Here’s his take on Jesus and the Great Commandment:

And Jesus himself hit on it with the advice that he said sums up all the religious rules. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders might say that something like it is too vague, too nonspecific, and not clear enough for the average person to put into real practice. It was Jesus’ primary directive: “Love God. Love others. That’s it.” (Matthew 22:36)

Have you ever asked yourself, “What if … that actually is it? What if Jesus actually meant those words, and those are the only two things that ultimately matter?”

I can’t answer those questions for you, and I won’t try.

But in this moment, I know that’s true for me and my journey following Jesus. And as a result, I’m going to make a conscious effort to not talk so much about things that don’t further Jesus’ primary directive in my life or the lives of others. So the next time Pat Robertson blames an earthquake on the gays or secret pacts with the devil, etc., etc., I will remain silent about those goings on.

But I won’t do nothing, for that would be to err in the opposite direction. Instead, I seek out a way for my actions to speak more loudly than my words or the words of others.

Pro-life feminism is the future

From “Pro-life feminism is the future,” by Colleen Carroll Campbell in response to the question, “Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion in all circumstances? Can you be a person of faith and support abortion in some circumstances?

We hear a lot about the absolutism of women like Palin, who opposes abortion even in the hard cases. Often overlooked is the absolutism of her critics – avowedly "pro-woman" abortion-rights advocates who cannot bring themselves to condemn even partial-birth or sex-selective abortion, the latter of which is an increasingly common practice in the U.S. and abroad in which unborn girls are targeted for elimination simply because they are girls.

For many American women, the feminism that once attracted them with its lofty goal of promoting respect for women’s dignity has morphed into something antithetical to that dignity: a movement that equates a woman’s liberation with her license to kill her unborn child, marginalizes people of faith if they support even modest restrictions on abortion, and colludes with a sexist culture eager to convince a woman in crisis that dealing with
her unplanned pregnancy is her choice and, therefore, her problem.

Many women are not buying it. They are attracted instead to the message of groups like Feminists for Life, which tells women facing unplanned pregnancies that they should "refuse to choose" between having a future and having a baby. They believe that the best way for a woman to defend her own dignity is to defend the dignity of each and every human person, including the one that grows within her womb. And they reject the false dichotomy of abortion-centric feminism that says respect for human dignity is a zero-sum game in which a woman can win only if her unborn child loses. (emphasis added)


A Prayer for World AIDS Day

God, we lift up all those suffering from HIV and AIDS; bring your healing and restoration to their bodies. Help us to do our part in ministering in loving care, support, and patience for your people who suffer with HIV and AIDS. Lead us to do whatever it will take to eradicate this illness from the lives of those who are touched by it, both directly and indirectly. Trusting in you and the strength of your Spirit, we pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.



I recently stumbled into a blog called jesus needs new pr via twitter (I love twitter. You need to join, seriously). Today, Matthew offered a thought-provoking post that compares porn and the church. He does so by telling of his own experience walking into an adult store for the first time and the anonymity of that experience. He writes,

Because in reality, the porn industry has more in common with the church than some might realize. Not only do they sell a lot of the same ideas, many of us who go to church every Sunday, do so as anonymous people. Sure, church members know our names and faces and certain parts of our stories, but they don’t really know us. We fear what would happen if they really knew us. So parts of our lives remain anonymous, invisible to the outside world. And many of us, have become so used to hiding behind “fake smiles” and “I.P. address” that we’re okay with being anonymous. Frankly, we prefer it. So I ask, are you living anonymously?

But even more thought-provoking for me than the post itself is the first comment left by a woman who goes by ttm, who writes:

I’m struggling lately because I am craving anonymity in my small group. I’m tired of being honest about what I really think and having people in the group look at me as if I am strange and fetish-plagued for what I believe about the Bible or God or politics or the world. I’m tired of being told that my views aren’t valid because they don’t match church group-think. I’m tired of my views being used as litmus tests for my salvation and measures of someone else’s idea of spiritual maturity […]

When I’m honest and really seeking to have questions answered–looking for the next wrinkle in my story or still entangled in the last one–these people make me feel dirty for doing it. When I’m not honest–when I sit there silently and they think I agree with the B.S. being spouted in the “name of God”–my own conscience makes me feel dirty.

So if I speak up, I’m labeled strange and dirty (“Liberal” or “Heretic”) and if I don’t speak up, I feel strange and dirty (“Hypocrite” or “Coward”). What’s a girl to do? The only sensible thing seems to run […]

But there aren’t very many Christians that I find myself running toward these days. Most Christians only want to be my friend if I’m theologically brilliant, financially able and willing to support their pet causes, and agree with every jot and title of their assessment of what makes a “TRUE” Christian. Otherwise, I might as well go lurk at the adult store.

At least there I might strike up a relationship with someone a little more like me–flawed and seeking something more, but not needing to shop in the costume section because I’ve already purchased, used, and tried out every available mask.

I realized after reading ttm’s words that in my own way, I’ve also been living anonymously – for many of the same reasons. So the question I want to ask is not, “Are you living anonymously?” (even though that question is obviously important) But “Why are you living anonymously if you are?”

And what does it say about the church when it’s the last place that people seeking answers want to go?

Alister McGrath on Faith, Science, and the New Atheists

Alister McGrath, author of A Fine-Tuned Universe, was a "Rottweiler sort" of atheist in his younger years. However, after attending university, McGrath discovered that God was more exciting that he initially thought, and became a Christian. As he began to think about the intersection between science and religion, he saw that their interactions were far more complicated than a simple clash of two incompatible ideas. (via)


Conversations with Ted Haggard

Donny Pauling is a former porn producer turned Christian speaker and radio host. Recently, he sat down with Ted Haggard, the former Evangelical megachurch pastor who was caught in a sex scandal with a homosexual escort.

Ted was grilled by the media, the church, and the political left. As a preacher who threw his hat in with the religious right, especially with respect to traditional marriage, I can’t say he probably didn’t deserve most of it.

But that’s not the point I want to make. green_4395_Grandpa_and_Hadessah_003

Ted was exposed as a hypocrite, a hypocrite who cheated on his wife and children and betrayed the trust of his congregation. But Ted’s story doesn’t end there. He, along with his wife and children, are walking a long and humbling road of redemption together.

I’m ashamed to say I had written Ted off. I thought he was just another in a long string of exposed hypocrites who had simply hijacked the church to serve his own political agenda and make a buck in the process.

I was wrong.

Donny’s interview with Ted is lengthy, but it’s rich and thought-provoking. It’s broken into three parts which you can find here, here, and here. I’d encourage you to take a look at it if you were at all impacted by the Haggard scandal when it happened.

There’s one excerpt I’d like to highlight, though, and it’s Donny’s conclusion to the interview, and remember, this is a former porn producer talking:

So that others won’t point fingers later when they come out, I’ll tell you that Ted and Gayle are working on book, and yes, he’ll profit from such a book deal. BUT you should know that Ted and Gayle weren’t in ministry for the money. They didn’t have a whole lot of it, and their reserves were almost entirely depleted by living on them these last three years. A book deal will POSSIBLY restore their retirement fund to the place it was before. Ted has, amongst other things, worked as a door to door salesman since his scandal broke. He’s held menial jobs to support his family. I won’t begrudge him making a few dollars to restore his retirement fund. It’s easy to pass judgment when one isn’t wearing the same shoes as another, but I’ll tell you this: I sat and had conversations with a broken man. Believe me, I can recognize one when I see him… I’ve been that person. I AM that person. Ted and I both are following a path to restoration.

And it is a beautiful road.

Ted and Gayle’s story reminds me that when we write people off as hopeless, we betray the fundamental message of the Gospel. We’re all broken people, and we’re all walking the same road to restoration. We can never afford to forget that.


(Oh yeah, Ted’s also on Twitter. You can follow him here)

He’s Just Not That Into You

In Evangelical jargon these days, there are two statements that you will inevitably will hear if you’re involved in the movement for any significant length of time.

“I have a personal relationship with Jesus.“

This phrase is understood to be analogous to Jesus’ relationship with the 12 during his life and ministry. For example, Jesus asked probing questions of his disciples, and vice-versa; Jesus shared meals with his disciples; and Jesus modeled a lifestyle worth replicating in our own. Obviously, we Evangelicals don’t mean that we have this relationship physically; instead, we have it spiritually or mystically – but we claim that we absolutely do have it. The statement isn’t meant metaphorically; it’s meant literally. When you are born again you are directly connected to God through Jesus who has direct fellowship with each individual Christian.

The theological claim that is being communicated through this statement is that the Creator of the universe cares for and loves you. In other words, you are important to God.

“It’s Not About You.”

I remember hearing this refrain for the first time in high school. The song “Jesus, Lover of my Soul (It’s All About You)” had become widely popular. Every church seemed to be singing it, every worship band seemed to be remixing it, and youth groups gathered around bond fires while this played in the background (well, at least mine did!).

The first verse goes,

It’s all about You, Jesus
And all this is for You
For Your glory and Your fame
It’s not about me
As if You should do things my way
You alone are God and I surrender
To Your ways

The theological claim that is being communicated through this statement is that Christianity is ultimately about Jesus and Jesus’ mission to reconcile the world to Himself, and we, as Christians, are called to participate humbly in that mission.

He’s Just Not That Into You?

I recently began reading the blog, Exploring Our Matrix, by James F. McGrath of Butler University. He recently wrote a post that was inspired by the film, He’s Just Not That Into You.  (Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the film and want to – P.S. why would you? – then stop reading.)

The movie begins with a girl being pushed and called names by a boy in a playground. The girl’s mother explains to her that the boy must have done these things because he has a crush on her and likes her. This, it is suggested, is at the root of the attempt women sometimes make later in life to interpret a man’s apparent lack of romantic interest, meanness and various things as meaning something other that appears to be the case when the words or actions are taken at face value.

McGrath sees an interesting parallel between the way the girl’s mother explains flirtation and courtship and the way we sometimes think about God.

If something happens to a religious believer that doesn’t immediately make sense in term of being cared for by a loving and all-powerful God, ways are found to explain away the apparent contradiction. God is just testing you or allowing you to be tested. Satan is trying to trip you up because you love God, and/or God loves you, so much … he won’t put you through anything you can’t handle.

In other words, meanness doesn’t always entail dislike; in fact, sometimes it’s the other way around.

Where McGrath’s analysis gets interesting (and where it relates to the two claims I presented above) is his claim that we tend to interpret events as primarily being about us, and that can be dangerous, or at least misinformative, when we think that way about God.

I propose … that “God just isn’t that into you” in a somewhat facetious, tongue-in-cheek manner. But in a sense, that is what it can feel like when one goes from thinking of God as an anthropomorphic heavenly ‘significant other’ to acknowledging that the universe and/or God’s plan for it may well not revolve around you. The idea that God is not compelling people with important business to nonetheless get in their cars and leave so that you will find a parking spot can be as troubling as the realization that another person’s apparent lack of romantic is in fact what it appears to be, rather than merely an indication that the person hides his or her feelings well, or something else of that sort.

We Evangelicals have created an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, we claim, “Jesus loves you and wants relationship with you,” which indicates at the very least that Christianity is about the individual. But on the other hand, we claim, “Christianity really isn’t about you; it’s about Jesus.” And most of us wouldn’t hesitate to affirm either claim.

Personally, I would understand the two claims to be dialectic in nature, but I can’t help but conclude that we’ve overemphasized the former at the expense of the latter – at least in pop Evangelical culture, language, and theology. I think that we have overemphasized the “personal relationship” analogy so much that we’ve missed the fundamental claim of Christianity, that God is reconciling the world to God’s self through Jesus. And although that fundamental claim certainly includes you and me, it’s much bigger than us.

With McGrath, I would challenge us to do some rethinking.

So I will pose this statement as food for thought (paraphrased from McGrath):

When it comes to relating to God, the key is to recognize that “He’s just not that into you.” The universe and God’s purpose for it includes but does not revolve around you or me.

What do you think?

Recovering from the Year of Living Biblically

A. J. Jacobs describes himself as an agnostic Jew. As such, he’s not someone you would expect to find headlining Christian conferences and speaking at local churches. But lately, he’s been invited to do just that. 41IlsFPErjL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_

Jacobs recently released a book entitled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Really, as literally as possible for an entire year. Not only did Jacobs take up the more ‘common’ practices, such as tithing, curbing the lust of his eyes, and guarding his tongue, he also took up some of the more obscure customs, such as: not mixing wool and linen, growing a beard that puts ZZ Top to shame, and of course a strict dietary code, which included eating crickets. As an aside, he considered some rules, such as killing magicians, worthy of abstaining from.

I haven’t read the book personally (yet), but it seems that it’s being well-received by parties across the spectrum, which seems due to the respect that Jacobs displayed to everyone involved. In an interview with Christianity Today (from whom I borrowed the title of this post), Jacobs discusses the warm reception he’s receiving by saying,

I’m speculating, but I think part of it is they [Evangelicals] were appreciative that I went in with an open mind and an open heart, and I wasn’t judgmental. I didn’t do a Bill Maher Religulous hatchet job with an agenda. I really did go in to try to just understand and find the allure and what, if anything, I can take from religion.

I’ve also gotten e-mails from Christians who say that they appreciate it because at least in the first half of the book you get to see a really secular mindset. They say, "Thank you for allowing me to see what’s inside of a secular person’s mind."

I think a lot of people, especially in the emergent church movement, like that I took to task too much over literalization or legalism. I do think that if you take the Bible too literally then you get into trouble.

I was very nervous before the book came out about the reaction, because I thought that I had done a fair job and I had gone in open-minded and to learn, but mixing humor and the Bible is a risky proposition. But I think that they go very well together.

And in the end, he says, "I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred."

This is interesting to me for a couple reasons. First, I get intensely frustrated with the Bill Maher’s of the world, who in my view accomplish little more than driving unnecessary wedges between people of faith and secular society.  Jacobs offers a refreshing alternative. In my view, mutual respect and tolerance are the preconditions for any type of meaningful dialogue.

Second, I was reminded of Pascal, who believed (and tried to persuade others) that the Christian life as he experienced it was the most rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful way to live. Obviously, Jacobs wasn’t that convinced by the lifestyle he lived (nor did he live the Christian life as Pascal would have envisioned it), but the experience did reshape how he thought about life, specifically, he gained a deeper appreciation for the sacredness of ritual and life.

What do you think? Is it interesting to you? If so, why? If not, why not?

Is “Calling” too Confusing?

As an adolescent, I remember agonizing over what I was ‘supposed’ to do with my life. Early in life I knew that  I wanted to be in the people-serving business, and I sincerely believed it was my ‘calling’ to do so. I still do, for the record. But as an adolescent, that general commitment to helping and serving others was just to generic – I thought that there was one and only path with one and only job with one and only purpose for me. Was I to be a senior pastor who got up and preached every week? Should I open a homeless shelter that fed and trained homeless people? Or maybe I should join an international relief organization to demonstrate the love of Christ that I’ve experienced to others?

What is my calling?

That was the essential question, the one that demanded an answer. Or, to put it another way, “What if I don’t figure out what my calling is? What if I ‘miss it’?” I definitely did not want to discover the answer to that.

To make a long story short — Fast forward a handful of years to college, where we had a wonderful chaplain who loved helping students grapple with questions just like that. He helped me think of these important questions in the context of the Apostle Paul’s missional lifestyle. To put it briefly: from what we know about Paul, Paul didn’t spend time agonizing over the question, “What is the one job I must do in order to live into my calling?” Instead, we see Paul living out his calling – to say and do the love of Jesus – wherever life took him. In other words, the Christian calling, that is, the life every Christian is asked to live by Jesus, is generic. And that’s not a bad thing. Love God and love your neighbor in whatever situation life throws your way.

As The Resurgence puts it:  

Our Call Has Already Been Issued

Christians don’t need to be specially "called" to live language-of-calling-1missionally; it is inherent in being a disciple. To become a disciple of Jesus means that you evaluate your passions and talents in terms of how they can best be used to spread God’s kingdom. The call has already been issued: "Glorify me in all that you do. Love and serve your neighbor. Go into the world and preach the gospel to every person." That’s it.

Each person must evaluate how they have best been suited to fulfill that call, but the call is clear. If you are a businessman, you are to do excellent work to the glory of God, to the benefit of humanity, and to the testimony of Christ in your community. You don’t have to wait on a special call to begin to do so—you’ve already received that call as a Christian. We talk about finding God’s will; it’s not lost.

In my view, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific times, places, or activities to which we are called; I think that does happen. But, it does mean that we don’t need to agonize about what we should or must do; that part’s already been settled, and there’s no need to distress over it. Instead, simply get up and do it.

“The Truth Smirks”

Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, recently interviewed Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, and the interview was posted via Sojo’s online magazine (You need a subscription to view the full article, which is free). It’s a great read. For those who don’t want to bother with the subscription, here’s the full text:

Jim Wallis: The Hebrew prophets often use humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across, and I feel you do a combination of all three. How conscious are you of this, and are you trying to make social change happen?

Jon Stewart: It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor in that regard, to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. Everyone here has a lot of respect for activists and an appreciation for what it takes to be an activist. soj0907_small For most of us, writing jokes, playing a little Guitar Hero in the afternoon, and calling it a day seems to be the way to go. Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit. The targets we choose, the way we go about it—it’s got more of a personal venting aspect than a socially conscious aspect.

But you do provide a perspective.

It’s definitely a perspective in the way that an editorial cartoonist might provide a perspective. We provide a different way of framing things, but it is [different from] the framing devices used by politicians. Their aim isn’t the framing device; that’s merely a method to get to a goal. For us, that is the goal. Some nights we get the recipe right, some nights we don’t, some nights it’s too strident, some nights too silly, some nights it’s juvenile, but our goal is to make ourselves proud of the product in terms of how we crafted it, the jokes we came up with, that sort of thing.

A lot of people love your show because they feel like someone is finally saying what needs to be said, that the news media is an emperor with no clothes or has no backbone. Are you aware that you’re evoking this sense of relief?

Well, we hear feedback from the audience. We also evoke anger. You know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. It really is a question of does what you do find an audience, and is it an audience that appears to be ill-served? You can have the same conversation with Fox News and say there are a lot of people out there who feel a catharsis when they hear [them] spinning Obama’s love of Dijon mustard as proof that he is Lenin’s disciple. It’s not one or the other.

People have always said to us, “You want it both ways; you want to be taken seriously but then not.” And I always say, “When do we want to be taken seriously? We’re just doing our show.” It is what it is. It’s no attempt to be taken seriously. That’s how we’ve done things from the beginning and will continue to do so as long as we sell enough Budweiser that Comedy Central will let us stay on the air.

But you take on serious things. I preached a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral and talked about you—it was right after Jim Cramer appeared on your show. The scripture for that day was the text of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.

But see, that’s the thing. [Jesus] only had to do one show. We have to do four a week!

(laughing) But I likened your interview with Cramer as a modern enactment of that parable—you were overturning the money changers.

Gee, I hope it ends better for me. Again, people who do what I do have always been around, and I would say it’s more like Joey Bishop overturning the blackjack tables at a casino more than it is the other way.

But you were mad that night.

I was. One of the things that’s very important to everybody here is to write jokes about the subjects you actually care about, because it makes going to work worthwhile. Anybody in the public square making statements has a certain sanctimony that fuels it, but to lay it open that baldly on a regular basis would be really tiresome. But in general, there are very strong emotions that fuel the comedy for us, and that’s what makes it exciting for us—and hopefully makes it interesting for the audience.

With Cramer, though, it felt like there was something really wrong with the way the media covered the economic crisis. You seemed like you wanted to expose that—like what you did on Crossfire. Some say you singlehandedly shut down Crossfire.

Ultimately it is a business, and if Crossfire was generating the ratings that they thought—basically I walked onto a sinking ship and as the water was up to our waist, I said, “Hey, there’s water!” Believe me: You can’t sink something that they think they’re going to make money from.

The sense of timing is decided on by the world more than it is us. We had done the Jim Cramer piece six months earlier. We had done a whole Bear Stearns piece on him, and nobody really picked up on it—not that they should! So it caught us off guard. The Cramer thing was happenstance. The original impetus was Rick Santelli, who had gone on [the show] and did a bit of a populist rant—and Lord knows I love a good populist rant. To his credit, he’s been against bailouts from the beginning, but he was angry we were bailing out individual homeowners and complaining about why should we be paying money for their poor judgment?

So the impetus was it’s interesting to see CNBC criticizing homeowners’ judgment when their judgment throughout this whole economic crisis has been suspect. Jim Cramer took the bait and said, “You’ve taken me out of context with the Bear Stearns thing,” and they called to come on. The whole thing turned into more of a gladiatorial match between he and I, and we certainly had our fun with it. We had three pretty far-out shows from it, but the interview itself, I was expecting a slightly different conversation. I’m sure he was as well.

So you’re trying to be funny and do good satire, but you are sometimes trying to use satire to hold somebody accountable.

I don’t know that it’s to hold them accountable, because I feel that is a role we have not embraced—and maybe we’re kidding ourselves in thinking that’s not what we’re doing. My mentality is more from the perspective of an angry guy at a bar. To hold someone accountable you must be in a position of jurisdiction, and for us it really is a question of shouting back at the television. We get to do it on television, and we hopefully do it the way we know to do it best, which is with absurdity and sarcasm and silliness.

So you’re venting and trying to be funny but choosing targets that you—

—that speak to our sense of outrage. Isn’t everything fueled by outrage? Everything is fueled by discomfort. You have a discomfort about something and so you choose to act to ease that discomfort. The way we ease that discomfort is having the Thomas Jefferson Memorial sit on the Abe Lincoln Memorial’s lap when we’re talking about gay marriage, you know? It’s the way our brains work best. If there’s anything that was our craft, that’s it—to take those things that give us discomfort and by framing them in a manner that we think brings our point of view, kind of eases that sense. You feel like you’re able to vent.

Sojourners is a progressive religious operation, so—

Wait a minute! I thought I was talking to a gossip magazine! Wait, what?

We fooled you again!

Darn it!

When it comes to aspects of faith, you’ve said you’re not particularly observant—you said you had a bacon cheese croissantwich during Passover this year. What are the best and worst ways you’ve seen religion impact current events?

Religion makes sense to me. I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled. You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t.

So religion has no monopoly on religion.

That’s right. Like anything else that’s that powerful—that is touching that deep into the epicenter of the human psyche and our fears, it can be misused. I’m probably much more responsive in a bad way to dogma and to extremism than to religion. When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.” It’s when it gets into the realm of “This is the only way to salvation”—that’s when I think, “Okay, now we’re getting into a problem.”

The power of Dr. King’s religion that kept him going and the power of violent religious fundamentalism, which led to so much else—both are kinds of power.

That’s a great example because you’ve got somebody who preached nonviolence using the same tools that are used to incite violence.

One night you had the boy soldier Ishmael Beah on. You did more of a straight interview with him and said, “I know I wasn’t funny tonight, but tonight wasn’t a night to be funny. I’ll be funny again the next night.”

I’ve had a lot of those kinds of nights! Sometimes intentional, sometimes not. That’s probably the premise of the show—“Might not be funny tonight, but we’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

So the subject matter seems to change the frame.

The interview part of the show is somewhat problematic. It’s the one thing I don’t feel as confident in. Because I’m not playing a character and producing any comedy, the interviews exist in the improvisational, conversational human world, and that’s probably the place I’m least comfortable. Yet some of the interviews I’ve liked the best are the ones like Ishmael Beah. When you have people on where you feel as though they’ve touched something, then you feel like you’ve elevated it.

Do you think the media could improve? Could we have a forum where it’s a serious, diverse, and civic conversation about how to solve problems?

Absolutely! I think that does occur. Part of the problem is it may be a beautiful dance, but it happens in a snowstorm. There’s just so much noise around it. The 24-hour [networks] are dictating the pace of the conversation, and the pace is one of frantic urgency. It is a relentless beast searching for food, so there’s not a lot of ability to sit back and reflect. In the moments that are reflective and elevate the discourse, it’s easy for that to get lost in the rest of the static. There is a place for that, but it has to be really purposeful.

Are there big issues like climate change, poverty, torture, or what’s happening to kids in these wars in Africa that tug at you?

Oh sure! Certain issues for us loom larger partly because of the way they’ve been spawned. When you have a regime saying over and over again, “We don’t torture, we don’t torture, we don’t torture,” and yet each piece of information that comes out is pointing us in the opposite direction, you begin to think that’s probably not an area where we should be parsing language and spinning. If you want to [torture], make your case. But the way things are presented tends to influence what it is we’ll talk about.

Part of it, honestly, is trying to reconcile our reality to the reality we’re seeing in television. It’s trying to get back to, “Okay, so why is it that I’m seeing this as ‘yes, we have tortured,’ yet it appears that we keep hearing how we have never [tortured].” Make your case! Make the case that in these urgent times that’s what we needed to do, but don’t be disingenuous.

Tell the truth.

Yeah! Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Too often the role of government and corporations is to obscure their real argument, and we feel like the role of media and the role of editorial authorship is to re-clarify those things. If there’s anything we think, it’s that we’re presenting it in what we believe to be the clearest position that we can in a satirical framework.

Without being activists or setting yourselves up as authorities on what the truth is, you’re trying to get some honesty and truth-telling.

Truth-telling is probably too strong a word. What we’re trying to do is square our reality with the reality of what we’re seeing. It’s just trying to line up worlds.

So where’s it all going? With Bush there were a lot of easy targets.

Their spin was really clear and blatant in the way that this administration has not revealed itself yet. [The Bush administration] wielded a hammer; this administration’s probably wielding more of a scalpel. The one area we felt more freedom to go at was the economic bailouts, but the main area we attack is the area between who [administrations] say they are and who we view them as. That has not necessarily revealed itself in as clear a matter.

President Obama is a lot of things, but one thing he’s not is particularly funny.

The other administration wasn’t funny, but they were so clear. In some respects, they were victims of their own branding. Because their branding was so strong, it was pretty easy to find the holes.

For us, the main thing is to feel like the conversation that [administrations are] having with us is an adult conversation. The one thing I hated most about the other administration is what they would say is, “We trust the American people.” Yet the conversation they were having with us was one you would have with a child—“We trust you; we’re just not going to talk to you about what our real motives are, what we’re really trying to gain.” If they had, I think they would’ve had a slightly more positive experience with the American public.

A lot of people enjoy the conversations they have with you every night, so keep up the good work. I think you are a little like a Hebrew prophet after all.

(laughing) You sure there’s not a little Borscht Belt in there somewhere?

I’ve always admired Jon Stewart, because I’ve seen his show be ‘prophetic’ time and again – and I’ve always assumed there was intentionality there. Stewart seems to downplay that idea quite a bit here, but for whatever reason, I think there might be more intentionality than he admits. Either way, the show is wonderful, in my estimation, and clearly, Stewart’s a pretty smart and witty guy.