Comedians as Theologians: Whose Truth Are They Telling?
Ihave been a fan of comedians my whole life. It started with me bent over with laughter at the 10-year-olds telling “Yo mama” jokes:
“Yo mama hair so short she gotta roll it with rice.”
“Yo mama so fat, she use the equator as her belt.”
“Yo mama so dumb, she thought a quarterback was a refund.”
Goofy. Clever. Funny.
There were also comedians in my family. My Uncle Cornelius — drunk for the first 10 years of my life, sober and a pentecostal preacher the last 40 years — tells a story about coming into my grandma’s house sloppy drunk. Grandma Sophie snatched his half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, hid it, then told him to go in the back-room and go to sleep. But 30-minutes later, he decides to act like he’s possessed by some evil spirit. He goes to Grandma’s bed, hands like claws, face contorted, and snarled, “Where’s my bottle?” Grandma — a God-fearing, church-going woman — quickly reaches to the side of her bed next to the window and says, “Here. Now get your crazy ass out my house!”
Every time he tells that story at family reunions we laugh non-stop for 10-minutes. Goofy. Clever. Funny.
The scriptures direct us to “Be ready to SPEAK UP and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath.”
Speak up. Be courteous. Be humorous?
I don’t know. I just know that I love comedians. They use humor to make truth more palatable. But whose truth are they telling?
Bishop Chris Rock takes on the dietary laws of the Torah. Let Chris tell it, unrefrigerated pork in the desert is dangerous. That’s why God said, “Don’t do it.” But today, a pork chop, a refrigerator and some hot grease “is your best friend.”
Evangelist Adele Givens takes on eschatology. She said when she was a little girl, her grandmother would always walk around claiming, “We living in our last days. We living in our last days.” Adele says she walked around her whole childhood scared as hell. “That cloud don’t look right. Is that Jesus footprint? He getting ready to break through the clouds.” She runs in the house, trembling, and asks, “Grandma, can I ride my bike one mo’ time”?
Rev./Dr. D.L. Hughley takes on Jesus and the wedding at Cana. Let D.L. tell it, Jesus turned the water into wine because he wanted to keep the party going.
Min. Cedric the Entertainer takes on conversion. He talks about all the times he heard a really moving sermon where the pastor convinced him, “You need Jesus!” Several times Ced almost got up from the pew and walked the aisle, but suddenly he’d remember that he still had a “corner of weed left” in the back of his closet. So he’d sit down.
Apostle Steve Harvey takes on church-folks, in general. He tells a hilarious story about an old lady at his childhood church named Sister Odell. Sister Odell cussed, she hated the deacons, and regularly threatened that if they pass that collection plate by her one more time she was gon’ rob it to pay her light bill.
Humor makes the truth more palatable. But whose truth are they telling?
I have loved (and still love) the comedic theologians I’ve referenced so far.
But one time, I heard a comedian say something that hit differently.
For one of my theology and art classes in seminary, I screened the mockumentary “Religulous.” Comedian Bill Maher attempts to prove that religion is ridiculous. He partially succeeds. Religion does look ridiculous when you don’t know what you believe or why you believe it.
The opening scene begins with a sequence of televangelists. One person stands behind the pulpit yelling into the audience that “we need a Holy Ghost enema.” Another scene captures a tourist at the “Holy Land Amusement Park” offering this clueless and uneducated response about the redemption of Jews and end-time affairs.
Bill also gets caught in a foolish moment of his own with a trucker from the Trucker’s Chapel — a space dedicated for worship, located at a truck stop. Bill listens intently to a trucker as he describes his former life as a womanizer and drug-user; and then Bill responds, “And your problem was?”
My honest, sanctified response to Bill’s comment was this: “Dafuq he just say?”
Anyone who has ever suffered abuse from a lover or drug-abuser knows that deliverance from both of those ills is a miracle, and should not be taken lightly. But Bill Maher — my comedian posturing as a theologian — missed that memo.
To his credit, sometimes people of faith look “religulous.” Sometimes we show up — informed, calm, collected, cool — offering the world a solid understanding of the hope we have.
At this same trucker’s chapel, after Bill mocked, poked and prodded these guys — all of ’em wearing flannel shirts unbuttoned at the bottom and trucker caps with messages like, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” — they gathered in a circle and laid hands on Bill, asking God to help him in his search for truth. Their prayers were earnest. They hugged and laughed with him afterwards. In the end, Bill thanked them for “acting like Christ” as opposed to just being a Christian.
These truckers spoke up. They gave an answer for why they live the way they live and believe the way they believe. They were courteous. And when Bill threw mud, it didn’t stick. He ended up being the one who needed a bath.
Humor can make the truth more palatable. In whatever form it is delivered, and through whatever means it is communicated — preferably humorous — may truth reign.
Asé. Selah. So be it.
Alexus Rhone is the host of the weekly virtual faith and adult-storytelling series “Jesus, Jazz & Dessert Wine@Vespers”, 5:30pm EST, Saturdays, February 27-May 22, 2021. www.youtube.com/c/alexusrhone