“I’m no particular exemplar of my faith,” says Stephen Colbert.
“I just happen to have affection for my church.”
Colbert’s latest interview with Toronto-based Catholic outlet Salt and Light is bursting at the seams with wisdom — and, of course, more than a few good laughs.
The new host of the Late Show sat down with Father Thomas Corsica for a 45-minute conversation, one which centered on the Catholic comedian’s reflections on faith and theology.
Colbert’s faith has been profiled many times before, but this interview draws particular attention to the cradle Catholic’s theological acumen. Quotations from Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury roll off his tongue as easily as nods to astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Quick wit condenses great church traditions to simple aphorisms.
Early in the interview, for example, Colbert offered an entirely serious definition of what it means to be a “fool for Christ.”
“[It’s being] willing to be wrong in society or wrong according to our time, but right according to our conscience, which is guided by the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Certainly a difficult task. But Colbert’s gravity quickly gave way to jest.
He continued, to the camera:
“Are you writing this down by the way? Because I’m layin’ it [down] … I should have this in Latin, what I just said.”
Throughout the interview, Colbert addresses many topics widely speculated upon by his fans: the real pronunciation of his last name, how hard it was to maintain his character, how many staff members it takes to run the Late Show, the limits of political satire, how he felt when the news broke about Charlie Hebdo.
But some of the most poignant moments of the interview were when he got theologically serious — and theologically silly — about humor.
When asked about his taunting of religious fundamentalists, and the occasional swipes he takes at his home church, Colbert responded by questioning the aggressive certainty that too often accompanies religion.
“Every religion has been so defensive of its beliefs that it has actually abandoned its beliefs at times,” he said.
But the comedian’s swashbuckling brand of off-the-cuff one-liners satirizing religion is no indication of irreverence. Even for Colbert, there are spiritual topics he just can’t bring himself to joke about.
“It wouldn’t feel right for me, it wouldn’t feel good for me, it wouldn’t be obeying my own conscience to make jokes about the sacraments — or specifically the Eucharist. The other sacraments … they’re not Christ himself.”
There’s even a certain kind of humor Colbert believes always crosses the line. Paraphrasing a section of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, he explained that while joy, play, and “the joke proper” are integral aspects of Christian living, some comedic attitudes can corrupt us.
“The thing that produces laughter that will help the devil is flippancy. In flippancy, no joke is actually made. The attitude that a joke has been made is copped by everybody there. It does not increase affection. It distances people. It armors the soul against joy. And it deadens the intellect,” he said.
“If you’re flippant it is the opposite of joy.”
In rejecting flippancy, Colbert eschews a common modern attitude toward religion — that ironic distaste that simply says, “I’m in the know, and aren’t they ridiculous?” For all his parodies, Colbert understands satire can go too far. The true purpose of humor, for Colbert, is not to demean and deride, but to resist fear and connect people.
“When you work in fear, or when you work in distress, you often feel alone. But jokes, laughter, humor, joy — whatever you want to call it — it connects people,” he said.
Perhaps the most historic Christian debate Colbert discussed in the interview was the question of Jesus laughing. We’ve all wondered, why doesn’t the Bible say Jesus laughed or smiled? He was fully human after all, right? Colbert certainly sympathized with that sentiment.
“It did say ‘Jesus wept.’ That’s tough for a comedian. Nowhere does it say Jesus guffawed … Nowhere does it say Jesus busted a gut,” he said.
Despite his disappointment with the gospel writers’ silence on this issue, Colbert is certain there was at least one time Jesus must have LOL’d.
But we don’t want to spoil his delivery, so you’ll have to watch how he describes the story himself. (Sneak peek: it involves Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner). If you want to skip straight to it, you can find it here.
But you really should watch the whole thing.