Jon Stewart, the “Rally to Restore Sanity”, and How the Post-Modern Shift is Changing Evangelism and Spiritual Conversations.

This was an article I wrote for "Grace and Peace" Magazine after my son and I went to Jon Stewart's, "Rally to Restore Sanity." 

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“God Hates Snuggies” was one of the many, many cardboard placards that my son and I saw as we disembarked from the Washington Metro to Federal Triangle last October. We had journeyed East along with over 200,000 others to be a part of what may be the largest postmodern gathering in US History. The Daily Show anchor, Jon Stewart and his tongue in cheek counterpart, Steven Colbert, were hosting the, “Rally to Restore Sanity.”


Before you write off this event as nothing more than a couple of class clowns trying to prop up their television ratings, consider this:
 According to Time Magazine polls, now that Walter Cronkite has passed away, Jon Stewart is the most trusted newscaster in America. (http://www.timepolls.com/hppolls/archive/poll_results_417.html)
 Recent Pew Research has shown that viewers of The Daily Show are some of the best informed and educated viewers of any news audiences. (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/993/who-knows-news-what-you-read-or-view-matters-but-not-your-politics).
 By a large margin, more young adults get their news from The Daily Show than from any other television news source.

While Stewart downplays his role, his thirteen Emmys, and two Peabody awards, calling his show, “the most trusted name in fake news”, others see Stewart’s role as being the modern court jester – using humor to point out the absurdities of our day.

So as they poured in to the Washington Mall by the thousands, many perplexed news organizations wondered -- what was this rally about? What was the point? Was this simply a comedy show with a broad appeal or was it something different? As the rally drew to a close, Stewart took the microphone like an old fashioned revival preacher and began to clarify its meaning:

I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
 

Stewart has clearly struck a chord with young adults, specifically post-moderns, with his anti-dualistic approach to politics. Most of Western Civilization has been strongly influenced by Greek philosophy and the Greek’s were notorious for their ability to create dualisms – two
opposing fundamental entities. In modern thought, the opposing categories of dualism may change (capitalists vs. communist, left vs. right, and conservative vs. liberal) but the dualistic outlook itself remains very consistent. Stewart’s post-modern bent resonates with young adults because he pushes past easy caricatures and recognizes issues for the complexities that they are. As Stewart sarcastically states in his first book, “Luckily all human opinion falls neatly in to one of the two clearly defined camps. Thus the two-party system elegantly reflects the bichromatic rainbow that is American political thought” (Jon Stewart, America: The Book, New York: Warner Books, 2004: p. 108).

As our country slowly becomes more post-modern in its thinking, those who are steeped in modernity seem to become ultra-modern and ultra-dualistic. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues that politically, we Americans are more in agreement about basic political beliefs than any other time in our nation’s history. (Geoffry Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. New York: PublicAffairs, 2005.) But you would never know that based on the conversations being had on cable news. Instead civil political discourse and respect has been replaced with name calling, caricatures, and distortions of the truth.

And the spirit of the age has made its way in to our church conversations as well. This is why those of us who are trying to minister to post-moderns should pay close attention. Often our words often sound more like Fox News and MSNBC than Jesus. Is it no surprise, then, that many of those in emerging generations have a much more negative perception of American churches than previous generations – precisely because of the way in which we have dialogued with the broader culture. (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters. Grad Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, p. 24). In fact, the most modern expression of Christianity, evangelicalism, carries with it the most negative connotations among younger generations. (To the degree that my congregation decided to remove the word, “Evangelical” from the “What we Believe” section of our church’s website to be more inviting to the unchurched). Perhaps most tragic, however, is the lack of alarm about the present state of incivility in the church. That we have not made civility an important part of our spiritual formation is proving to be tragic.

This is much more than just a generational issue of preference. Cultural anthropologists tell us that while an idea of “God” is not present in every culture, there is an almost universal belief in a devil. For some reason, people seem to be hard wired to find evil forces conspiring against them. And if a real devil is not readily available, we will make one up. In my own Evangelical subculture, our history is wrought with the demonization of The Pope, Jews, African Americans, Communists, Homosexuals, and Muslims.

When the church creates false demons of other groups it may be good for fund-raising letters but its bi-product is an environment of fear. When human beings experience fear, neurological science teaches that we are incapable of seeing the humanity in another. Our minds literally will not allow us to experience both fear and love at the same time. GK Chesterton articulated this well over a hundred years ago, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils…[Muslims] say, ‘There is no God but God.’…[We need] to learn to remember also that there is no Satan but Satan.” (GK Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, September 11, 1909).

In the absence of the church’s prophetic voice, Jon Stewart has stolen the message that the church should have had all along-- civility and restoring sanity to the political discourse is not just the right and good thing to do but necessary for our survival. Using his usual humor, Stewart mused at the Rally:

If we amplify everything we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate--just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe not more.
 

A temptation that some in the church have fallen in to is the avoidance of any conversation that might create relational tension. But clearly that is not the road to being salt and light in our culture. I think Martin Marty articulated this tension by noting that a lot people who have strong convictions are not very civil. And a lot of people who are civil do not have very strong convictions. What is ideal, according to Marty, is a “convicted civility.” (Martin E. Marty, By Way of Response: Journeys of Faith. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981.)

Perhaps Peter said it better back in the First Century – a time like ours in which Christians were wrestling with what it means to live in a world that does not understand or often agree with our beliefs. Most of us Evangelicals are very familiar with the first half of 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (NIV) Volumes of books have been written to help us Evangelicals make a case for our faith and argue persuasively. But we usually ignore the second half of the verse and the verse that follows, “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (NIV) Can you imagine what our spiritual conversations would be like if we made it a point to always treat the other person with gentleness and respect?

Paul framed it slightly different but no less poignantly. In Paul’s letter to Ephesus, he argued for unity and maturity by, “…speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15; NIV). Love without truth is sentimentality. Truth without love is Phariseeism. Both truth and love are necessary for effective spiritual conversations with those we disagree with.

Jesus was the ultimate model of holding in tension truth and love. His boundaries of acceptance were infamous among religious leaders but yet Jesus never compromised what is right, good, or true. Jesus associated with harlots without endorsing prostitution. He loved tax collectors without endorsing the financial policies of the Roman Empire. To paraphrase his conversation with the woman at the well, he simply said, “I love you. Stop it.” Dr. Richard Mouw, reflects on Jesus’ civility by writing:

We can think of civility as a form of hospitality. It is making room for other people, for their hopes and fears; it is a willingness to create a space in our minds for their ideas and experiences, for showing empathy for what is going on in their lives, even when strictly speaking we are not obligated to do so. Jesus showed a literal hospitality to people whose lifestyles and ideas he strongly opposed. This is what got him into trouble with the religious leaders of his day: “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30). I can understand something of the concerns of those religious leaders. A genuine vulnerability often comes with a hospitable spirit. The same holds for a willingness to “make room” for the ideas and experiences of those with whom we disagree on serious matters. But we need to take the risk. (Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Intervarsity Press: 1992.)

Our Wesleyan/Holiness tradition allows us to add a unique voice to this issue. To be Wesleyan is to believe in the radical notion of prevenient grace. We believe that God is at work in places and in people even when we cannot see it. We believe that even in the most twisted of human beings, the image of God is somewhere in there. May we move forward in our conversations with others by seeing others much like an exercise in art appreciation. When we encounter those who are different than us, may we recognize them as a work of art created by the God that we worship and not simply as an argument to win.

Dana Hicks