Assuming I’m kind of a baseline representative of the core demographic for The Blazing Center, it’s probably safe to say that most people reading this article have heard of comedian Bill Burr. He’s part of a cluster of entertainers (along with Louis C.K., Eminem, et. al.) whose insane levels of undeniable talent are hamstrung by their adolescent penchant for cursing, sexual references, and the promotion of all things carnal.
Christians who enjoy mainstream stand-up comedy have all experienced that sense of let-down when you see a comic on television (doing a bit on a cable improv show, sitting in with whoever took over for John Stewart, or headlining on Jimmy Fallon), find them funny, and then wonder what the heck happened to their ability to make clever observations and turn a halfway intelligent phrase, when you pursue their material further and find it to be the stuff of junior high boys’ locker rooms. Perhaps this is why, in our book Younger, Restlesser, Reformerder, Ted Kluck told Calvinists that they’re only allowed to laugh at Brian Regan.
But that’s a shame. Because, seriously, is anything funnier than Louis C.K. as he rants about how “everything is amazing and nobody’s happy?” Spot. On. And yet, his stand-up specials make a believer feel like he needs a Clorox-and-steel-wool shower after only a few minutes. No thanks. The occasional TV spot or facebook clip floating around the Internet is proof that these guys don’t need to drop the F-Bomb every two seconds to get laughs. In fact, that’s just lazy and stupid and makes everything less funny.
Anyway, Bill Burr is one of those guys. But he’s one whose content is just smart enough that it roped me in and brought me back for a few of his standup specials (although I won’t be watching any more of them). Like any comic, Burr has recurring themes, and one of his main hobby horses is the stupidity of going to church or thinking you can know anything definitive about God.
Of course, this is not an unusual idea in our current culture and Christians can probably learn a thing or two about our own foibles and hypocrisies from such things, but Mr. Burr has grown increasingly strident in his anti-church rants over the years. And while stand-up comedians are not trying to build logically water-tight arguments, I think these bits warrant some rebuttal. (Note: this is not an “open letter to Bill Burr.” I’ve heard these very same sentiments—in less articulate terms—many times from many people in recent years. And what better way to critique them than to engage the very words that elicit the half-drunken “wooooos” from the masses?)
In one special, Burr reports,
My girlfriend always asks, ‘Why don’t you go to church? You don’t believe in God and heaven and hell and all that stuff?’ And it’s not because I don’t believe in a higher power; I definitely do. My thing is that when I go to church, I can’t get past the fact that I’m just listening to some guy . . . That’s just some dude. And people are like, ‘No, that’s a special guy.’ No it isn’t! He didn’t, like, levitate down from the ceiling with a white light around him. Why would you listen to another human being tell you where you go when you die? Dude, have you ever been dead? No, you haven’t. So wouldn’t it be safe to assume that you don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about? You’re making it up! You’re not fooling me with the robes and the candles, speaking in old English. You’re just some guy! Your name’s Jerry, you played soccer, you got your ass kicked in gym class, and now you’re doing this.
Elsewhere, he gives this analysis of the racket he sees in organized religion:
God’s everywhere but we gotta go down there to see Him? Really?! And He’s mad at me down there and I owe you money? . . . It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous.
Burr should stick to his real job: keeping Huell happy.
Now, let me be the first to say that I get it. And, let me further confess: the above sentiment is often multiplied ten-fold for those of us who are actually ordained ministers. As a kid, I remember having a reverence for pastors, assuming they heard direct revelation from God on an ongoing basis, thought only about lofty and holy things, and struggled only with paltry, insignificant sins. Now I not only know my own struggles and failings, but have seen the very human sides of hundreds of pastors, church leaders, and even those who train them in colleges and seminaries, and you know what? In each and every case, it is just some guy.
Does that bother me? Not really. After all, who else would it be? I think the problem lies in this: somewhere along the line, Mr. Burr got the impression from the Church at large that he had to go through this institution to get to God. That, of course, is not accurate, but I admit I’d be turning a skeptical eye to the whole enterprise too if I thought that the regular dude up there with the big black book, whose kids think he’s lame and who sucks at parallel parking and wears too much cologne, is somehow my bridge into God’s presence.
At the same time, though, that used to be the case. In the Old Covenant, God did utilize a human priesthood—tiered into Levites, Aaronic priests, and the High Priest. Levites lived all around the Kingdom, ministering where they were. People knew them! They were everyday guys. The High Priest actually made the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement and brought the blood into the Holy of Holies.
The guys involved in the priesthood were far from perfect—in fact, many were notoriously wicked or foolish (Nadab, Abihu, Hophni, Phineas, Annas, Caiphas, just to name a few), but God still used them despite this (John 11:49-51). I’m sure there were people in Israel who were jaded by corrupt or inept Levites and priests. And there were probably others, who thought to themselves, “You’re just some dude. Your name’s Aaron, your sister plays the tambourine, you used to make bricks and build Egyptian cities, and now you’re doing this.” But God called them to do that. He uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.
Ultimately, I think many people’s hang-up with church is that they see it as an attempt to vault ourselves into God’s presence (and if that’s what it is, it’s a very cheap attempt at an impossible task—Rom. 10:5-9), rather than an acknowledgement that he’s already come down to be with us; he’s come down to be GOD WITH US.
Jerry the soccer-playing, robe-wearing pastor isn’t making it up in an attempt to bring you to the heavenly level. He’s speaking words that came down and preaching the Word who came down in the flesh so that we could know our Creator. I don’t doubt that, in many cases, all the trappings of church (whether robes and candles or strobe lights and words like “vision” and “anointing”) are there to essentially trick people into forgetting that it’s just some guy. That’s just another example of how we, even like the priests of the old covenant, are screwed up and often self-centered.
But the onus is on the worshiper to remember that the focal point is never Jerry or whoever’s standing at the pulpit or behind the altar today. Burr comes from an Irish Catholic background. And without getting into important doctrinal distinctions that may be at the heart of all this, I would say to Mr. Burr:
Don’t look at Father Jerry there. Lift your eyes up about 30° to the image of the man hanging from the cross above Jerry’s head. The man who suffered and died, paid for our sins, and revealed God to us in a way no one ever had before. He is not just “some guy.” I realize it requires faith to acknowledge this, but don’t let yourself get distracted by the guy behind the pulpit. He’s just a messenger, just a herald—heck, maybe he’s named Harold. Look instead to the man on the cross, the man walking out of the empty tomb, the God-man at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us.
There’s a passage in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon gives his subordinate Wormwood the following advice:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.
But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.
When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.
When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.
You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ‚’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians‚’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real—though of course an unconscious—difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.
Granted, Lewis is not Scripture by any stretch, but if he’s right and the Devil uses this particular tactic, it’s working wonders with today’s unamused, seen-it-all generation. Burr has most recently explained that he finally chose to “just let go” of any remaining religion he may have been unwittingly harboring. He likened it to a curler (as in that fake Canadian “sport” with the ice and brooms and whatever) releasing the stone and letting it drift away. He mimics this action while saying the words, “And on the third day, he rose again from the dead, in accordance with the prophecyyyyyyyy.”
And the crowd of Millennials goes wild.
I’m sure, as Screwtape said, that neither Burr nor the wooooing college students has ever wondered what they would expect someone to look like or be like if he had the very Word of God to proclaim. Let’s pray that Burr would think on that and, in doing so, would recognize God’s extreme love, demonstrated in his willingness to come down and give His Word to the Jerrys, Zachs, and Bills of this world. And now, having consciously let go of a religion he never really believed, and therefore no longer seeing himself as basically in good standing with God—via some empty rituals and half-affiliation—he is in a far better position to hear the Gospel.
If anything, let this little excursus on the ecclesiology of stand-up comedy remind us not to present “our stories” as the Gospel, but to point everyone away from our own unspectacular, often struggling selves and to the One who created us, redeems us, and will return one day to judge the living and the dead. It’s not just some guy up there. It’s the Alpha and Omega, whose eyes are like a flame of fire, who was dead and behold he is alive forever more. And He came down, lived in our midst, died at our hand, and rose again to redeem us.
Yeah, from the world’s point of view, “That’s stupid. It’s ridiculous.” But God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. You’d think a comedian would be on board with that.