Seriously, is anyone funnier than Louis CK as he rants about how “everything is amazing and nobody's happy?” But his stand-up specials make anyone feel like they need a Clorox-and-steel-wool shower after only a few minutes.The occasional TV spot or clip of these guys floating around on facebook is proof that you don't need to drop the F-Bomb every two seconds to be funny. In fact, that’s just lazy and stupid and makes everything less humorous.
Anyway, Bill Burr is one of those guys. Like any comic, he has recurring themes, and one of his seems to be that he doesn’t like the idea of going to church (big surprise). But I find his reasoning to be simultaneously humorous and astute. Obviously, stand-up comedians are not trying to build logically water-tight arguments, but I thought these sentiments might warrant some interaction:
“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 Enlgish. You're just some guy! Your name’s Jerry, you played soccer, you got your [butt] 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.”
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 the case, 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.
But here’s the thing: in the Old Covenant, God did utilize a human priesthood—tiered into Levites, 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), rather than an acknowledgement that he’s already come down to 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 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 us. We need to remember that the focal point is never Jerry or whoever’s standing at the pulpit or behind the altar today. It’s the man who hung on the cross, 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 that, 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 even named Harold. Look instead to the man on the cross, the God-man at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us.
My friend E. Stephen Burnett pointed me to a very relevant passage in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters when I brought up Bill Burr’s beef with the Church. In his second letter, Screwtape, 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 but 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 jaded, seen-it-all generation. I’m sure, as Screwtape said, Bill Burr has never wondered what he would expect someone to look like/be like if they had the very Word of God to proclaim. Let’s pray that he would and, in doing so, would recognize God’s extreme love evidenced in his willingness to come down and give His Word to the Jerrys, Zachs, and Bills of this world.
If anything, let this little excursis on the ecclesiology of stand-up comedy remind us 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.
Soli Deo Gloria,