Friday, November 5, 2010

The Last Christian on Television


After Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the religious leaders, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in secret, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
John 19:38-42

Is Jon Stewart secretly a follower of Jesus?

Stewart is Jewish by birth and by custom, though he sometimes seems to present himself as an agnostic. But there are times when I wonder if he might be the last real Christian on television.

He is intentionally irreverent, and yet I often think that Jesus would feel more at home with Jon Stewart than with any other television personality. Jesus was, after all, irreverent and countercultural and unpredictable, and apparently he was so much at home having a good time that some of the more serious religious folks thought that he had a demon.

It is hard to think of a commentator more committed to Jesus' agenda. Stewart pushes questions about issues of social justice more relentlessly than any other interviewer. He does not try to hide his own very comfortable place in the socio-economic order while continually asking how policies and programs affect “the least” among us. In the tradition of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, he "speaks truth to power," and is an advocate for the poor and the powerless.

He is convinced of the value of truth and he pursues it with a passion. In the health care debate, he was the one who really took on the “death panel” fabrication and went over the relevant paragraphs in the legislation line by line with the woman who had initiated the charges. When others report rumors, he looks for the facts. At one point, in response to a commentator who seemed to deliberately mis-state an issue, Stewart said, "This isn't class warfare, it's a war on people who went to class."

The Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), which Stewart organized with Stephen Colbert drew huge crowds. The Washington D.C. Transit Authority registered a record ridership on that day, bolstering the claim of many observers that the Stewart Rally attracted more people than the Glenn Beck Rally held on August 28. The rally hit a nerve among many Americans who believe that we need more civility and compromise in our political life, and less shouting and demonizing. As Stewart said, “If everything is amplified, we hear nothing.”

He came close to telling us that we need to love one another. Yet in many ways the rally was disappointing. It did not have the satirical bite of Stewart’s Daily Show. He really followed his own advice to “take a deep breath, and take it down a notch.” He was scrupulously even-handed in his criticism of the left and the right, but he did not really offer an alternative vision.

Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most thoughtful philosopher of the Holocaust, has said that neutrality always favors the oppressor. Historically, serious Christians have often had a hard time articulating the difference between neutrality and an unwillingness “to return evil for evil.” Reinhold Niebuhr has argued that Christians have this problem internally, as well as in the perception of world around them. That seemed to be Stewart's problem on Saturday.

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