Truth and Truthiness: What Catholic catechists can learn from Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. Since the debut of his late-night satirical news show, “The Colbert Report,” in 2005, Colbert has gained immense popularity. Each night his program opens to the thunderous applause and chanting of a packed studio audience. The show has garnered many awards, including two primetime Emmys, several additional nominations and the honor of coining the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2006: truthiness.
Yet Mr. Colbert’s influence goes beyond introducing new vocabulary into American culture. In an article in The New York Times in 2012, Charles McGrath observed that Colbert’s conservative, blowhard persona was beginning to transgress the bounds of his television studio and meddle in the real world. Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result.
As members of a church tasked with reaching out to the world in a new evangelization, teachers of the Catholic faith should be intrigued by the way Stephen Colbert has captivated his audience. What might we do to be as effective in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Colbert has been in spreading the gospel of Stephen? Instead of spying on the Sunday school classroom where Mr. Colbert has served as a Catholic catechist, I suggest attending to the place where he is most in his element—on air.
Stephen Colbert’s meteoric rise to fame has been aided by his charismatic personality, improv comedy training and a talented team of writers—advantages the average catechist cannot count on. Yet there is something more basic and replicable underlying his success. Indeed, I have come to the rather surprising conclusion that he embodies (unintentionally, no doubt) a formula for effective catechesis proffered by St. Augustine of Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries: delight, instruct and persuade.
First, Augustine tells catechists in On Christian Doctrine that they must delight their audience: “A hearer must be delighted, so that he can be gripped and made to listen.” This church father knew that it matters little whether one speaks the truth if one’s audience is not interested enough to pay attention. A boring presentation makes an audience less receptive and less likely to return, while a pleasing presentation renders an audience eager to listen and even to come back for more. In short, style makes a difference.
Augustine practiced what he preached. A classically trained orator, his golden tongue was known to move his audiences to tears or applause or both. People today are at least as hungry for entertainment as they were in Augustine’s time, but what passes for delightful changes with the times. People may no longer flock to public squares to hear great orators, but millions are tuning in to “The Colbert Report” every night, and it is not difficult to understand why. Stephen Colbert is utterly delightful.
With impeccable wit and timing, he ridicules politicians’ foibles and blunders, extols his own virtues and revels in consumerist decadence and pop culture fads, all with a tongue-in-cheek, wink-of-the-eye demeanor that keeps his audience in hysterics. If the torrent of rapid-fire jokes were not enough to keep viewers engaged, Colbert varies his delivery with an ever-expanding arsenal of recurring segments. These include the “ThreatDown” in which he identifies the newest threats to the American public (frequently including bears and robots) and “The Word,” in which his discussion of current events is punctuated by the periodic appearance of punny asides on the screen.
In one session of “The Word,” Colbert reported on an Iowa hospital’s deportation of two comatose immigrant workers without any prompting from the government. Following a clip from the local news, Colbert quipped sarcastically: “Deported is such a harsh word. The hospital simply moved them to the intensive we-don’t-care unit.” Meanwhile, “The I. Don’t C. U.” flashes on the screen above the host’s shoulder.
Colbert appears to have found the sweet spot for modern audiences with his blend of humor and a barrage of media-enhanced segments. Fortunately, these modes of expression can just as well serve as tools for evangelization as for political satire. Catechists would do well to avail themselves of whatever opportunities current popular culture presents for drawing people into the Catholic faith.
Augustine also emphasized the importance of instructing the audience. Though an engaging style is helpful for gaining and holding an audience’s attention, a Christian teacher’s primary aim is not to entertain but rather to hand on God’s saving truth. The best method of teaching is not necessarily the most amusing but rather “one by which the listener hears the truth and understands what he hears.” In this regard, too, Colbert has proven himself a master.
Indeed, the show’s reporting can be downright revelatory. During one episode prior to the presidential election in 2012, Colbert welcomed Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Committee, onto the show. Talking through the process for setting up Colbert’s own 501(c)(4) shell corporation, the two “incidentally” revealed the fact that corporations can donate unlimited funds to 501(c)(4)’s, which can then be transferred to political action committees, or super PACs, that support political candidates without disclosing the original donors. “What is the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert asked Potter. Potter’s response: “It’s hard to say.”
Jesus did not teach trivia. He taught “words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68) that transform his followers and lead to salvation. The most important indicator of the effectiveness of Catholic catechesis will be the extent to which our students not only know the truth God has revealed but also “do the truth in love.” One can hardly expect students to live out a faith whose content they neither know nor understand. Any teachers who neglect God’s revealed truth in their lessons are building houses upon sand.
The Art of Persuasion
Finally, Augustine underscores the need to persuade one’s audience. Essential though knowledge is, teaching falls short if students’ learning does not affect their living. This is eminently true in the case of Christian teaching, whose definitive aim is a lived relationship with Christ. Developing such a relationship requires learners to internalize the truth they have learned and make a personal decision for Christ. For, as Augustine notes, the person who still needs to be enticed with delightful speech to do the right thing has not yet fully grasped the meaning of Christ’s truth.
What is perhaps most impressive and even a little uncanny about Colbert is his ability to regularly persuade his vast audience to take action. Despite the fact that the Colber Report is a comedy show, it is evident in exchanges like the one above with Potter on the show, and even more in his testimony about migrant worker rights before a House Judiciary subcommittee in 2008, that this fake-news host intends for his audience to take action in the real word on the information he presents. When Colbert wants his viewers to do something, he does not settle for a vague, innocuous suggestion. He tells them explicitly what ought to be done…and they do it.
In 2006, for example, Colbert proclaimed facetiously from his desktop pulpit that, thanks to Wikipedia, if enough people agree on something, it becomes true. To prove his point, he urged viewers to modify the Wikipedia article on elephants to say, “Elephant population in Africa has tripled over the past six months.” The response was so immediate and overwhelming that Wikipedia had to restrict editing of the page to prevent further changes.
Catholic catechesis has been conspicuously less effective in this regard, so much so that the Second Vatican Council, in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” lamented the “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives” as one of the most serious problems of our age. It is not enough to teach students what Jesus and his church teach or even what that teaching has to do with their lives. Catechists need to convince them that Jesus is worth loving and the way of life to which he calls us is worth living. And there is no argument more convincing than the witness of the teacher’s own lived faith. By offering such a model of discipleship and bringing students’ existential questions and concerns into dialogue with church teaching, catechists provide them with the roadmap they need to translate their learning into their daily lives.
So how has Colbert been so effective in reaching his audience? How might Catholic catechists do likewise? In a word, by appealing to the whole person. When Jesus invited us to follow him, he urged us to do so with nothing less than our full selves. He commanded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30; cf. Lk 10:27). If we want our students to seek Christ with their whole selves, we must engage them in the fullness of their being—heart, mind and will.
St. Augustine long ago offered a formula for doing just this: delight the heart, instruct the mind, persuade the will. Stephen Colbert has demonstrated that this formula is still effective in our own time. If Catholic catechists were to apply the lessons of Colbert’s success to their own work of evangelization, our country might very well become not just a “Colbert Nation” but a people of God.
Watch clips from Father James Martin's apperances on "The Colbert Report."