I love Stephen Colbert. But I haven’t had time to watch him lately because: Holy Week.
Fortunately, someone else did watch the Colbert Report and caught a priceless gem. The clip went viral and the day after Easter, when I finally got caught up on my nap and leisurely strolls with the dog, I spied it on my Facebook news feed, liked by roughly a bazillion friends and colleagues (“bazillion” may be an estimate).
If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.
I have not read Bart Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted, but have it on my reading list–so I can’t speak to the quality of the book or even begin to address the statements he has made in said book. All I can do is look at what was said in this interview.
The interview started out as a typical Colbert Report satirical piece. You have Colbert, a conservative ideologue who doesn’t really listen and thinks he has won arguments with the sort of logic you find on bumper stickers… and then you have Bart Ehrman, a successful and highly noted biblical scholar who has spent tens of thousands of hours studying in his field and is pretty much a walking encyclopedia on the historical Jesus. And, as in the case of any interview with Colbert (and professional wrestling), there can only be one winner and that winner was decided before the show was even filmed. Needless to say, the winner was going to be Colbert.
But Colbert closed out the segment, and his argument, with the telling of the old fable of the four blind men who fall into a pit with an elephant. Each man tries to figure out what it is in the pit with him by feeling–one says it’s a tree trunk, one says it’s a snake, one says it is a wall, and one says it’s a spear.
“My point is,” Colbert sums up, “Maybe God is an elephant… He’s so big that each of these four men could only see a part of him.”
The four men in question were the Gospel writers. Ehrman had just made an argument about inconsistencies in the Bible, particularly the gospel accounts of the crucifixion.
Ehrman grinned and nodded slightly but did not respond–maybe he was speechless (as the link I provided claims), maybe he was given the sign from a sharp producer that the segment was over (it was a good note to end on–a good producer would have seen that), or maybe he could agree with the simple truth of that statement (this is what I think happened).
Because I’m familiar with Ehrman’s extensive academic work, I’m sure he wasn’t sidelined by a parody interviewer re-telling an old fable. So, I can pretty much rule out the “Ehrman was silenced” theory.
So what about his statement was so profound that either a producer decided to end on that note, or Ehrman decided not to argue the point?
Well–It lies in the power of finding a common ground. Stephen Colbert found that common ground with the fable he chose to tell.
Long ago, thanks to parents who are open-minded about people of differing faiths, I learned to co-exist with those who worship differently than I do by finding a common ground on which to stand. The basic core of our shared humanity is often enough for me to be able to get along well with people of different faiths and cultures. But what has been more difficult for me to learn is how to get along with people of the same faith who think very differently than me.
Sometimes I wonder if we are even worshipping the same God. And I know they are looking at me and saying the same thing.
This is made even more difficult with the proliferation of twenty-four hour news television. With all the competing channels broadcasting “news” all hours of the day, all sorts of “gimmicks” are contrived to win viewers. One oft-used gimmick is to play to the religious sensitivities of viewers (and this is done from both sides of the conservative-liberal spectrum).
Suddenly, religion and political platforms are intricately tied to one another. A vote has become a religious proclamation. Which news television channel one tunes into is a manifesto of religious beliefs–and we are encouraged to sneer down our noses at those who tune into different stations.
Oh, you watch FOX–so you must be a tea-party supporting Christian who thinks the Bible only talks about condemning abortions and gays.
Oh, you watch MSNBC—you must be one of those godless liberals who have turned Jesus into some long-haired hippie who thinks everyone and everything is “okay”.
With this never-ending selection of “experts” to draw from, the divisions seem to grow wider and wider–and it seems more and more difficult to believe that we are even a part of the same faith. If we can’t speak with each other–the people who worship the same God and read the same scriptures–how on earth are we ever going to be able to co-exist with those who worship different gods (or no god at all). How are we going to talk to those who read different holy books? Who observe different faith practices?
How in the world can we ever expect the Kingdom of Heaven to come when this world is filled with nothing but dissension and even those of us who are supposed to be known by our love are breathing fire at each other?
And therein lies the power of Stephen Colbert’s simple argument.
God is big; so big that no matter how long we grope around in the dark, trying to decipher what God is, we will never succeed in uncovering anything but a part of what God actually is.
We can’t claim we have the corner on God. We can’t claim that ours is the only way to look at it. We can’t claim that we, and we alone, know the mind of God.
God is a mystery and in the grand scope of things, we are but blind fools in unfamiliar territory, trying to understand what is right in front of us. It is only when we put all the pieces together that we begin to see how grand God is.
Bart Ehrman is an agnostic–someone who has probably used a similar argument to defend his agnostic views on religion–that the Divine is too big to be understood by any one people’s beliefs.
And Stephen Colbert is a Catholic Sunday school teacher who has made a lucrative career off parodying people who try to boil everything down to black-and-white issues. The genius of his show is how he brings things full-circle and in the midst of a hearty comedic laugh exposes the fact that we are all a lot more alike than we care to admit.
Maybe–just maybe–if we began to recognize God as an elephant, if we could admit that we are only seeing a part of the divine, then maybe we could stop all this foolish bickering and get back to the basics–back to being the people who are known not by what channel they watch, or for whom they vote, but by their love.