Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Satirist, Has Died

George Carlin, the undeniably clever comedian who, a decade into a career that was comprised of typical Borscht Belt schtick, took his comedy in a self-consciously countercultural direction, has died.

It was probably inevitable that the decade that triggered Carlin's comedic transformation would inspire some satirizing court jesters to express the antiestablishment feelings of millions toward the war in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, White House lies, and the everyday hypocrisies of American life, among other things.

But Carlin, whose trademarks had been silliness and tuxedos in five-minute bits on The Ed Sullivan Show, initially seemed ill-fit for the role of a bearded, ponytailed, convention-tweaker in blue jeans.

When this new Carlin emerged in the late-1960s, it was jarring for those of us accustomed to seeing him sandwiched between such benign acts as Topo Gigio and Russian circus dancing bears.

No doubt much of what animated the comedy of Carlin in the four decades since his "conversion" is anger. Anger is often the motive power of comedy and Carlin found much about which to be angry. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had lied to us about Vietnam, for example. Hypocrisy was widespread among the elites in politics, corporations, and the churches.

But as it relates to the churches, Carlin, I believe, made the same mistake common to such contemporary atheists as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, confusing the hypocrisy and disinformation sometimes peddled by those who claim to speak for God, from marginally Christian parents to culture-apologists masked as theologians, for authentic faith.

Carlin, who grew up in what appears to have been a culturally Christian family, apparently got a bad dose of misinformation about the Judeo-Christian worldview and he apparently never thought to disabuse himself of the pseudo-Christianity he encountered.

He attributed some of society's worst woes to a version of religion to which he was most intimately exposed, a superstitious junk religion rooted not in the grace of God extended to sinful human beings, the source of all hope in Biblical faith, which is the common proclamation of those in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

He claimed, for example, that all opposition to obscenity and pornography was rooted in "religious superstitions" that regarded sex and the human body as dirty and evil.

The attitudes Carlin describes are exhibited by misinformed Christians. But an examination of the Bible, the book which Christians regard as the Word of God and which in my Lutheran Christian tradition is seen as "the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life" will demonstrate how off the mark he was in his characterization of the Judeo-Christian view of sexuality.

The Bible has an elevated view of sex. According to Genesis, the Bible's first book,human beings created in the image of God were made male and female, indicating that sexuality was part of what made God's creation of humanity "very good."

Sexual intimacy therefore, was meant to be part of every married couple's life, from the beginning, a fact underscored by the fact that when first created, Adam and Eve, were naked and unashamed.

The joy of sexual intimacy between husband and wife is celebrated in the Song of Solomon, a book filled with subtle yet unmistakable pictures of various romantic and sexual encounters.

Sexual intimacy is protected in the Bible. The point of the Sixth Commandment--"You shall not commit adultery"--isn't to prevent the human race from enjoying their sexuality, but to ensure that this high expression of love between a husband and wife is protected from cheapening, from "adulteration." Martin Luther explains the commandment in The Small Catechism:
We are to fear and love God so that in matters of sex our words and conduct are pure and honorable, and husband and wife love and respect each other.
If those operating under a Judeo-Christian conception of the human body and sexuality sometimes object to gratuitous sex (and violence, for that matter) which appears in movies, video games, TV shows, and standup comedy routines like Carlin's, it isn't because the Bible regards the body as dirty. Quite the opposite.

The New Testament portion of the Bible says that the body is "the temple of the Lord." And when Adam and Eve hide from God because of their nakedness, it's not because their bodies are inherently evil, but because of an awareness created by their fall into sin, that their bodies can be used for sinful purposes, only some of them of a sexual nature.

As a Christian who regarded Carlin as a talented, if misguided, voice of our times, I regret that he never enjoyed a positive relationship with someone who truly reflected the Judeo-Christian view of sex and the human body. (I regret too, that he never took the time to find out about it for himself.)

Carlin's experience, sadly, isn't uncommon. We Christians allow legalists parading as Christians to hijack our faith. While they flap their jaws and invoke their crude cartoon versions of Christian faith, we keep silent. So, the Carlins of the world draw erroneous conclusions about Christian faith and the ability of all people--whatever their faith--to speak to and understand one another is hampered. No wonder then, that the wise pastor (and Doctor of Philosophy) Gerald Mann has said that one mission of today's Christians is cleaning up the bad reputation given to God by those who misspeak in His Name.

It's just one aspect of George Carlin's passing that saddens me today.

1 comment:

Spencer Troxell said...

"Carlin, I believe, made the same mistake common to such contemporary atheists as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, confusing the hypocrisy and disinformation sometimes peddled by those who claim to speak for God, from marginally Christian parents to culture-apologists masked as theologians, for authentic faith."

These loud and lazy christians that you refer to... I think it's hard to say that their faith isn't authentic. Everyone seems to funnel their faith through pre-established (and evolving) worldviews, and it's not surprising that a stringent neo-conservative or a social liberal might find some kind of politically-sympathetic teaching within the multitude of teachings in the holy bible to build their faith around; and so on for any other kind of bias that a person walks into religion with.

Faith doesn't seem to be a rational endeavor, so the way we interpet our holy books is highly personalized. I don't think God needs better public relations. Maybe the people who reject religion just don't find it credible. Religion is, of course, incredible. That's what makes it both wonderful and terrifying, often at the same time.