Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

-by Douglas L. Leblanc

The Mars Hill of Television

After enjoying a devoted following on the cable network Comedy Central since 1993, Politically Incorrect is poised for a pop-culture breakthrough: In January, it will move to ABC, where it will follow a more serious approach to current events-a little show called Nightline. This young, scrappy program deserves the wider exposure, because in terms of breadth (if not always depth), it is the Mars Hill of popular television. Where else would the maverick Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong discuss theology with Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull?

Like the Greek philosophers described in Acts 17:16-34, pi creator and host Bill Maher shows a boundless intellectual curiosity, but the show's endless fascination with the new precludes finding authoritative truth in ancient sources. Maher has an infectious laugh, but the constant efforts at building a better one-liner sacrifice insight for a quick jolt of humor. And on the great Stoic-Epicurean divide, he casts his lot firmly with the Epicureans. ("Now, I'm not recommending excessive drinking, illegal drugs, and fast women--although they've always worked for me--but isn't America all about at least having the choice?")

Like Mars Hill, Pi has room for all gods; on the show, filmmaker John Milius once described himself as a pagan, to the cheers of the audience. Like Mars Hill, Pi is mostly bemused by Christians who make claims to knowing the one true God.

In its brief history, this irreverent show has addressed an impressive array of topics with moral or religious dimensions. In his book Does Anybody Have a Problem With That? Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits (Villard, 1996), Maher writes: --No longer will anyone need to reveal an abusive husband, a money-hungry boy, parents who drove them to murder by callously eating ice cream in front of the tv. Why? Because the last name in blame is now upon us: genetics.

--Recently, there's been a trend in America that I find very disturbing . . . rewarding immoral and illegal behavior when that behavior is simply not as absolutely awful as it could be. For example, we now give free needles to junkies, which seems to me to be only a step away from giving condoms to rapists.

--My question is, is the downfall in manners merely annoying, or is it a harbinger of the fall of our civilization?

Maher has said that the last thing the world needs is another talk show. "You know, Letterman and Leno and those kind of shows are not like mine, where people come on and talk freely," he said in Los Angeles magazine (February 1996). "They won't even let you talk unless you have some act worked up that you can 'pretell' them. You can't just go on and wing it with Dave or Jay." Maher opens each show with a monologue about the day's news. Then he introduces the day's panel, which often balances intellectuals with celebrities, or conservatives with liberals. Tackling such topics as "Moral America," "Interracial Adoption," and "Kill the NEA," he throws Roseanne in with National Review editor John O'Sullivan, or satirist Christopher Buckley alongside rap singer Sister Souljah. "Strange bedfellows are our stock in trade," Maher said in Rolling Stone (March 21, 1996). "I've seen Marion Barry and G. Gordon Liddy become friends on my show. You know why? Because they'd been in the same prison, and they bonded."

Spong meets Tammy Faye

Maher is the son of a Jewish mother and an Irish-Catholic father, and he jokes frequently about both ancestries. Although his remarks about church are more bitter than humorous, there is a lingering moralism about the man. Consider just one show from this summer. Maher convened a panel to discuss such wide-ranging issues as church burnings, air-conditioned confessionals, guilt, hell, homosexuality, Scripture, slavery, heaven, and the fear of death. The invited panelists: John Spong, the Episcopal Church's idiosyncratic bishop of Newark, New Jersey; Tammy Faye Messner, the former wife of tv evangelist Jim Bakker; George Wallace (the middle-aged comedian, not the retired governor); and Star Parker, a conservative young black woman who founded the Coalition on Urban Affairs and is married to a priest of the decidedly non-Spongian Charismatic Episcopal Church.

"You all seem to be in a good mood, so let's talk about church burnings," Maher deadpanned, beginning a half-hour discussion that, amid frequent chuckling by the panel, illustrated the profound divisions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Star Parker sat in a red jumpsuit next to Spong, who wore the purple shirt of Episcopal bishops. Spong managed a tight smile as Parker spoke, but his eyes winced repeatedly. Tammy Faye Messner, dressed in an understated pantsuit, was her eerily giddy self. Both Messner and Wallace described faith in consumerist language: God wants only the best for you, church should make you feel good, and truth is whatever "works." Spong preached his familiar message that "all great religious leaders have been accused of heresy," leaving it to his fans to infer that this gallery of heroes includes one John Spong.

Maher turned his scorn on a new luxury line of confessionals that offered comfortable seating and even air conditioning. "I was raised Catholic, and I remember going to confession, and it was a scary situation," Maher said. "I think religion should be scary, and I think this is ridiculous and wrong. . . . You shouldn't be sitting. You should be kneeling. "

The conversation shifted to homosexuality when Maher asked Spong about the recent case against retired bishop Walter Righter, who had ordained an openly homosexual man to the diaconate in 1990. "He was acting as my assistant. I asked him to ordain that man, so I take full credit for that," Spong said as Parker gasped.

Parker and Spong debated briefly about proper understandings of Scripture, but before long the crowd cheered Spong and drowned out Parker as she tried to speak.

"Why is homosexuality evil, intrinsically?" Maher asked Parker.

"Do you want me to give you Scripture references?" Parker said.

"No," Maher said, "because that wouldn't convince me."

A new mission field?

Like other panelists, Christians tend to get onto pi only if they are celebrities or flamboyant. John Lofton, the double-barreled conservative and Calvinist syndicated columnist, once so agitated Sandra Bernhard, the lesbian comedian and singer, that she spat in his face. pi welcomes Spong periodically as a novelty act--a bishop of an establishment church who publicly denounces the faith he's supposed to guard. (When Spong appeared with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, he managed to land to the theological left of the rock star.) John Tesh has appeared as a guest, but his faith was difficult to tease apart from his relentless Positive Mental Attitude and his wildly popular New Age wallpaper music.

Cut through Maher's anger, and there is the soul of a man still looking for truth. "America has become a country where everything that used to be a sin is now a disease," Maher writes. "The Ten Commandments? Oh, you mean the 12 steps. In a kind of psychological version of the way the government renames certain expenditures so they won't have to be counted in the budget, Americans have found a way to keep sin 'off the book.' "

When the Republican Party met in San Diego in August, the Reverend Jerry Falwell filled in for U.S. Rep. Gary Franks one night on Pi. Maher was visibly grateful to Falwell, and jokingly referred to him as "our savior." Maher asked Falwell if Jesus would be a Dem-ocrat or a Republican today. "To me, Jesus--with the compassion and all that--seems more like a Democrat," Maher said, prompting applause and whoops. Falwell said he doesn't belong to either party, and he doesn't think Jesus would, either. "It was after I became a born-again Christian that I began voting for candidates, Republican or Democrat, who stand for the moral issues that in my heart I believe the Bible supports."

In the same show, comedian Al Franken poked fun at Falwell and Oliver North. Col. North complained about the treatment, but Falwell was sanguine: "Bill, you paid me $10,000 to be here tonight, and I don't mind being insulted at all." With that sentence, Falwell may have confirmed some of the most cynical assumptions about tv evangelists and filthy lucre, but he also showed the humility of a Christian who knows how to laugh at himself. That's the only way to survive, much less to gain a hearing, on Politically Incorrect.

Douglas L. LeBlanc contributes to the "Culture Watch" column in Moody Magazine and edits United Voice, a national newpaper that covers the Episcopal Church.

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE(/I> November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 14


Most ReadMost Shared