Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. People are watching Dave Chappelle on Netflix but canceling him from his own high school. … Maybe we can learn something from him more than just about cancel culture and culture wars. Maybe he can show us something about how humor works—and maybe that can show us something about our mission in the world. … Plus, my atheist students and my Christian students are talking about each other (but not in the way you think). … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
What Standup Comedians Can Teach Us About the Church’s Witness

Apparently, comedian Dave Chappelle isn’t welcome at his own high school. According to news reports, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts delayed a ceremony to celebrate the renaming of its theater after the famous alum because students threatened to walk out.

Netflix had similar threats from its employees after Chappelle’s controversial standup comedy special aired on the streaming service. Many felt it was insulting, especially toward transgender people. The special has prompted a thousand debates about political correctness, cancel culture, and the nature of respect and civility.

While those debates are important, let’s set them aside for a moment and reflect instead on the question of who was laughing—and why.

As the Chappelle controversy has unfolded, I’ve found myself in conversations with two people on opposite sides of the “love him or hate him” spectrum. And both were surprised by their mixed feelings—not about the social commentary or rhetoric of the comedian but by their own reactions and responses.

One of them is a staunch conservative who’s really concerned about the “What are your pronouns?” era. He told me he agreed with Chappelle’s arguments on that point, but he never laughed. In fact, he cringed several times at the comedian’s crude language. “I was with him on the issue,” he said. “It just wasn’t my kind of humor.”

The other person is a committed progressive who is outraged by what he sees as Chappelle taking cheap shots at a vulnerable population. Yet he had the mirror-image response: “I hated what he was saying, at least at those parts,” he said, then looked down and winced. “But I have to admit, he was funny.”

So while the conservative felt obligated to laugh, he felt left out because he didn’t. And although the progressive despised what was said, he felt guilty because he did laugh.

In September, David Sims of The Atlantic profiled another controversial and politically charged comedian, Norm Macdonald, after Macdonald’s death from cancer. As with Chappelle, part of Macdonald’s legacy was that he could prompt people to “laugh and gasp in shock in equal measure.” The key to all of this, Sims argued, was not Macdonald’s place on the political spectrum, which was to the right of most of his cohort. And it wasn’t even his often-coarse material. Instead, it was Macdonald’s view of what comedy is meant to do—or, more specifically, of how laughter works.

According to Sims, Macdonald argued that standups should “hunt for laughter, not applause.” The comedian went on to explain, “There’s a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they’re clapping. They’re saying, ‘We agree with what you’re saying; proceed!’ … But when they’re laughing, they’re genuinely surprised. And when they’re not laughing, they’re really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that’s the best comedy of all. “

This seems to have little to do with the witness of the church. After all, we are not trying to make people laugh. But that element of surprise—an involuntary reaction that goes beyond our sets of ideologies and expectations—is actually a key part of what we are called to do, and the lack of it partially explains why we so often fail.

In the mid-20th century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote an essay on the relationship between humor and faith that was utterly humorless yet insightful. Niebuhr argued that at the core of human existence is a paradox. We see ourselves as insignificant in the broad sweep of space and time: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Ps. 8:4). But at the same time, our very ability to ponder that insignificance seems to place us at the center of the universe: “You have made them a little lower than the angels” (v. 5).

A person’s melancholy “over the prospect of death,” Niebuhr wrote, is “proof of his partial transcendence over the natural process which ends in death.” Our inner and outer worlds often fail to align—and humor and faith are two responses to this tension.

“Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially,” Niebuhr wrote. “Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of our life.”

In Niebuhr’s view, humor is a kind of no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition. When laughter is taken to its extreme, it becomes a kind of bitterness. Think about the people you know who are hilariously fun to be around but who became that way to create a kind of defense mechanism—either to distract themselves from sadness or to protect themselves from potential ridicule. This is not the worst way to survive, unless it morphs into the kind of sarcasm and nihilism that laughs at everything and cries at nothing.

Successful comedians—whether the skilled millionaire professionals airing on Netflix or the kids whispering jokes in the church balcony—know how to point out the incongruities of life. And they recognize, as Norm Macdonald said, that laughter works best when it is least expected, when it can surprise and even startle us. The audience has to feel enough of a connection so that they can relate (which is why most comedians don’t joke about quantum theory or the problems of yacht maintenance). In other words, good jokes that bring genuine laughter often relate and connect to the human experience in an unpredictable or surprising way, producing a reaction of “Ha! I see what you did there!” or “I can’t believe she just said that!”

Most of us have experienced moments when we laughed unexpectedly—sometimes at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places.

Years ago, at a funeral in Louisville, I sat next to an elderly man who had taught at the seminary where I served at the time. When one of his just-as-elderly colleagues, whom I’ll call Harold, began walking to the front to give a eulogy, my seatmate (whose hearing was basically gone) said to me in a “whisper” that boomed throughout the quiet chapel, “Look at how bad Harold looks! Man, he has aged! Mark my words—his funeral’s next!”

All of us watched in horror as Harold turned around mid-aisle to glare at my seatmate. Then a small smile crept to the corners of Harold’s mouth as he turned back to walk to the pulpit. The more I tried to stifle my laughter—the more I said to myself, “You can’t laugh! This is a funeral!”—the harder it became.

The Christian gospel itself is not humorous. It deals with the most serious of matters. Its ultimate aim is not laughter, but neither is it applause. The power of the gospel took the first-century Roman Empire by storm—not because it met the expectations of Rome’s culture and subcultures but because it was perceived as so thoroughly strange.

A crucified Messiah. The resurrection of the body. A church of both Jew and Gentile, slave and free. None of these fit the existing expectations and formed opinions of almost anybody at that time. And that’s exactly why it stood out as so different.

When it comes to Dave Chappelle, there is plenty to debate about—for instance, whether he or any other comedian is “punching down” or moving from comedy to ridicule. How far is too far before comedy goes beyond the bounds of civil discourse? These are important conversations.

But it’s also worth noting how standup comedians can make the familiar surprising and the strange relatable.

Comedy can involve social commentary or political advocacy but only in a very specific way. To make us truly laugh, not just applaud, it has to hit us at a surprising place—one that is far deeper than our surface-level opinions and stances.

Laughter does not always signify joy, just as melancholy does not always mean contrition. But sometimes it’s a start.

What Atheist and Christian Students Are Asking About Each Other

I am writing this after wrapping up the semester at the University of Chicago, where I led weekly seminars as a fellow in the Institute of Politics. I almost said no to the invitation because I really did not have the time to do it, but I am certainly glad I did.

Each week, I discussed with a full house of students—mostly secular students, some of whom had never been around an evangelical Christian—how to understand religion in American culture and politics. And then every Tuesday, before and after the seminar, I opened my office to meet with students who wanted to ask me questions.

It was a unique opportunity for a split-screen experience: I answered questions from atheists, agnostics, and every other sort of non-Christian students about Christians. And outside my office hours, I talked with evangelical Christian students about how to be faithful to Christ in a very secular setting.

Here’s what amazed me. In no case, ever, did secular students want to argue or ridicule. Their questions were full of curiosity and genuine open-mindedness. I suppose I mostly expected that, since the University of Chicago has a long reputation for freedom of thought and ideas and has resisted many of the tides toward “safe spaces from ideas.” Yet I was surprised that the non-Christians and the Christians were talking to me, behind closed doors, about each other—in ways that were all about kindness and respect and civility.

Most of my conversations with secularist students were along these lines: A lesbian agnostic wanted to talk about her parents, who are evangelical Christians. She said, “I really love my mom and dad; they believe like you do. Can you help me know some ways I can show them I love them and help me find ways we can talk to each other?”

Interestingly, I had just had a conversation—in an entirely different state—with a conservative evangelical mom and dad who asked, “How can we show our agnostic lesbian daughter that we don’t have to agree in order for us to love her? How can we love her well and show her that?” I’m sure these were not the student’s parents, but they might as well have been.

On either side, they didn’t want to know how to argue better; they wanted to know how to love and respect and maintain connection.

Then on Monday night, I spoke to a joint gathering of Christian students from campus ministries such as Cru, InterVarsity, Vineyard, and many others. The students were vibrant, joyful, orthodox, and bright. They did not want to talk about any of the controversies raging all the time on Christian Twitter. They also weren’t talking as though they were “under siege” on a very secular campus. In conversation after conversation, both publicly from the microphones and privately afterward, here were the questions they repeatedly asked me:

  • How can I do Bible reading well?
  • What are some ways to pray when prayer is hard?
  • How can I better act like Jesus in loving my secularist parents (or roommate or lab partner)?

Both groups were talking about each other—but no grievances were aired, and no relativism or least-common-denominator stuff surfaced.

The secularist students were really secular, but in many cases, they admired their Christian friends and classmates and wanted to know how to make sure the Christians in their lives knew it.

The Christian students were really Christian—committed to the gospel, to the Bible, and to discipleship and mission. But they weren’t trying to “own” their secularist neighbors in theatrical arguments or humiliate them on Tik-Tok. As one student said, “I’m so downcast because I’m such a sinner—I just keep sinning, snapping at people, getting materialistic and envious, and all of that, and my non-Christians friends have seen that. I don’t want them to think that that’s what Jesus is like when it’s just that I’m such a failure.” (He was not a failure, just a repenter!)

These conversations and the way the students related to each other when they were together are a sign of hope for an American civil society that maybe isn’t quite as extinct as we thought. Christianity on this campus is not dead or in hiding or embarrassed or quarrelsome toward others. And the non-Christian students here really don’t evidence the bitterness of young people who just want to hurt their parents back home.

In fact, the Christian students are asking me how to love their enemies, as Jesus taught us. And the secularists want to make sure they are acting like friends, not enemies.

Desert Island Bookshelf

For those of y’all who are new here, normally in this spot we include a reader’s submitted photo and descriptions of the books he or she would want to have if stranded on a desert island for life. This week, instead of that, we have our first playlist from Matthew Kincade:

U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”—The ultimate “already but not yet” song with an amazing guitar part by the Edge

U2, “All I Want Is You”—Bono’s stunning love song with a great orchestral backing

Beatles, “Hey Jude”—A great sing-along song to keep spirits high

Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”—A reminder that this broken world is not our home

Black Crowes, “Hard to Handle”—Phenomenal remake of an old Otis Redding song by one of my favorite old-school rock-and-roll bands

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Midnight Special”—Classic version of an old Southern ballad

Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah”—This haunting take on Leonard Cohen’s mashup of David’s and Samson’s lives has an unforgettable ending

Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”—Epic rock-and-roll classic that feels like a song within a song

NEEDTOBREATHE, “The Outsiders”—Great band and great song, reminding us that we will always be outsiders in the world this side of heaven

David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”—I have to include the greatest country song ever written!

Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues (Live at Folsom State Prison)”—Had to include this song from another Arkansas native, the Man in Black

Dawes, “If I Wanted Someone”—This song from a very underrated Southern California band speaks to the fact that sometimes we just need someone by our side.

Dvorak, “Symphony No. 9: ‘From the New World’”—Contrasting woodwinds and brass come together for an unforgettable melody.

Beethoven, “Symphony No. 9: ‘Ode to Joy’”—Most famous melody in all of music

Tchaikovsky, “1812 Overture”—Even without fireworks this piece will stir your emotions and get you fired up.

What do you think? If you could have one bookshelf with you to last you the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose? Send a picture to me with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

This kingdom of God life is not a matter of waking up each morning with a list of chores or an agenda to be tended to, left on our bedside table by the Holy Spirit for us while we slept. We wake up already immersed in a large story of creation and covenant, of Israel and Jesus, the story of Jesus and the stories Jesus told. We let ourselves be formed by these formative stories, and especially as we listen to the stories that Jesus tells, get a feel for the way he does it, the way he talks, the way he treats people, the Jesus way.

—Eugene Peterson, in Tell It Slant


Currently Reading

Dorena Williamson, The Celebration Place: God’s Plan for a Delightfully Diverse Church (IVP Kids)

Paul Bloom, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning (HarperCollins)

Cynthia Haven, Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life (Heyday)

Matteo Bortolini, A Joyfully Serious Man: The Life of Robert Bellah (Princeton University Press)

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Russell Moore

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