In a much discussed article in the new online publication Religion & Politics Journal, New York Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer offers an enthusiastic endorsement of Jon Stewart's coverage of religion on "The Daily Show," which Stewart hosts on Comedy Central. "Jon Stewart may not be a believer," writes Oppenheimer, "but he is one hell of a teacher."
This is an interesting claim -- and a ridiculous one. Stewart is hilarious, and I consider his show to be must-see TV. My wife and I watch it every night that it is on, discuss it with our adult children (who otherwise live in a different cultural universe), and bemoan its absence when the show is on break. But Stewart does not qualify, in any sense, as a "teacher" of religion.
He does cover religion extensively, and his coverage is very funny for the same reason it is funny when he takes on political subjects. In his monologues and skits, he is a master of puncturing pretense and skewering inconsistency. He looks for the absurd in religion and, without much difficulty, finds it. Unconstrained as he is by political correctness, the Mormons with their unfamiliar theology are an easy target for him; so too are the Catholic hierarchy and its approach to contraception and papal authority; so too is the Muslim and Jewish obsession with the Middle East; and so too are some of the apparently bizarre rituals of the Jewish tradition (cutting off the tip of a baby boy's penis, avoiding whole categories of food).
As a religious person, I know that some of this humor comes at my expense, but I love it nonetheless. Even if it's not always "fair," it serves as a corrective to the self-righteousness to which religious people so frequently fall prey. It also serves as a welcome reminder of how people outside the religious world see us. To an outsider, removing a foreskin or refraining from eating pork may indeed seem weird. (If you are a member of a sacred community, searching for holiness and inspired by the texts and rituals of your ancient religious tradition, you obviously see these matters differently.)
I also recognize that it is simply a good idea for people to laugh at themselves from time to time. As a liberal in both the political and the religious realms, I know that I have some inconsistent, imprecise, do-good ideas, and it is funny when comedians and satirists point that out, even if their words may occasionally offend my sensibilities. To the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which engages in screeching attacks on Stewart, my advice would be: Lighten up. I am also quick to acknowledge that the Jewish community, endlessly sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitism, is often the American religious group least able to laugh at itself. Imagine that Trey Parker and Matt Stone had written a play entitled "The Book of Judaism," dealing not with Mormon youth but with black-coated Hasidic youth. How would we Jews have responded to that?
Nonetheless, it is a real a stretch to see Stewart as a teacher of religion. True, his interviews on religious matters, as on everything else, are always civil; see, for example, his discussion with Mike Huckabee. But the fact is that while he avoids anger and bitterness, his jokes and skits on religion have a mocking, dismissive tone. As an ethnic Jew, Stewart does not appear to have a religious bone in his body, and his jokes -- even at their most hilarious -- are the jokes of a man who cannot imagine what religious belief and observance look like and feel like. Those who are funniest about religion are usually those who have experienced religion's absurdities from within, and who laugh at religion even as they retain some affection for it (and perhaps even a measure of belief). That is why Stephen Colbert, a practicing Catholic, is funnier about religion than is Stewart -- a point hinted at by Oppenheimer in his article.
Trey and Stone, in "The Book of Mormon," are wickedly funny and a bit cruel about Mormon theology, and they remind us of the role that ego plays in motivating even the most traditional believer. At the same time, their musical is suffused with an appreciation for the vitality, exuberance and altruism of Mormonism -- and of all religions at their best. This is precisely what Stewart's comedy is lacking.
Oppenheimer suggests that Stewart's show will help skeptics and the uninitiated to talk about religion. I doubt it. Hearing Stewart's mocking and dismissive tone, skeptics and the uninitiated are likely to walk away with a mocking and dismissive tone of their own. So let us accept Jon Stewart for what he is: a national treasure who is a very, very funny man. But if it is religious teachers that we are looking for, let us look somewhere else.