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Talk to Me, Talk for Me

Over the last few years, I have found it interesting to observe where we turn in times of crisis. Increasingly, it seems that the answer is, “talk show hosts.” Every mass shooting, every natural disaster, every crisis now seems to be followed by a rather predictable ritual. In the hours immediately after the event in question we scurry online and busy ourselves with changing our profile pictures and hash tagging and wearing out the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Later that night or, perhaps, the next night, we all tune in to the talk show hosts. Yesterday, CBC ran a story devoted entirely to what the talk show hosts were saying about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, complete with video clips of each one. They “decried it,” evidently. Whew.

I find this to be a very interesting cultural phenomenon. It’s not that I disagree with what the talk show hosts usually say. Not at all. I find them to be almost invariably articulate and persuasive. They say things that need to be said, in this case, about America’s quite literally insane addiction to guns and their lawmakers’ refusal to take even the most blatantly obvious of measures to stem the tide of mass shootings. They provide language for our grief and catharsis for our rage. They speak earnestly and from the heart. They speak with, dare I say it, “moral authority?”

But where might said moral authority might come from? It is obviously not derived from the position itself. There is nothing inherent to the job description of “talk show host” that would seem to obviously confer moral authority. Talk show hosts interview famous people and make jokes, all to rapturous applause. They are very rich entertainers who make their money off of our interest in and devotion to other very rich entertainers (I suppose it’s not just entertainers… sometimes a politician shows up… but the line between those two has been getting blurrier for some time now). These things have their value, perhaps, but there doesn’t seem to be a straight line between “talk show host” and “moral authority.” At least not one that I can discern. Unless we have finally devolved to the point where being famous and on TV is all that is required for moral authority. But then, there’s Trump, so…

There was a time, of course, when people would turn to religious leaders for words of comfort or wisdom or to offer some moral clarity in times of crisis, but that ship has, rather obviously, sailed. It is a truism to note that we live in post-Christian times. Pastors can (and do) get up on Sundays and speak about events like this, but very often they’re not speaking to many people (certainly nothing in the stratosphere of the talk show hosts!) Add to this the bewildering diversity of religions and custom-made spiritualities cluttering up the marketplace these days and the question for the consumer becomes something of a logistical and pragmatic one: which of these, if any, should we listen to? There’s too many to choose from. How could any one of them presume moral authority?

And then there is the uncomfortable phenomenon of religious leaders virtually tripping over themselves to forfeit whatever shred of influence they might be clinging to in the postmodern West. This morning I read a story from British Columbia about a Christian “pastor” and his wife facing dozens of sexual assault charges connected with a minor in their care. It made me shudder with revulsion. But even leaving aside the stories of gross immorality (and there are, regrettably, no shortage of them), religious leaders forfeit moral authority every day in far less sensational ways, whether it’s through their unwillingness to say what needs to be said or lazily offering up truisms and platitudes in the face of the news of the day (i.e., the aforementioned “thoughts and prayers”). Sometimes, it must be acknowledged (uncomfortably, as a “religious professional), that we seem abundantly capable of discrediting ourselves.

My feelings about all this are, I suppose, mixed. I am grateful to the talk show hosts for saying what needs to be said, even though I suspect that they, like many pastors, are very often preaching to the choir. I don’t imagine many NRA members are tuning in late at night to weigh their convictions against the moral edicts of Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel. On the other hand, I have the occasional predictable twinge of lament that this is what it has come to. Or is it just nostalgia? I guess I just think that we should want and need to anchor our outrage and grief and protest and anger and deep sadness in sturdy truths about who God is and what God wants for human beings and the world rather than the the ethics and spiritualities we construct out of the moral detritus of Christendom and whatever else catches our eye from the shelf. We should need more than a somber four minute monologue before we get back to the famous people. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

At any rate, this is where we live. The moral void must be filled, and fill it we do. There is nothing that so captures our cultural attention and devotion as Hollywood, it seems—its characters, its productions, its ethos. This is where we pour in our tithes and offerings, where we locate our hopes and our fears, where we bow down and worship. Screens are our new cathedrals, and entertainers our new priests.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. But at the least, the Jimmy Kimmels and Trevor Noahs are voicing their outrage. It needs to be voiced. To be quiet is not, I think, a better option. If they didn’t at least do that … . I did notice how Kimmel managed to switch from his 4-min emotional plea for sanity to his usual much lighter engagement of his famous guests. I was kind of hoping he would devote the entire show … or maybe even just cancel it and walk of the stage.

    October 4, 2017
    • I guess I worry that “voicing our outrage” has become something rather formulaic, even banal. It’s something of a rite of passage for the intelligentsia, an expression of orthodoxy, even. These things happen, we “voice our outrage,” we move on. There is perhaps no time or place where people have been better at or more enthusiastic in voicing our outrage as ours.

      But then, the alternative is, what? Yawning, changing the channel, and reconciling ourselves to the status quo? Hardly a better option, I know (and as you rightly say).

      October 5, 2017
  2. I’d say the abundance of guns in the U.S. is one aspect of what John Paul II called the Culture of Death. Other aspects are capital punishment and abortion. Even the consumption of meat depends on the death of animals hidden away on factory farms. Every society, it seems, has a long way to go to become a Culture of Life.

    Talk show hosts have little credibility to me. They are Hollywood, and Hollywood has done more to glorify violence than any other institution I can think of.

    October 4, 2017
    • Yes, a culture of death for sure. And I couldn’t agree more about the role Hollywood plays…

      October 5, 2017
  3. It is lamentable, not that our culture turns to the talk show hosts, but that they seem to be the only ones to turn to. We need more voices – like this post, or other Christian leaders – who will speak up for truth and won’t cower in the shadows of politics. But, while we can lament, we can also start to stand up and offer – not an alternative, but an addition – a voice/shoulder/hand/moral authority based on Christ.

    October 5, 2017
    • Well said, Russell.

      October 5, 2017
  4. Ros #

    Yeast. Mustard seeds. The New Testament, if you think about it, is all about how to live as an insignificant minority and the potential impact that can have on the world. Think there’s something there along the lines of ‘don’t be discouraged’ too 😉

    October 6, 2017
    • I think you’re right—there is something along those lines… 😉

      October 8, 2017
  5. The New York Times published an opinion piece this week calling for the repeal of the 2nd Amendment. That’s what it will take, that and a massive confiscation of hundreds of millions of guns and rifles of all sorts. But this will not happen. Many Americans value highly their gun rights, and they resist even small restrictions on those rights; in the same way abortion rights advocates resist even modest restrains on the availability of abortion. Both groups know the ultimate goal of their opponents, and they don’t want the camel to get its nose under the tent.

    I was thinking today about C.S. Lewis’s claim that a society fully infused with New Testament values would look very liberal in the public sphere of politics and economics, and it would look very conservative in the private sphere of family life. He was on the right track there.

    October 7, 2017
    • Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, Chris—about the prospects for repealing the 2nd amendment (and about its necessity), and about C.S. Lewis’s view of a NT-infused society.

      October 8, 2017

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