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.