I do not think that “interview” between Stephen Colbert and Bart Ehrman means what you think it means.

There’s been a lot of changes going on recently. I’ve already experienced so many changes in 2014  that the past several months have  been like one big reminder that time gets away from us, and the future just keeps rushing on in. Some of these have been major changes, and the impact of the major ones highlights the minor ones. And one of the minor ones that have had something of an impact on me is that David Letterman will be leaving late night TV.

And I’m not even what could be called a faithful viewer of Letterman. I’m not always watching TV of any sort late at night, and when I have he’s actually annoyed me in some pretty major ways. So much so, that a few years ago I went away to Leno for several years when I actually did happen to be in front of a TV after 10:30. But, my official endorsement of Letterman is that he’s extremely funny and a gifted host. And he’s been on TV practically every single week night since I’ve been alive. So I’ll miss seeing him on.

In this new era, Stephen Colbert, the long-time creator and host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, will be taking his place. And since that was announced just recently, the buzz around him this Eastertide has renewed interest in an interview he did several years ago on his show with Bart Ehrman, an agnostic formerly Christian New Testament scholar at UNC Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert ReportIn this episode, Ehrman is on the show not necessarily to discuss his work (because a “discussion” isn’t exactly what you get on The Colbert Report), but basically just to sit as a target for Colbert as he fires off his comedic routine impersonating a super-obnoxious, hyper-conservative talk show host. Ehrman, as the guest (from whom Colbert always hilariously steals the applause from even as he welcomes them), is supposed to act as the target for Colbert’s interruptions and retorts and snarky remarks while his recent book serves as the topic (or, at least what the topic is “supposed to be”). For this interview, the “topic” is the release of Ehrman’s book, Jesus Interrupted–Ehrman’s overview of what he sees as contradictions in the New Testament.

Here’s the point: I keep having to use scare quotes to describe all of this, because it’s not a real interview. This is satire.

The problem is that the video of this interview is being passed around on social media by Christians celebrating it as a big defeat of the non-believing scholar by the Christian talk show host. And it all has probably been spurred, or at least supported, by the Christian Post recently publishing it online under the headline “Bible Critic Says Jesus Isn’t God, Stephen Colbert Leaves Him Speechless – You’ll Be Cheering at the End.”

This is all rather problematic, because of three major reasons:

  • Reason #1: While, yes, (the real) Colbert appears to be a devout Catholic, he’s not the obnoxious hyper-conservative that he portrays on his show. This is why there’s been anticipation building about Colbert’s character as host of The Late Show. He has responded by confirming that he will indeed be doing the show as himself, not as his character on The Colbert Report. There’s a reason why people are wondering what that’s going to look like. They haven’t seen much of it before. So, when Colbert is talking with (at) Ehrman, it is satire. Colbert, in posing challenges to Ehrman, is actually at the same time making fun of his own challenges.

Well, ok, but even if he’s not being 100% genuine, Colbert is still refuting Ehrman’s points, right? And shouldn’t I just stop not-picking and be satisfied that he’s doing so even if many people may not realize that he’s playing a satirical character? Well, unforunately, no, because:

  • Reason #2 –> Colbert’s challenges are awful. But that’s the point. This isn’t a problem if you recognize that this is entertainment, and I wouldn’t even begin to fault Colbert for it because he is impersonating a sort of fictional character that shares his name. It would be just as big a mistake to fault Colbert’s points as it would be to embrace them as legitimate.

And this is why I write about it–Christians misinterpreting Colbert’s interaction with Ehrman as genuine, and then taking that and upholding it as a praiseworthy model for emulation for how Christians (or anyone, for that matter) ought to engage in conversation with people who believe differently than they do stretches and breaks the extent of what I can tolerate.

But again, I can’t fault Colbert. I can only fault (and hopefully help to correct) those who misunderstand what Colbert is doing and think that it is actually worth celebrating, and heaven-forbid, worth imitating.

If we think not listening, constantly interrupting, and taking the “LALALALALA I can’t hear you LALALALALA” approach to conversations with non-Christians is the way to do things, we’ve got a much bigger problem than supposed contradictions in the Bible.

  • And this brings us to reason #3 why this entire flurry of excitement is completely misguided: Contrary to the Christian Post headline, Ehrman never says that Jesus is not God, and he is not left speechless. Though he might actually like it if people stopped believing in Christianity as he did, his goal and his work as an author does not directly and explicitly challenge the truth of Christianity, or the divinity of Jesus.

Now, the “discussion” does immediately center on the truth of Christianity, but–that’s not Ehrman’s doing. Ehrman is there to have a discussion (under a comedic guise, remember) about his book detailing what he sees as contradictions in the Bible, but the discussion turns immediately to the truth of Christianity. These are two different things. The question of contradictions in the Bible is not the same question as the question of the truth of Christianity.

It is Colbert’s character that takes the discussion there. As soon as Ehrman starts to provide some details about what his book is about, Colbert interrupts with his sarcastic question, “Ok, so why is the Bible one big lie?” But that’s not Ehrman’s point, that’s not what Ehrman believes (even as an agnostic former Christian), and that’s not what Ehrman is there to “talk about.”

Every time Ehrman starts to talk about some of his points, Colbert interrupts–as he repeatedly does–I hardly think this is worth celebrating. “What are you talking about, Jesus was the Son of GOD,” Colbert says. “Even Jesus recognized that. You read the Gospel of John, ever?”

Three points:

  • Ehrman doesn’t write about whether Jesus was (or is) the Son of God. And the conversation was not taken by Ehrman to whether Jesus actually was the Son of God. It was taken here by Colbert.
  • Colbert goes straight to John in his sarcastic “challenge” to what Ehrman is saying, which reveals an actual point Ehrman could talk at length about (given the chance), and which he does write about in his book that he’s “there to discuss.” This point is how different John is from the rest of the Gospels, and why.
  • And, of course, Ehrman has read John. If you take Colbert’s character literally here, it gives the impression that Ehrman is out to wreck the Christian’s faith but that he hasn’t actually reckoned with what Jesus said in John. Of course Ehrman has read John. He’s completely capable of reading it in its original Greek, and his scholarly expertise is in the manuscript traditions (the copies and copies and copies made of biblical documents like the Gospel of John) that would actually tell us about about how that original text of John has come down to us. So, Ehrman is aware of the content of John. Just saying “But Jesus said he was!” isn’t a worthy response to Ehrman’s points (had he the chance to make them), primarily because it’s not even dealing with the substance of Ehrman’s work. A worthy response would be, rather, to then deal with the question of whether Jesus actually did make those claims, what they mean, and why it matters either way. But, again, I’m not faulting Colbert! He’s not trying to engage Ehrman in a serious way, and within the context of his satirical show, he’s not even supposed to. But if we still want to think that he is serious, are we going to embrace his point about Matthew, Mark, and Luke being rough drafts that don’t quite get things right until John finally does?

“You know the early Jews better than the early Jews?” Taken seriously, Ehrman can’t comment on early Jews because by doing so he’s saying he knows more about them than they do. This is nonsensical. He’s not trying to understand them better than they did – he’s just trying to understand the early Jews better than people do today! But, nonsensical as it is, it works well for Colbert’s show.

What’s the Son of a Duck? A duck! So the son of God is God, right? In Old Testament Israelite religion, “son of God” does indeed refer to non-divine beings, as Ehrman says. It refers to humans and angels. But, fitting better with the duck analogy, in Greco-Roman religion a son of god was a god, but not God. The son of Zeus was not Zeus, but Hercules.

And then, the elephant analogy that supposedly leaves Ehrman speechless. It might be a good analogy for something somewhere, but not here. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t deal with either contradictions in the Bible, or how the Gospel authors shaped their accounts, or how we read the Gospel accounts, or even the truth of Christianity–which is what Colbert made the conversation about in the first place.

So if we’re going to (wrongly) take Colbert literally, I fail to see what point Ehrman is missing so that the elephant analogy has any meaning or significance at all.

He’s not taking Ehrman to task–he’s playing the hyper-conservative, obnoxious know-it-all that has always been his satirical character on The Colbert Report. Ehrman wasn’t “owned.” He wasn’t quiet because he didn’t have anything to say, he himself was playing along the whole time, knowing full-well that the show was satirical. He didn’t have to fight to get his point heard, because that wasn’t the point. The Colbert Report gives him publicity for his work, and that’s it. The rest is fun and games. “I am divine and you are the branches.” Ehrman is completely relaxed so as to even let loose a bad pun.

And if you actually know anything about Ehrman other than that he’s supposed to be the bad guy, he’s not prone to be left speechless by anyone. Even in a debate he did with N.T. Wright, who is without a doubt the most formidable representative of the more “conservative” side of biblical scholarship, with whom I would side going into the debate and with whom I ended up siding with at its conclusion, Ehrman is anything but left speechless.

Now Ehrman clearly has an axe to grind. As a former Christian who is now agnostic, he is clearly biased against Christianity. I don’t think it’s his goal in life to get people to renounce Christianity, but the tone of his work (or at least the titles given to it by the publishers) doesn’t sit real well with me because it does seem geared to not just teach people about early Christianity but to at least challenge their faith, even if this is not what he is overtly doing. So it’s a little odd for me to offer such a defense of Ehrman, as I have. But then again, his books are well-written and informative and point out things that Christians need to consider. And everyone would see this if they actually read his books. 

I’m not prone to cover hot topics, but it matters that Christians can actually think in an informed, reasonable way, that we study the Bible and its ancient contexts, that we’re able to educate our own people and talk intelligently, respectfully with people who believe differently in a way that’s beneficial for both parties. I think we’re in need of urgent correction if we jump on false opportunities like misinterpreting a satirical “interview,” and hailing it as a victory for our side and a defeat for the other when the only real lesson we can learn from it is what not to do if what we really do want to do is represent Jesus well and listen before we respond.

That’s not what Colbert does, and thankfully that’s not what he’s expected to do while using his fake persona on The Colbert Report. And for what it’s worth, the Bart Ehrman episode is pretty amusing. Colbert is a funny man. I look forward to seeing a fellow believer–in his real persona, no less!–host The Late Show. 

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2 comments on “I do not think that “interview” between Stephen Colbert and Bart Ehrman means what you think it means.

  1. charlieschliesser says:

    What a well thought out, well written explanation. I’m sometimes surprised that people even go on Colbert considering the fruits of their labor are mocked in a very short segment – seems like a lot of energy is exerted for a potentially bad bit of PR – but as you point out they get press and the rest is fun and games.

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