Stephen Colbert, GK Chesterton, and Conversations of Hope

Here’s a shout-out to ACE’s own Patrick R. Manning for his cover story in the latest America magazine, noting that TV’s Stephen Colbert offers inspiration to catechists with his threefold approach: “delight, instruct, and persuade.”

This connection between the ability to delight people and the ability to persuade them, an idea Patrick attributes to St. Augustine, is worth pondering. The combination makes me think of my hero in matters of evangelization (and all constructive argumentation), the renowned British author G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton, a genius who lived in the first half of the 20th century and famously visited Notre Dame in 1930, took delight in writing about nearly everything and trying to convince his readers of truths he had drawn  from his reason and his Catholic faith. His efforts at persuasion often included delighting his readers in various ways—through witty observations and brain-tickling paradoxes, for example.

He saw dangers arising in the culture around him, but he found joy in his faith, so he maintained a charismatic demeanor. He gave so many people consistent delight that they became loyal readers throughout his career as journalist/author/poet/playwright.

“He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head,” Chesterton wrote in Tremendous Trifles in 1909.

Perhaps we do need to more consciously and consistently combine delight and persuasion in our dialogues about faith and values in 2014. It works for Colbert as he energizes his audience and prods them to think between the lines of the news stories of the day. He must be a great catechist in his own Catholic parish in New Jersey.

I raise  one caveat: Any delight or comedy we use in the New Evangelization, or in secular civil discourse, has to be approached with prudence, purpose, and moderation. The confusion of “news coverage” with crude satire, slapstick, cynicism, mockery, or nihilism has proliferated in some circles. This blurring  of lines is counterproductive for teachers and learners alike. We need to emulate Colbert when he quests comically for “truthiness” and sustains the dignity of himself, his subjects, and his audience amid his mischief. A sense of dignity is essential for true delight and persuasion to occur.

I am reminded of the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, a year ago, in which he noted that recovering persuasion as a goal and skill in our national discourse will help society to regain a sense of civility. That, in turn, would pave a broader road of dialogue for the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and smart solutions for today’s great challenges.

Father Jenkins put it this way: “If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them.”

The Colbert Report takes these prescriptions seriously, partly because they also happen to work for building audiences. Indeed, these approaches cause delight. They make people laugh, partly because Colbert himself is clearly enjoying himself as he embraces this dialogue with people. He is undaunted by this Chestertonian dialectic between  tragedy in the heart and comedy in the head, between the weakness and the wonder of human life which together point us toward God. The discovery of hope as one walks the way of the cross is a theological insight that can indeed delight people. It just happens to be a foundational insight of the Congregation of Holy Cross, with its watchwords “Ave crux, spes unica” — Hail the cross, our only hope.

So thanks to Patrick Manning for pointing us toward an evangelization that combines delight, persuasion, and civility in our engagement with cultural issues and our encounters with individuals—whether they be students, TV viewers, book readers, or simply fellow citizens. Good evangelization opens the door to good catechesis as the participants journey together toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As Chesterton would testify, it’s the work of a lifetime—and longer—but our stubborn rejection of dejection is really the only way to communicate, and to live.

Editor’s note added May 18, 2017: Sometimes, darkness seems to overwhelm delight. I’ve been wanting to revisit this post I wrote in 2014 for some time, prompted by the March 12 piece on late-night TV in The New York Times. I hereby add this cautionary note. The delight that I and Patrick Manning (cited above) and many others saw as a constructive quality of “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert often morphs into mockery and schadenfreude in Colbert’s monologues these days.

Regardless of what people may think about President Trump and what will be history’s judgment of the Trump administration, Colbert’s often vulgar political jokes risk shaping a legacy of toxic American discourse. This otherwise smart Catholic comedian may want to reflect on his legacy during his occasional “Midnight Confessions” segment. This “OnWord” post from 2014 compared Colbert to G.K. Chesterton as a source of delight who helped people suspend their disbelief and engage in the human drama with a sense of wonder and hope. Now, I reluctantly am suspending my belief in Colbert’s desire to have this kind of impact. Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is closer to the simple Christian goal of helping one’s audience go to bed with a smile on their faces–to sleep, perchance to dream.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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