#ThinkerThursdays: Jonathan Merritt (Part II)

#ThinkerThursdays is a series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. 

This is the sixth interview of the series, featuring Jonathan Merritt, who is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. He is the author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.

 Part 1 focused on Merritt’s thoughts on the central challenge that the church faces for the next decade. This is Part 2, which dives into what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of Merritt’s writing and thinking.

Q. We’ve discussed earlier the trends, challenges and opportunities that the church faces. What is your role in all of this? How do you think of your vocation?

Many voices in the church see themselves as evangelists for the right answer and situate themselves within a particular Christian subgroup. I see myself as an advocate for the right questions, to be an advocate for what I believe is the truth. As a result, people on the left and right politically and theologically often say they find me unpredictable. And I think this is exactly what a columnist should be.

Q. You see yourself as advocating for the truth – what’s your criteria for discerning what is true?

What you will often find in my writing is a re-emerging framework of myth-busting and fact-finding. For example, years ago, individuals were having conversations about transgender people without considering the reality of intersex persons. So I attempted to interject facts about this overlooked topic. Truth, for me, is an attempt to get at an issue while having all the facts available. Often what I am doing is interjecting facts that are absent or placing what I believe is appropriate weight on facts that have been devalued in conversations.

Q. I’ve appreciated that you try to understand a situation first in all its aspects before offering a judgment in your writing. A lot of writing from Christians can be sermonic – a fact or two, followed by a string of verses, and then lots of commentary. But I’m also curious how your personal background colors your search for truth or “facts.”

Every theology and every political opinion is contextual. White evangelicals tend to contextualize everything except for their own. I do not. I fully accept the way that I see the world is colored by being raised in the home of a conservative, Southern Baptist minister in the Bible Belt, as well as colored by my educational experiences, the amount of world travel that I’ve done and even living in New York City now. I represent a fragment of the “capital T truth — a truth that is contextualized by my own life experiences. I think that God intends for a symphony of voices from various perspectives to be heard alongside each other so that out of that the music of the “capital T Truth” can be observed.

Q. Can you elaborate on how your personal experiences have shaped your current vocation?

Many people who were raised in conservative, evangelical homes are reactionary or flat-out bitter. I am not angry about the way I was raised. I am profoundly grateful. It taught me a respect for the Christian Scriptures, and in many ways gave me an appreciation for some would term “traditional values,” such as the power of a stable marriage. I have a great relationship with my dad, even though we disagree on many issues.  

On the other hand, I’ve been to 40 or more countries in almost every region of the world. I spent my 30th birthday in Morocco, where I was staying with a local family. During Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to engage in radical hospitality. As a result, the Muslim family that I was staying with attempted to make me an American-style birthday cake and to sing in broken English, “Happy Birthday.” It was a simple but profound act of hospitality given to me after a day of intense fasting, when they were clearly malnourished.

Often, Muslims are caricatured as violent or simply anti-American. It was a moment when I saw that many Muslims are good people who try to love their families and their neighbors, who worship a God who goes by a different name, and who practice a religion that is in many ways dissimilar to ours — but they are so much like us. If only we would take the time to get to know them.

Another thing that has really affected the way that I live out my vocation is my graduate education. I did two graduate degrees — one in Southeastern Baptist Seminary, which is a conservative Southern Baptist school, and one in the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, a moderate, liberal divinity school that is associated with the mainline Methodist church.

Southeastern was a confessional school, which means they have specific and rigid theological convictions in which they attempt train their students. Candler was a contextual school, which means it did not hold to rigid theological convictions so much as it attempted to bring together a host of individuals from various contexts around theological ideas to critique one another. As a result, I see the value of having very strong convictions and defending those convictions with tenacity. But I also see the value of attempting to view issues from other perspectives that are not my own.

So whenever I am thinking about something, I want to make sure that my own convictions are clearly articulated, while at the same time asking the question, “What might a person of color think about this? Or what might a woman think about this? An LGBT person? A non-American? A Catholic? A non-Christian?”

Through this process, sometimes I become more confident in my conviction, and yet at other times I find that my conviction is altered in some way.

Read Part I of this interview.


#ThinkerThursdays: Jonathan Merritt (Part I)

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. 

This is the sixth interview of the series, featuring Jonathan Merritt. This interview is unusually broken up in two parts. Part I focuses on Merritt’s thoughts on the central challenge that the church faces for the next decade. Part II will dive more into what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of Merritt’s writing and thinking.

Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. He is the author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.

Q. What is the greatest challenge for churches in the next ten years? 

It will undoubtedly be the issue of sexuality. The church, particularly conservative churches, are now attempting to find ways to maintain what they believe to be theological orthodoxy, while at the same time asserting themselves as a relevant and compassionate voice in 21st century American culture.

Q. How possible is that in a culture where you are immediately asked to take a side: Are you homophobic or not? LGBT-affirming or not?  Do you think that middle space between traditional orthodoxy and cultural relevancy, between doctrine and compassion, is viable?

Right now, Christians who claim to be in the middle tend to be on the right fringe with a quasi-compassionate view painted over it. So-called “middle-ground” Christians are changing their behaviors only in terms of method.

But it is not the ways that we talk that are primarily the problem, but the ways that we behave: there is a general malaise when it comes to Christian action about the suicide epidemic among LGBT Christians, the homelessness epidemic among LGBT Christians, and untold psychological effects that are experienced by LGBT individuals, oftentimes exacerbated by the rhetoric of the church. You know the apostle John was unambiguous when he said, “You can say you love someone, but if you do not do love, you are a liar.” The church is going to have tangible, visible and aggressive expressions of what it means to love LGBT persons. And we have yet to see that.

Q. Do you even think the middle ground is theoretically possible in our society? Or will sexuality become such a black-and-white issue that having a “middle position” would be equivalent to being a “nice racist”?

I do think its possible that individuals who hold to conservative theology could carve out a middle ground by coupling their theological proclamations with visible and tangible expressions of loving, inclusive and compassionate behaviors.

There is precedent in terms of the way that conservative churches have responded to the issue of divorce, another deeply personal issue that is connected to the sexuality issue because it touches on issues of marriage and family.

Thirty years ago, if a conservative pastor talked about divorce, he had to couple with that with sweeping condemnations of divorce itself. Today, there are a whole host of churches today that believe that divorce is actually something that God hates — and yet at the same time they provide opportunities for the divorced to participate fully in congregational life.

If the church can model a way forward in terms of sexuality that is similar to issues like divorce, I think that there is a middle ground that is not only possible but could be fervent soil for a new expression of what it means to follow Jesus as a conservative Christian.

Q. Are you hopeful that conservative churches will change?

I am hopeful. Because most conservative Christians I know are not people of hate. They have bought into arguments — fallacious arguments about slippery slopes — and they have been inundated with scare tactics about what the future will hold if they even consider welcoming LGBT people into their congregations.  

The church heretofore has had very little reason, practically speaking, to radically rethink the way it relates to the LGBT community. The American church - in particular the evangelical church - has been since the late 20th century relatively wealthy and well-populated. Both of those trends are moving in the other direction.

Evangelical churches, throughout history, are fiercely pragmatic. They will notice when people stop filling the pews. They are, at their core, evangelical. And so they will do whatever it takes to reach people and love people in the long run.  

Q. Where within the church do you see a particular beacon of hope?  

Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ & Culture, which is incredibly influential to this day about different relationships of Jesus - and by extension the Christian faith - to culture. There was the model of “Christ against culture,” “Christ of culture,” “Christ above culture,” and so on.

Niebuhr presented the idea that in communities where traditionalism is beginning to decline, and secularism or pluralism is starting to take hold, “Christ is against culture.” In a place like New York where those transformations are already complete, we are already to see Christ and the Christian faith in the model that Niebuhr believed to be was the most biblical: Christ as the transformer of culture.

New York is a place that makes me hopeful about the future of the Christian faith in an increasingly postmodern, pluralistic America. It is a place where social lives are given precedent over spiritual lives, and “Sunday Best” is saved for Monday to Friday. And yet, with trained eye, one can see God at work in the most astounding ways. There are incredibly vibrant religious communities here, where Christians, many of them young, are wrestling with incredibly sophisticated questions about what it means to follow Jesus in such a time as this.

It gives me hope because in some ways when you look at New York, you are looking at America’s future. New York is at least ten years ahead of the heartland and the fly-over state and the Bible Belt in so many ways — and yet we see in New York an incredible Christian resilience that I think reminds us that the faith will endure and perhaps even thrive in the most daunting of circumstances.

If that is the future of the Christian faith, we should be confident that the Christian faith’s best days in this country might be yet to come. 

Stay tuned for Part II which will be posted next Thursday. 

#ThinkerThursdays: Alan Noble, Cofounder of Christ & Pop Culture

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. We hope to illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking (I conduct the interviews with Michael's help). This is the fifth of the series. 

Alan Noble (@thealannoble) is Co-Founder & Managing Editor at Christ and Pop Culture and Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. He has written for The Atlantic, First Things, and Christianity Today. After graduating from Baylor University with a Ph.D. in twentieth-century America literature, he is currently, an Assistant Professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.

"Christ and Pop Culture" seems to cover a wide range of topics, from media to politics to church culture. Why “pop culture”?

 It started in November 2007, when there was far less of an interest in talking about popular culture. Either there was an interest in high culture or you were warned about low culture; there was not a lot of thoughtful commentary on popular culture, even though it is one of the few shared experiences we have as a culture.

I would make the case that most things are popular culture… If we want to drop the “popular” part we could, but we want to present the issues at a popular level. There are many accessible and thoughtful Christian publications covering popular culture, although there are far more than when we started.

I recall you tweeting a while ago asking, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, Christians to not turn the #RedCups fiasco into a pessimistic diagnosis of evangelical culture. How do you know when something is actually important to comment on, or when something is only important because people are commenting on it?

We do make decisions. There are Christian works that come out that we really think are harmful, but if we think they aren’t going to gain much traction anyway, we just ignore them. We ask ourselves, “Are we stirring the pot or are we being edifying?” 

We try to ask the question, “What is going to be helpful to the readers?” Not informative or pleasing, but what do we believe is going to bless them, help them love neighbors better, or be better voters. This means that we will sometimes write about things that they won’t want to read, that there will be resistance, because we’re challenging some assumptions, although we try to tackle everything charitably.  

When something hits the news, we’ll often be the last to write about it. And that’s because we discuss our ideas internally first. We have a private Facebook group where we work through ideas, instead of just getting a hot take or rehashing outrage. Nobody needs another piece on the latest trend – even though if we wrote it, we’d get a lot of traffic. That’s our guiding principle: what would edify our readers.

You mention that you try to challenge assumptions. Who are you challenging, in particular?  

Our members span the theological spectrum, even though we are fairly evangelical and orthodox, but I think of our audience primarily as evangelical Christians who tend to skew conservative theologically and politically. We try to establish trust and goodwill with our readers with some pieces, so that when we do give them a piece that challenges them, they will respect our view.

For instance, we are opposed to abortion, but if some conservative politician is advocating a policy that will be harmful to single mothers, then we are likely to challenge what that politician is doing, even if he is conservative and pro-life. We are not trying to be against conservatives – rather, challenging some of their assumptions is an act of love.

By trying to challenge somewhat conservative evangelicals from within, rather than from without, you seem to be trying to carve out some sort of middle ground. As our political culture becomes more polarized, what is the future of this middle ground?

 The fear I have is that we are working against technology and platforms that encourage thin interactions about politics, religion, etc. Statements are so easy to make, share, re-tweet; technology is more conducive to polarizing politics because of that lack of reflection, empathy and all sorts of things. 

I do see some hope in that people tend to be more aware of the effects of technology, on them, so that’s promising. Also you have a whole generation of evangelicals who grew up after the Religious Right who are very disillusioned with the automatic support of a party as the proper way to live and do politics. I see some hope there as well.

Lastly, by publishing online I’m publishing much more broadly than my particular, intended audience. I need to find ways to be winsome. At Christ and Pop Culture, we write knowing that other groups, on different sides of the political and religious spectrum, are reading us. 

Does your public writing and thinking ever enter into the classroom?

I don’t have too much time to make those connections, but I do try to help my students see the relevance of their studies to their world. For instance, in my Western Civilization class, we looked at the French poem, The Song of Roland, which is this text about a knight in Charlemagne’s’ service who leads the rear guard. In the text, Charlemagne proclaims that those who do not convert to Christianity will be killed. Today, we think that this is a radical Islamic attitude, but here we have this Christian text saying the same thing.

As a professor, how do you handle texts full of violence or otherwise that might be triggering for certain students, in light of the current debates?

I think of it as my obligation to love my students. The literature and history of Western Civilization is full of rape and violence, unfortunately, and there is a high likelihood that some my students have experienced sexual assault or abuse in some way. So, when I teach, I treat the subject matter seriously, and try not to dwell on certain details, and most of all, I try to look at my students’ eyes when I teach, so I can see how they are reacting.

I don’t try to avoid those texts, however, but if a student were so sensitive to certain triggers that they needed to not read the text, I would be happy to accommodate them if they spoke to me. I see a lot of my job as loving my students and reaching out to them.



#ThinkerThursdays: Sharon Hodde Miller

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. We hope to illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking (I conduct the interviews with Michael's help). This is the fifth of the series. 

Sharon Hodde Miller (PhD), a writer, speaker, wife, and mother, is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s blog by women, Her.meneutics. She has written for Relevant(in)couragePropelGifted for Leadership, LifeWay’s Collegiate magazine, and The Gospel Project blog, in addition to her own blog, She also contributed to the recently released NIV Bible for Women. She completed her PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is married to Ike Miller and is the mother of Isaac and Coen; they live in the Raleigh/Durham area. 


Q. You wrote a blogpost on how we tend to envy other people’s gifts, instead of asking what particular influence God has given you. You end it by asking, “Where do you feel called to exercise influence?” How would you answer that question for yourself? 

That’s something that I’m still figuring out. When I think about who I feel called to influence, I tend to think of women like my friends – women at my church, in my neighborhood, young moms, women who are a lot like me. However, what makes my call sort of interesting is that, even though I feel called to that audience, I have this weird amount of academic training. I have a PhD, and I like studying and talking about more academic things, so my challenge is to take some of those lofty ideas and make them accessible to the women who are around me and in my world.

Q. What kinds of ideas specifically?

I really want to draw women deeper in their faith. When you look at many of the messages that are oriented towards women, there is a definite self-help vein, and it’s easy to get stuck in it. Don’t get me wrong -- that has its place and is important. There are a lot of women who have real wounds, and they need to know God loves and affirms them. But I would really love to see women get past that point, where they are not just surviving or using faith as a lifeline, but also thriving, living as “more than conquerors.”

Q. Interesting – do you feel that women receive these “surviving” messages more than men? 

I do, and I think part of the reason is that when you look at female writers, pastors, and speakers, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that their platform is often based on their “story”—it’s usually based on having survived or overcome something very difficult. Whereas with men, that’s a lot less common – their platform is often based on the fact that they went to seminary, and that’s what gives them their authority. 

When I think of messages directed at women, another analogy that comes to mind is that of running the race of faith. There are a lot of people who are on the sidelines, because they have been wounded. They need to be cared for and healed before they can get back in the race. But there are a lot of women that are ready to run. They need to be equipped, encouraged, and challenged to run the race. The thing that gets me excited is challenging women to run that race. 

Q. Could you give me an example of something you wrote that exemplifies this “run the race” message?

I wrote a blogpost called, “Stop looking in the mirror,” that was about how a lot of Christian teachings for women tell women to look at themselves “through” Christ: “this is who you are, who he made you to be, who you are in him.” This message can become self-focused. It’s like you’re looking in a mirror with a Jesus tint. When you do this, you aren’t fully focused on God, but on yourself. My mission, then, is to help free women from themselves, from self-focus, and to be focused on loving God and loving others.  

Another thing that I’ve written about periodically on my blog, which is something I’ve really wrestled with, is dealing with issues such as racial reconciliation, issues that are bigger than our immediate world. When you have small kids, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have time to deal with all that’s going on in the world around you. But I don’t think having kids is a “get out of jail free” card from caring about things outside the home; we are still called to care about the broader world because God cares about it. It’s not an either-or. 

That’s why I’ve tried to periodically leverage my influence within my own audience, to get them to see issues that I’m not always sure they are seeing. I’ve been nervous about doing that, and it’s taken some courage, because I’m afraid people won’t care, and that they’ll stop reading.

Especially with racial reconciliation. Most of my readers are white, so I do worry they’ll tune out. But I’ve really challenged myself to write in a way that is accessible for women who are like me, and shine a spotlight on things that really matter. That way I’m not just telling people to run the race; I’m trying to exemplify it myself. 

Q. What was the reader response when you wrote on racial reconciliation?

I’ve been really, really encouraged. The majority has been positive. One thing that has really blessed me is hearing from African-Americans who appreciate what I’m doing, and take the time to contact me and say that what I’m doing is important, and that they feel heard. To me, that’s like 90% of the battle. I’ve gotten positive responses from my white friends as well, who maybe wouldn’t have thought about issues of race before, and that’s really encouraging too. When it comes to racial reconciliation, I can’t turn the Titanic in a day, but it makes me feel like I’m doing my part; I’m stewarding my little corner. 

Q. What are your current questions? 

For my doctoral research, I interviewed women at three different evangelical seminaries and talked to them about why they were there, and what encouraged them to get their MDiv, especially since not many evangelical women enroll. The heart behind my research was this: How do we identify and cultivate the gifts of women? 

The women I interviewed were all enrolled in seminaries that do not support the ordination of women, and I did that intentionally. I was afraid that if I interviewed women at more progressive seminaries, a conservative church might think, “Oh, those findings aren’t relevant for us.” All along, my agenda was not, “How do we get more women ordained?” but instead, “How do I help women use their gifts in whatever tradition they belong to?” 

One thing that was really encouraging was that a lot of the women were in seminary because their pastors had identified their gifts and encouraged them to go to ministry. I was happy to shine a spotlight on pastors who are working within the boundaries of their tradition, but are still affirming women. 

Once I completed my research, I discovered that the number one reason women went to seminary was their church. Most of the women I interviewed had people in their lives who identified their gifts, and were willing to pour into them and grow their gifts. I think that is consistent with what Scripture says about the church: that God gives our gifts for the benefit of the body of Christ, and it’s the role of the body of Christ to manage those gifts. 

Now, my question is, “How do I get this information out there?” Most of all, how do I get it into the hands of pastors, because they have the most influence. On the ground, it’s pastors and church leaders who have the biggest impact on whether or not these women decide to pursue ministry. I want to help church leaders know the breadth of their influence, and steward it well.


#ThinkerThursdays: Kate Shellnutt, editor of her.meneutics

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. We hope to illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking (I conduct the interviews with Michael's help). This is the fourth of the series. 

Kate Shellnutt (@kateshellnutt) is an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine. She manages the social media accounts for @CTmagazine and @CT_women and edits the popular site by women, Her.meneutics

Q. You have interviewed Carly Fiorina and now Ben Carson for Christianity Today (CT). What shapes your approach to politics?

A lot of my political philosophy and interests is really shaped by my background in journalism. I almost see it as something to observe as a journalist first – I’m interested in what makes news, what unsettles people, what shakes people. I’m just of the opinion, although I know it’s not a popular opinion, that it is actually necessary that we have substantial coverage of the race at this point. If this person is going to be the leader of our country, I do think we should spend more than a year vetting and getting to know who that person will be. 

 Q. One of the more political articles I saw on her.meneutics was an op-ed by Ekemini Uwan on why presidential candidates can’t ignore BlackLivesMatter.  The writer is a woman, but she doesn’t address gender or women in her article at all. Why did you guys decide to place it in the her.meneutics section?

 Her.meneutics site is a site by women for everyone; it’s not a site for women or for women’s issues exclusively. We think women have a unique perspective on general issues of interest to everyone, such as politics, economy, work, theology, church life. Sometimes you can point to it and say, “Yes this is a woman’s perspective,” and sometimes it just happens to be written by a woman, and I think those dual purposes are fine.

A third of our readers are men. I get a lot of emails and tweets from men who say, “I know I’m not supposed to be reading Her.meneutics, but this thing spoke to me.” I always have to assure them that you are not alone, and this is not a site for women, it is a site by women.

Q. What is the purpose of having a “women’s voices” section when you could spread those voices throughout the site and magazine? Won’t it create a “ghetto-ization” of women’s voices?

I understand the concern, but in reality one of the purposes of Her.meneutics was to introduce CT to more female writers to funnel into the magazine. In the past six years since we’ve existed, the proportion of women who are writing for the CT site, magazine and cover stories have all increased. A lot of the boundaries in the site are really flexible; a Her.meneutics story might be the lead in the CT magazine. I’m happy that many of my writers have written for CT, the main site, and other publications — it’s a win-win-win.

Q. Every media and press outlet is trying to figure out how to survive and thrive in the current changing climate. As an editor at CT, could you speak to what CT’s strategy looks like?

One of our ministry initiatives or campaigns is “Beautiful Orthodoxy.” It’s a philosophy of a way of reporting our stories that focuses on where can we be pointing to the good, beautiful or true. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that we give a bit more nuance and care in the stories we care about and to treat the subjects in our story with honor and give readers a takeaway that is hopeful. It’s almost quietly revolutionary.

This is the oldest truth there is, but it is so refreshing in an era of hot takes, controversy, debate, being first and being striking. I see it changing me as a journalist, a Christian and a person.

Q. So how has it been changing you?

I’ll want to put out a punchy and edgy angle right away when something happens. But really by waiting a day or two, we’ve gotten writers to write something more deep, profound and not the same as what everyone else is putting up.

Even our design staff will really think through how they present subjects and stories. For instance, they’ll ask, “If this person is a victim, how do we show them not in that way? How do we show them in a way that is respectful and empowering? What does this mean for our color scheme, tone, design of the fonts, etc?”

Q. What’s story are you most proud of?

Our December cover story, “The Divine Rise of Multilevel Marketing.” A lot of women are sellers for multilevel marketing (MLM) companies, and a lot of them are Christian, stay-at-home moms. This is the biggest reported story I worked on.

Q. What do you want churches to take away from this article?

Is there a way that churches can learn from this, or even businesses too? MLM is offering flexible schedules and mentorship that women aren’t getting in the office; a lot of women get more attention and affirmation for success than they would in a typical work environment.

In the church, perhaps there is something to be said about discipleship of one another. Think of a pyramid structure where everyone is always bringing in people, and you are led by the person who brought you in. So there is always a sense of accountability and someone who is cheering for you. I personally wish that women’s ministries looked more like that - a real investment in one another.

Q. Last question: You wrote an article about Jimmy Fallon for CT and you recently tweeted about Aziz Ansari’s Masters of None. What drives your interest in comedy?  

Evangelicals are usually the butt of jokes. There is the mentality that if you actually were an earnest Christian believer, you would be too cheesy to be famous or wouldn’t be in the comedy sphere, because it takes a bit of self-hatred, addiction, or brokenness to have fodder for comedy. So it’s always interesting to me to see people who are genuinely happy or who do seem to have faith, but still can get at some of those feelings.

Q. There is also something about comedy that is able to communicate a pointed message, even one that you might disagree with, in a more palatable way because it is entertaining. Maybe it’s an antidote to our current polarized culture?

That’s probably always been the case. They say the biological evolution of laughter is supposed to be a reflection of your defenses being down. The idea of laughing as a way of saying, “I am not threatened by you right now.” I don’t know what takeaway would be for the church is, but I definitely agree with what you’re positing.

Q. Stephen Colbert often says, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” One of the things he said in an interview with a Catholic outlet was that he thinks fear stops people from giving to others (I wrote an article on Michael’s blog on this, comparing his theology to Pope Francis’).

Yes, there are so many reasons for Christians to let their defenses down. We know that in God’s economy that there is always enough. When some people have more, that does not mean I have less. I can rejoice with those who rejoice. I don’t have to feel threatened by others because I know my security and identity comes from the Lord. There is a real freedom that we have to be joyful and to not take things too seriously because of our identity as Christians.