Of Little Faith and Liberalism

Lewis Black, Me of Little Faith, New York: Riverhead, 2008

Now even the stand-up comics are embracing godlessness.   First came the scientists, then the pundits, and now Lewis Black and his collection of autobiographical snapshots and pensées, Me of Little Faith.  In a country supposedly under the iron heel of the Christian Right, how heartening the market is embracing this salutary niche brand.

Lewis Black is well known as an exasperated, top-blowing comedian on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.  He has also been the star of several well-received cable specials.  His stock-in-trade is lambasting the powerful and the perfidious; in other words: kicking them down the stairs.

Me of Little Faith is more work in the same trench.  The book is not particularly polemical or materialist; it is a series of funny and often scabrous personal anecdotes about the absurdities of Mormons, the Hale-Bopp Comet cult, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and assorted representatives of conservative/fundamentalist Christian theology in the U.S.  This is the only “godless” book I’ve read in the current bumper crop that takes on topics like Papal Infallibility and explores a 1970s-era Tennessee pot commune.

Other topics include Matrix-style solipsism-mongers, bar mitzvahs, the Amish, and why there are no atheists on flight-delayed commercial airliners.

Me of Little Faith is a quirky, smart gift for friends and relatives who enjoyed the Dave Barry or Joe Queenan you got them last year.  It is polemically anti-Christian, but free of the Yuletide-killing scientific explanations in Dawkins, the snarky anti-Islam chauvinism of Hitchens, and the in-your-face scorched-earth style of Bob Avakian’s Away with All Gods.

Black pulls few punches.  “Let’s face it, if God was, in fact, dead, he did not expire naturally.  Just as Christians are told he died for their sins, God obviously suffered his fatal collapse under the weight of America’s collective, misguided savagery.”

“Can’t you just practice what Jesus preaches and live and good and upright life?” he asks, fed up with a culture of abasement and kow-towing to millionaire preachers and enlightened new age gurus.  His chapter on Jim and Tammy-Fae Baker, and another about the 12-foot-tall animatronic Jesus housed at the Mormon Tabernacle (and which Black compares to a dancing Chuck E. Cheese) gladden all our hearts.

Let me be clear: the author never pushes for any wider political generalizations.  I don’t think he sees the need.  He relates personal psychic and clairvoyant incidents, religious experiences during drug trips, and his sense that his dead brother is acting as his guardian angel.  These mercifully brief sections of the book mean rationalist arguments against the foundations of Christianity devolve into instrumentalism.

Me of Little Faith does not stray very far from the Daily Show brand of liberal political splitting-the-difference liberalism.  “Over the past few years, religious suicide bombers have been making quite a name for themselves,” he writes.  “Which is not surprising — after all, it’s hard to forget someone who blows up half a city block because he doesn’t like the God everybody else is praying to.”

This kind of reactionary even-handedness rules the resistance of the oppressed out-of-order and is beneath Mr. Black’s dignity; perhaps he knows what powers such cheap shilling serves and is flipping the coin in the hopes of being praised for being balanced.  This is the balance of the powerful ridiculing the powerless, a very common and backward program embraced by too many politically inclined comedians in the U.S. today, from Black to Chris Rock

Unlike communists and militant atheists (as opposed to “life-style” atheists of the libertarian Penn & Teller ilk), Lewis Black is not celebrating the necessity of taking on the fundamentalists.  He does not seek to organize their defeat by gathering a broad united front against their assaults on democratic rights, science, and secularism; for Black, the Falwells and the Robertsons are too comical, too absurd, beyond the pale, and hence ridiculous.

Black is a Hipster, if one may dust off that word.  He’ll keep the booth warm at the White Horse Tavern while the rest of us organize for action in defense of Darwin and the Bill of Rights.

Still, until the reign of capital is ended, and with it the material basis for religious belief, we can all still enjoy a little comic relief.

Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

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