Colbert hammering Bart Ehrman and the dancing wedding video both seem like good news. They're not.
At first blush, both videos seemed like good news. That’s why friends sent them to me. Stephen Colbert eating Bart Ehrman’s lunch three years ago. And the dancing wedding party. I’m not saying these are hot off the press --22,000 people have seen Ehrman taken out behind the woodshed, and millions have seen the dancing wedding video. I’m just saying they’re bad news, despite first impressions. Here’s why.
Colbert gets in a few good shots at Ehrman before Ehrman goes into a defensive crouch and lands a roundhouse at the very end (even Colbert concedes, “I can’t improve on that.”). The problem, as always, is that Ehrman deals in cartoons. He has long made a good living by alleging that orthodox Christians can’t rebut his claim that the Bible -- the book we Christians live by -- is based on untrustworthy manuscripts. After initially laying out this argument in “Misquoting Jesus,”, Ehrman has since moved on to theodicy in “God’s Problem” (annihilated here by Will Willimon in "The Christian Century"). But apparently everyone must have had a good time. Colbert had Ehrman back on this year. No better way to reach his demographic -- Colbert watchers who already think religion is as stupid as Bill O’Reilly.
Ehrman’s problem is that Christians have been doing business with these same criticisms since Origen and probably earlier. That he doesn’t think our answers satisfactory is his prerogative. But that he doesn’t even deal with them is intellectually dishonest.
I used to think Ehrman’s problem was that he comes from fundamentalists and he still thinks there are only two options: 1) the Bible is true the way Muslims think the Koran is true, as a perfect document descended from heaven in a miracle with no admixture of human error, or 2) it’s all completely wrong. The options are still the same, he’s just switched sides.
Ehrman is too smart for that. He knows Christians who know all that he knows yet still believe and practice Christian faith. But if he acknowledges them in his apologetics for faith’s demise, then the Barnes & Noble readership might begin to suspect that a good argument for faith actually exists. And that would be really troubling. There’s a reason Marcus Borg is willing to publish with N.T. Wright (featured here on Colbert, and treated much more cordially than Ehrman was). Borg is willing to listen to another party who is as academically credentialed as he is. Which is what academics are supposed to do for a living. Not just to sell books on late night television.
The better response to Ehrman – certainly better than the apologetics he’s used to from fundy days, rehashed by Colbert -- is Duke’s Richard Lischer’s: Christians have nothing to say to prove the resurrection if we’re not already being the proof of the resurrection. And we often are, quietly, without the attention of late-night television.
The wedding video. I can’t take my eyes off the minister in the background. Did she know this was coming? To me, she doesn’t look like it. But she knows she is on camera and has to act like she’s party to it. She does the white woman sway (cousin to Billy Crystal’s “white man’s overbite”). But she watches helplessly. She certainly had no idea this would go viral as it did. We know now, and as a minister I’m horrified. How many bad imitations of this will we see in coming years?
The subtext is that a wedding is boring until it’s jazzed up. And sure enough, it usually is. But the wedding we now experience has been brought to you by the wedding industry: the “unity candle” (what a barbarism), the lavish outfits, the king’s banquet, the king’s ransom in costs. The real sign a recession is on is that weddings are finally getting under control financially.
Christian marriage, on the other hand, does not require all this. Just two people willing to stand before their community and make promises to each other that mirror the promises Jesus makes to his church. Personally, I like it if this is done as part of the offering in a regular Sunday morning service. Like a response to an altar call: We’ve heard God’s word proclaimed, we think we’re called to be married, we’ve done our counseling, and we’re ready to say “yes” in front of everybody, to God again and to one another. Then go home and have a covered dish (as we say in the South). Or you could have a wedding like my friend who had a potluck in her yard, wore a dress from a second-hand shop, and loved her husband fiercely that day and ever since.
Either way, no need for all the fuss. These sorts of weddings suggest the ordinariness that Christian marriage is. No big show. Just promises, and lots of dishes to clean, and kids’ bottoms to wipe and love as ordinary as sharing the checkbook.
Hard to capture that on YouTube.
Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.