Misplaced Jesus, Pop Culture — August 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

What Theologians could learn from David Sedaris

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Too often theologians act like expert witnesses. We have meteorologists tell us about the weekend’s weather. Astronauts cover space. Theologians field our questions about God or the Bible, or heaven and hell.

But unlike meteorologists or astronauts before we listen to the answers of theologians we almost always do a quick character study on them. Sure the language may be coded, but it’s clear what everyone’s getting at. “Are you a Bible-believing Christian?” we inquire, hoping to uncover a liberal bias or a conservative tilt. “What denomination are you?” we ask, having already made up our minds about how much we are willing to trust a Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical or Lutheran theologian.

But one question we rarely ask of theologians is, “Are you a good person?” If asked, I suspect most would dodge the question with “Well I’m a sinner saved by grace.” But if you pressed them for evidence, asking something more along the lines of, “Can I read your diary?” I imagine most theologians would respond, “Why?”

This is because most theologians hate looking like hypocrites. That is perhaps the one greatest difference between most theologians and David Sederis. In Sederis’ new book Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls he opens his diary and tells hilarious and heartbreaking stories, knowing full well he has hypocrisy in spades.

“There’s the you that you present to the world,” Sedaris said on NPR’s Fresh Air, “and then there’s, you know, of course the real one and, if you’re lucky, there’s not a huge difference between those two people… Thoughts pass through your head, you know, like I’m sure perhaps you would walk down the hall one day, and you would see somebody and you would think, ‘God, I hope my hair never looks like that,’ but then five minutes later you might have a cheerful thought about this person, right, or a complimentary thought about this person. But see, that’s the thing about a diary: You’re just sitting down and you think, ‘God, I saw so-and-so yesterday and I hope my hair never looks like that.’”*

In his new book Sederis spends a lot of time judging people, from the young man standing in line at the airport with a T-shirt reading “Freaky Mothafocka”, to the obsese woman waiting for a latte, to the English drivers tossing garbage out the window. But the wonderful thing about Sedaris is that in the end he always winds up judging himself.

After listening to a stranger he calls Mr. Mustache decry the Obama Administration he writes. “I would have loved to have turned around and given those two what for. Then again, even if I were informed, what’s the likelihood of changing anyone’s opinion, especially a couple of strangers? If my own little mind is nailed shut, why wouldn’t theirs be?”

And in one sentence he turns the equation upside down. Most of us are more than comfortable judging a stranger, and some of us will even speak our minds, but few turn the judgment back on ourselves with Sederis’ candor.

Throughout his writing he continually reminds us to take the proverbial plank out of our own eye before removing the speck in our neighbor’s. Sederis challenges the notion that people need to hide their hypocrisy. Instead he hilariously explores it and while he never defends his judgmental nature, he gives the reader permission to be our real duplicitous selves: a saint and a sinner.

There is a myth among Christian leaders that if we tell people who we really are and what we really think, no one will listen to our thoughts on God. But Sederis has sold millions of books by telling people who he really is. And sure he’s a comedian, but to reduce him to anything less than a profoundly important cultural critic is a mistake.

The world is tired of self-assured theologians answering our questions like experts on God. They are ready for Christian leaders to start being honest about the things they only say in their heads.

The world needs theologians to start opening their diary’s and showing us they aren’t the expert witnesses we thought they were, that they human beings who are petty and arrogant and scared just like the rest of us. I know at least one hypocrite who would be willing to listen.

4 Comments

  • I’d be willing to listen to them. It would make conversations so much more interesting, and hilarious.

  • Dear Diary, dear God,
    i just read a blog by a guy who can’t make up his mind if he is writing about someone named Sedaris or someone named Sederis, and I hope I never make those kinds of mistakes :-)
    Interesting article. Thanks for it

  • Great piece! I have always been a huge fan of Sedaris for his humor (hilarious ability to point out the absurd in others, and himself), heart, authenticity, and commitment to his own journey. He’s the kind of writer who gives us a model of self-awareness we can actually relate to. I think we could extract some more good theology from his life and works!

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