Nick Liao: Lighten up, church. Srsly.
I’ve been frequenting a website called “The Awl.” It’s a peculiar mash-up of thoughtful long form journalism, offbeat cultural commentary, and cute videos of bears rolling around. Somehow it all works, and judging from the volume of reposted Awl articles appearing in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’m not alone.
Why does it work?
Founded by former employees of newsmagazines “Gawker” and “Radar,” the two-year-old site promises “a daily discussion of the issues that matter to a savvy audience,” including politics, culture, and the web. They pronounce “No topic unworthy of scrutiny, so long that it is approached from an intelligent angle.” Some recent posts show the site’s omnivorous appetite: topics include the novelist John Wray’s Twitter exploits, a brilliant parody of the “New York Times,” a plug for a rising Mississippi rapper named Big K.R.I.T., and a clip of those adorable polar bears.
A cast of snarky writers pulled from all corners of the web drive “The Awl’s” steady stream of some two dozen posts a day. The site’s mantra, “Be less stupid,” captures the balance they seek between the intellectual and the farcical. The content resists the banality of broadcast network media. Yet “This does not mean that we eschew frivolity; far from it. Who doesn't enjoy a funny video, a current meme, or anything about bears? We love bears! And science!” Perhaps it’s possible to be intelligently aware even while indulging a taste for ephemera.
Christian media, by contrast, tends towards the former to the exclusion of the latter. For all its rhetoric of “engaging culture,” Christian journalism mostly operates under the assumption that only a narrow slice of it is worthy of comment. So we traffic in the predictably respectable and serious, such as theological controversies and politics. We dutifully steer clear of absurdities like Internet memes (at this point, I will resist making an appeal for someone to write about the LOLCat Bible translation project). Sites like “Gawker” and “The Awl,” on the other hand, revel in the chaos. “The Awl’s” disdain for decorum even trickles down to its writing style, which gleefully departs from journalistic conventions. Comically clipped questions? Followed by exclamations? Why not!
So, why do we take ourselves so seriously? I posed this question to a friend who suggested that church thought leaders are anxious. This strikes me as plausible. People with platforms need to maintain control in uncertain times. It’s what keeps them prognosticating about the future of x and wringing their hands about the decline of y.
This might explain why so many people find Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert endearing. A devout Catholic, Colbert covers weighty matters with a levity that suggests we might not be in charge of how the world turns out. And when he hosts VIP’s (experts, politicians, religious figures), his antics draw out thoughtful talking points while enabling others to take themselves less seriously. Colbert has a knack for eliciting the unintended snicker by pointing out the ridiculousness of everything.
There is a time to be serious, and of course, not everything really is worthy of comment. But the church could use a few more Colberts and make more time for silliness like “The Awl.” Heavy-handedness isn’t becoming of people who confess that history has been redeemed in the cross, a yoke Jesus calls easy and light.
So all ye who are weary and heavy laden with Rob Bell and his detractors: Less gravitas, more laughs.
And more bears, plz.
Nick Liao is sales and marketing manager for IVP Academic, a publishing imprint of InterVarsity Press, in Westmont, Illinois.