It was like a punch to the gut. My wife and I were just lying down after a long day and, without even thinking about it, I picked up my phone, clicked on YouTube, and pressed play on the latest John Oliver video, conveniently ready for me in the queue.
“Listening to another sermon, are you?”
Oof. That one hurt.
Not because it was untrue, but because it was so very true and I hadn’t realized it until just then.
Like all teachers, as I’ve spoken to youth over the years there have been some common themes in my content, one of which is the idea that the world is always preaching to you, whether it’s the ads you see waiting for your favourite show to start, the actual content of said show, or the subtle (and not so subtle) pressures of your social media feeds. In all these things, and many others, we find arguments for what “the good life” actually looks like.
Which brings me back to lying in bed, YouTube, John Oliver, and my wife’s comment.
Watching Oliver and occasionally Colbert before I went to sleep had become such a part of my nighttime ritual that I didn’t think about it anymore. They were spot-on with so many of their critiques and opinions that I didn’t stop to consider that perhaps I was buying into an ideology I didn’t agree with fully in all its implications. And even further, I continued to watch even when, time and time again, these late night personalities went way over the line.
Realizing all this led me to establish three guiding questions for myself when watching late night television. I leave them here for you on the off chance you also find them helpful.
First, what kind of humour am I participating in?
Humour and laughter are gifts from God. Laughter, I think, glorifies God when it’s not perverse, ill-timed, demeaning, or egocentric. It can even be a result of sheer joy found in God’s goodness: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” (Psalm 126:1-2)
But there is another type of laughter, or joking, that does not glorify God. To quote a verse I heard literally every day of my childhood from my mom, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). One commentator notes that the context of this verse leads us to believe that this “crude joking” has a lot to do with suggestive overtones and double entendres.
Crude sexual joking, and participating in it via YouTube or Netflix, is opposed to the thankful Christian life because it takes a good gift given to us by God to be enjoyed in covenant marriage and distorts it, either by normalizing casual sex or same-sex relationships or by making public what is intended to remain between a husband and a wife.
As you open your browser and watch that video (whether it be John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, or Samantha Bee), ask whether the humour glorifies God. Or if it instead robs you of gratitude by making trivial, or distorting, the good gifts he has given us to enjoy.
Second, will an additional fifteen minutes of cynicism be good for my heart?
Listen, closing our eyes and shutting up our ears to the atrocities and injustices of this world is not the Christian response. Christians are not called to be escapists; we’re called to be people in the midst of the despair but with the hope of Christ, entering into suffering just as Christ took on flesh and suffering for our sake.
But sometimes this world sucks. Politicians aren’t the saviours we want them to be, the economy just won’t cooperate, and, despite our recycling, it seems like climate change is just getting worse and worse. So, rightly, our late night hosts point out this “suckiness” to us.
Here’s the problem: the suckiness of this world is only half the story. The other half of the story, a story unfolded in the pages of Scripture, is that right now we can work and labour meaningfully as those who will one day labour in a new heavens and new earth where Jesus reigns, where there is no economic oppression, and where all of creation is flourishing.
But when all I watch is the suckiness, I forget this. Examine your heart before you watch that monologue. Will it hurl you deeper into despair? Or would you do well to meditate on the hope we have in Christ, both now and forever?
Third, am I awake enough to discern the argument and the underlying ideology?
Ask anyone older than forty, late night television didn’t use to be as politically and socially charged as it is now. A recent Washington Post article noted that the politics of previous late night hosts like David Letterman and Johnny Carson weren’t obvious to the casual observer. Not so now. We all know what John Oliver believes about organized religion. We all know what Stephen Colbert believes about same-sex unions. We all know what literally every prominent late show host believes when it comes to a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Save for Jimmy Fallon (bless his heart), late night television is not the harmless, goofy, celebrity-focused entity it once was. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. Late night hosts have been instrumental in bringing to the forefront a number of important topics. But we’re naïve if we think that when we turn on our TVs or flip open our computers, what we’re listening to is somehow not a sermon.
By all means, read books that you disagree with, engage critically with thinkers who are different than you. But honestly ask yourself: can I discern the underlying ideology of a John Oliver monologue at midnight? Or would I be better off just going to sleep?