TV

Stephen Colbert’s theology of suffering

Josh Larsen

Anyone who follows Stephen Colbert as closely as we do won’t be surprised by the religious tenor of his recent interview with GQ, in advance of his Sept. 8 debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The piece covers Colbert’s preparations for the new gig and the evolution of his comic persona, which leads to some provocative observations about the nature of suffering.

Colbert discusses most of this in the context of the death of his father and two brothers, who were killed in a plane crash when Colbert was 10. After years of relative seclusion and rebellion, Colbert found in comedy a way to be - of all things - grateful. From the interview, conducted by Joel Lovell:

“I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next - the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

Colbert goes on to describe his “acceptance of suffering,” in which he learned to “love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” When Lovell asks him to explain how that works, Colbert cites a story about The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien:

…he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I'm grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.

“It's not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can't change everything about the world. You certainly can't change things that have already happened.”

Consider that this is coming from a man who millions of people will soon watch on their televisions every night - if only there were a way to measure the virality of this, which he'll never say on TV, I imagine, but which, as far as I can tell, he practices every waking minute of his life.

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