Did you hear the one about the culturally isolated NYTs?

This week’s New York Times Magazine had an article about a Christian comedienne who’s all the rage on YouTube.

You can sample her comedic offerings in the YouTube below.
The article about Anita Renfroe was written by Mimi Swartz, an editor at Texas Monthly. Most of the readers who passed it on to us complained about the anthropological approach of the reporter, as evidenced by the headline: “Did You Hear the One About the Christian Comedian?” Here are some representative passages along those lines:

Renfroe is also a devout Christian and for about eight years has been slowly building a career as a comedian on the Christian women’s circuit. Like Mike Huckabee’s easy humor, Renfroe’s wit comes as a surprise to nonevangelicals. . . .

“I have a good time almost all the time,” Renfroe told me. “But I do feel a little bit of pressure.” That’s understandable given her most important task: proving that being a Christian comedian is not an oxymoron.

These are the types of passages that say much more about the reporter and the New York Times than the subject of the piece. As a Lutheran, I don’t qualify as an evangelical, but it never occurred to me to classify a group that includes tens of millions of Americans as devoid of all wit and humour. Of course, I actually know more than a few evangelicals. Heck, some of my best friends are evangelicals (cue: rim shot) and they’re very funny people. How you can be an editor at a Texas publication and write lines like that? It makes me think an editor tried to shape the story in that direction.

I think it’s good that the Times is covering cultural stories outside the comfy confines of Manhattan. (This isn’t the first time the Times has written about Christian comedians.) And it’s true the mainstream comedy blogs and sites don’t cover comedians such as Renfroe. The fact is that most of the mainstream media reflect the values and cultural tastes of people in a few blue zip code cities as opposed to folks in the rest of the country.

Renfroe is treated as a novelty when, in fact, she’s more an example of some pretty big trends. But when the article is stuck on the notion that a Christian comedian is crazy talk, how insightful can the story be?

Thankfully the reporter had quite a few words to work with. She gives readers a look at Christian women’s conferences, the place where Renfroe got her start. And yes, it’s full of snarky comments about women sharing hotel rooms to save money and the less-than-gourmet food choices they make. But Swartz has some good color about the speakers at the conference. She does a good job of writing up Renfroe’s jokes and showing how evangelicalism’s embrace of entertainment worship has helped her develop her comedy.

Swartz notes that the comedy club circuit has rewarded raunchy and profane humor more than Renfroe’s fare — jokes about mammograms, underwire bras and spousal submission. But back to the New York Times‘ tone deafness:

Renfroe’s comedy — and indeed, much of the comedy in evidence at Women of Faith — while still “clean” and often wrapped in homilies dedicated to a higher purpose, seems to owe as much to feminism as to Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry. There is an undeniably subversive element in any group of successful women urging less successful women to step into life and refuse to be defeated. Renfroe would rather label that call “empowerment” than “feminism,” because in her mind the goals are not the same.

KatieLutherActually, there is nothing subversive about women encouraging other women. And hard as it may be for the mainstream media to accept, strong women predate the feminist movement.

I may not be what you would conventionally describe as evangelical (I include the caveat since “evangelical” is another term for “Lutheran” but that’s not how the media use the term) but I was brought up by devout Lutherans who pretty much rejected feminism and who also told me I could be president or anything else I wanted to be. I was constantly encouraged to emulate the mighty heroines from scripture as well as church history. And I was also given role models in my congregation. In other words, my parents and fellow parishioners relied on thousands of years of church history to encourage me. All while rejecting much of feminism.

Still, I think she asks some interesting questions about evangelical Christianity’s intersection with culture:

All Christian comics must ultimately decide how they will define themselves — as Christians who happen to do comedy or as comics who happen to be Christian — and that pressure grows with success. So far, Renfroe has remained exactly where she wants to be: squarely in the middle of that continuum. But events have conspired to challenge her comfort zone. After the YouTube video went viral, Renfroe was invited to appear on “Good Morning America” to discuss it. . . .

That day, they asked Renfroe whether she might also be able to perform comic vignettes on the show. Renfroe sent them a list of 25 suggestions: segments on beauty salons, the ignominy of sweatsuits, fighting for carts at the grocery store, menopausal side effects, etc., and [senior broadcast producer Margo] Baumgart was thrilled. The religion issue never came up in discussions, perhaps because another network was already expressing interest in Renfroe. “We won’t hide it, but we won’t highlight it,” Baumgart says. “We love her for who she is.” That was good with Renfroe: “Christian is who I am; funny is what I do,” she told me. “I think the people who make the decisions don’t really care if I’m Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. I think they just care if I’m funny.”

It’s nice the reporter included this distinction from Renfroe. It’s a shame she didn’t use that perspective as a launching point for the entire article.

Art: A funny strong, empowered woman who somehow predated feminism.

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  • Harris

    I think you miss the New York angle: shes going to be a regular on Good Morning America. That’s the hook. This isn’t a story about leaving the comfy confines of Manhattan, it is a story purely about Manhattan, specifically 147 Columbus Avenue.

    As a background piece, the article treats the evangelical sub-culture with a measure of respect. What is more, Renfroe is not made out as a caricature, indeed the article subtly subverts it at the end in the account of the photo shoot: “can you give us more twang?” asks a producer.

    And as an aside, I would note that even evangelical subcultures can leave some Evangelicals wondering, as Harrison Scott Key indicates on the World Magazine site. It’s not just The New York Times.

  • Jerry

    rejected feminism and who also told me I could be President or anything else I wanted to be.

    feminism is another of those words like evangelical because of how often it’s used in very different ways. From my background believing that a woman could be President or anything else she wants to be is the very essence of feminism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Harris,

    I agree with what you’ve written. And I tried to point out some instances where I thought the reporter handled things well. And even if Renfroe wasn’t getting the GMA slot, I think it’s a good topic for a story.

    I’m reading a pre-publication copy of a book dealing with evangelical subculture and it’s all really fascinating and undercovered.

    I just think the whole premise that it’s somehow oxymoronic to be a funny Christian subverts the good of the piece.

    It limits how illuminating the piece can be.

    And yes, Jerry, feminism is a word with broad usage!

  • Martha

    “Like Mike Huckabee’s easy humor, Renfroe’s wit comes as a surprise to nonevangelicals”

    Yes, who knew that in between witch-burnings and public stonings, Evangelicals were just as fond of a good joke as the rest of us?

    Can you imagine a story about a Jewish comedian (of whom I believe there are some rare examples) with a line like that?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Wow! I’ve been laughing at her stuff for months and had no idea she’s a Christian. I just thought she was funny.

    Mollie, is that a picture of Martin Luther’s wife?

  • str1977

    Why the picture of Catherine of Bora?

    She was the model after which Protestant women were pressed into unformity, with wife and mother being the only choice – doing away with the pluralism of the Middle Ages.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Here’s my favorite moment in the piece, in terms of its National Geographic covering the natives tone:

    ” … I think the difference with Women of Faith is that we are telling the stories of our glaring humanity and we are pointing women to a source of power outside themselves, toward a faith that has not only informed our lives but transformed them.”

    In other words, she isn’t kidding around when it comes to her commitment to Christ.

    I can’t decide what the writer expected on that point. A waffle on the Christian commitment because the woman is funny? Would that be automatic? I mean, the writer must have laughed a few times and then had to wrestle with herself….

    I also loved the description of the audience:

    As she sings, the camera shifts to the women in the audience — the audience is almost all women — who are also somewhat ordinary looking and of indeterminate age.

    Now, I honestly do not know what “ordinary looking” means, to an audience in New York or in New York Times subscriber land. Is Renfroe “ordinary looking”? During her hey day, was Rosanne Barr “ordinary looking”?

    One more little thing (and I actually rather liked the piece as a whole)….

    The woman ends the song with four repetitions of the word “because,” followed by four repetitions of the phrase “I said so!”

    Actually, the key phrase that ends the song is, “I AM THE MOM.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    During her hey day, was Rosanne Barr “ordinary looking”?

    No.

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  • Dennis Colby

    I actually thought the tone was fine, considering it wasn’t written for evangelical readers in Texas per se, but for regular readers of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. For a lot of those people, the fact that there’s a circuit of Christian standup comics probably is news, just like the circuit that produced Tyler Perry is news to most white people. There’s a danger in writing articles for an inside audience; at some point, people who already know this stuff can hardly be expected to want to read an article about it. I used to work a state capitol beat, and the constant struggle was to write stories that were interesting to the vast majority of the readership that didn’t work inside the statehouse; I could have essentially written for an inside audience, but what would the point have been?

  • Liz B.

    I agree that there’s nothing necessarily “feminist” about women encouraging women to “step up in life and refuse to be defeated”. What would make it feminist is what that stepping up entails, and that’s exactly what Renfroe appears to say in questioning what the end goals are. Encouraging fellow women to be better wives and mothers (for instance) without challenging political or social structures that cause their defeat– that can be totally admirable, but certainly isn’t necessarily feminist. So in that sense I think the article does miss the point, because it just lumps all pro-woman stuff in with feminism.

    To be fair, I would kind of say that Mollie, you do kind of the same thing in the opposite direction. Like Jerry I have to take issue with the statement that one can encourage one’s daughters that they can be president without being “feminist”. That IS an end goal that is intrinsically feminist in the vast majority of definitions of feminism– women in the public sphere, with authority over men, etc.. Rejecting “feminism” while claiming the ground that feminism took for women… no wonder the NY Times is so confused. :) Maybe we should throw the word out altogether and have done with it. :)

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Mollie, according to the Pew Forum you are “evangelical”.

  • Jim

    I haven’t stopped laughing since I read Martha’s comment. I want to start a group called Martha’s Evangelical American Neighbors. We can just use the term MEAN and then everyone will understand exactly who we are.
    Seriously, thanks Martha. That made my day.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    Mollie — I think you’re being overly hard on the story, and I agree with what Dennis Colby said.

    For the readers of the NYT piece, it very well could be a surprise that someone on the faith circuit is genuinely funny. Indeed, there have been plenty of reporters who have been surprised with the personality of Mike Huckabee (indeed, I think he got away with saying some things that he wouldn’t have if he had had a different personality).

    And to many of the readers of this story, someone like Ms. Renfrow would indeed be a novelty. It isn’t surprising to you or to me (although I’m not an Evangelical, I grew up among them), but it very well could be to many.

    That said, I agree with you that the piece did say quite a bit about the writer, who obviously was trying to find a way to neatly categorize the comedian and couldn’t quite do it. But that’s part of what makes the article interesting.

    It would have been very easy for a different writer to be condescending toward the subject or her audience. It would have been easy to suggest, which the article did not, that Ms. Renfrow was a hypocrite for making so much money from her faith. The article made this woman seem like a unique but still normal person — and how many articles have we seen where anyone religious is viewed as inherently abnormal?

  • Stoo

    I’d agree with Dennis – the idea of christian comedy is certainly news to me. Possibly I’m culturally isolated. :-p

  • Chris Bolinger

    I second Jim’s comment (#13).

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, growing up LCMS, we always called ourselves evangelical (lower case), and as Evangelicalism (upper case) emerged, we generally viewed it as “Baptist lite.” As has been pointed out here at GetReligion, it is one of those problem words. C. Wingate (#12) pointed out that Pew considers LCMS to be Evangelical. I have read the Barna methodologies, and they determine whether a respondent is an Evangelical by reviewing answers to questions. Usually I get scored as an Evangelical, but sometimes not, depending on the survey. It seems to me that the best pollsters are more interested in doctrinal definitions of “Evangelical,” while journalists (and partisan political pollsters) are more interested in a political definition.
    So, to my way of thinking, you are “evangelical” but not “an Evangelical.”

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    No, Mollie. As you are well aware, we are not evangelicals. We’re Evangelicals. The real Evangelicals. Lutherans have been called that ever since the Reformation; the decision-for-Christ crowd didn’t even exist until Charles Finney.

  • Dale

    the decision-for-Christ crowd didn’t even exist until Charles Finney.

    D’oh!! I guess George Whitefield, John Wesley, or, for that matter, Jonathan Edwards didn’t get the memo. . . . According to Wikipedia, the predecessors of LCMS didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1839, and even then they were speaking German. Maybe if you call yourselves “Evangelischen”, you’ll save us old-timers some trouble.

  • Bob Waters

    Point taken. Pelagius, for that matter. I mispoke- though if Jonathan Edwards denied the sola gratia in the fashion of the other two you mention, it’s news to me. Finney and the altar call was merely the logical consequence

    Maybe if Whitefield, Wesley and their modern successors agreed that we are saved by grace alone, though, and confessed the divine monergism of that newcomer St. Paul,they would have some actual claim to the title.

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    Oh. And by the way, I am not a member of the LCMS. And the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was a Lutheran. We arrived here in the 1600′s.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    Defining “evangelical” is a challenge. Darryl Hart wrote a great book titled Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham. He argued that the title “evangelical” is the invention of the neo-evangelicals who coalesced in the 1940′s. He makes the case for just calling ourselves Orthodox Protestants. Trouble was, shortly after reading Hart, I ran into a quote by H.L. Mencken from some time before the 1940′s, and he used the term evangelical as a term for a conservative Protestant. I think the term has had a smudgy history, nonetheless. Hart’s counsel may still be worth considering.

  • Dale

    Bob Waters wrote:

    if Jonathan Edwards denied the sola gratia in the fashion of the other two you mention, it’s news to me.

    At the risk of reenacting the better-left-alone conflicts of the past, I don’t think Wesley or Whitefield would admit a denial of sola gratia; that was the accusation made by their critics.

    Edwards worked with Whitefield during the latter’s evangelical meetings in New England, so clearly there was not a huge gulf between their respective understandings of Christian doctrine. Whitefield stayed at Edwards’ home, and preached to Edward’s Northampton church, something that Edwards would never allow to a heretic. Edwards himself wrote extensively about the subjective experience of conversion, which was also important to the early Methodists. George Marsden has an interesting narrative of the relationship between the two men in his biography of Edwards.

    Revival meetings and an emphasis on personal conversion experiences go back to the beginning of U.S. history; they were characteristics that often crossed denominational boundaries. They were not a 19th century invention of Charles Finney. “Evangelical” has been used as a term to include the various Protestant movements that shared those characteristics, so to claim that Lutherans alone are the “real” evangelicals ignores both American history and common American English usage.

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