Is the ‘New Evangelization’ a laughing matter?

In America there are two career fields that have a disproportionate number of agnostics and atheists: scientists and stand-up comedians.

At least that’s my impression. While surveys confirm that four-in-ten scientists (41 percent) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, the data on comedians is anecdotal and based entirely on my having watched way, way too many stand-up comedy specials.

While black and Hispanic comics often reference topics such as church-going, white comedians tend to only bring up religion when they are mocking believers. One notable exception is Jim Gaffigan, one of the whitest (or at least palest; he jokes that people wonder if one of his parents was a polar bear) and most successful comics in the country.

As the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein recently asked,

Is Jim Gaffigan technically employed by the Catholic Church?

The thought occurred to me in a week during which I saw the awesome Catholic comic speak in person and did some reporting about the church’s major new outreach effort it calls “the new evangelization.”

The sweeping campaign seeks to bring back the many millions of Catholics who have left the church and generally to re-imagine the entire concept of evangelizing, which is more typically associated with, well, evangelical Protestants. The new Catholic version is more subtle, highlighting Catholics who are just living out Catholic teachings and are happy as a result.

Let’s consider the question about Gaffigan being on the Vatican’s payroll by looking at one of his clips on Jesus and Christianity.

Funny stuff, but not likely to be pope-approved. So why does Boorstein think he Gaffigan is part of the New Evangelization? Apparently, because he fits the old Catholic stereotype of having lots of kids.

Gaffigan literally symbolizes life at the intersection of tradition and hipsterdom. The guy lives with his wife and five children in the Bowery section of Manhattan (doesn’t get a lot hipper than that), from where they walk with their awesome double stroller to church every Sunday.

Listening to Gaffigan at a Tuesday night event at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, I noted that he promotes core teachings, but not explicitly. For example: He talks and writes a lot about having a big family, and you can’t miss the “Catholic” angle, but the way he explains his reasons for baby-making is subtle.

Asked by interviewer Scott Simon of NPR that night to talk a bit about “family life” (code for five kids), Gaffigan said: “I’m Catholic, my wife is Shiite Catholic. There’s no goalie.”

Is talking about the reasons for your large family part of the New Evangelization? Here is how John L. Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter explains the effort:

In a nutshell, the “New Evangelization” is about salesmanship. The idea is to move the Catholic product in the crowded lifestyle marketplace of the post-modern world.

When cardinals say the next pope has to be committed to the New Evangelization, therefore, what they mean is that he should be a pitchman, someone who can attract people to the faith.

And here is how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains it:

The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith. Pope Benedict XVI called for the re-proposing of the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization.” The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.

Does Gaffigan’s comedic work qualify? Maybe under Allen’s version but probably not under the USCCB definition. How does a journalist apply the term ‘New Evangelization’ when it is so vague and amorphous? Boorstein refreshingly admits (“Am I going overboard?”), that she’s not sure it applies. I’m not either. Indeed, I’m not sure whether she’s stretching to make the connection or whether she’s ahead of the curve in identifying subtle New Evangelization trends in pop culture.

Either way, though, I appreciate the effort by a major publication to highlight Gaffigan’s faith and attempt to tie it to a broader religious trend. And it gives me a reason to post another (even funnier) clip by one of my favorite comics on the joys of parenting.

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  • MollieZHemingway

    People never believe me about my “bar ministry” but I think it’s a really important approach to evangelism.

    Just kidding, but I totally got what the Post was saying about Gaffigan and new evangelism.

  • Darren Blair

    My thing with the article is that the writer seemingly presumes that Gaffigan’s being Catholic means that he’s automatically involved in missionary work whenever he gets on stage.

    If that’s the case, then I wonder what the author would think of the growing number of Mormon comedians who have been coming up over the last decade or so.

  • I’m (pretty) sure that Gaffigan isn’t employed by the Catholic Church, but I do think his comedy reflects a new development in religious stand-up humor. His Catholicism isn’t simply a foil for his jokes (“What would my Catholic mother say! I’m so racked with guilt!”), but his religious beliefs aren’t the platform for his humor either (as with so many self-branded Christian comics). His beliefs do inform his humor, though, not merely in jokes about his evergrowing number of kids, but in his choice to work “clean” and to involve his kids and wife in his stand-up. (I believe that on his most recent tour, his kids at least once served as his opening act.) He’s comfortable with his beliefs, without apologizing for them or overtly defending them.

  • FW Ken

    Catholic bishops:

    The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.

    John Allen:

    In a nutshell, the “New Evangelization” is about salesmanship. The idea is to move the Catholic product in the crowded lifestyle marketplace of the post-modern world.

    I recognize the John Allen is a good journalist, but is cynical hipsterism good journalism?

  • wlinden

    “literally symbolizes”? As opposed to figuratively symbolizing?