Penn Jillette; slouching toward Bethlehem

Penn Jillette; slouching toward Bethlehem December 20, 2008

With some understandable reservation, I have always liked Penn Jillette. Intelligence sizzles off of him the way I imagine it did with John Quincy Adams. He is articulate, urbane, insightful, mischievous and acerbically funny, and he manages to be all of those things without going into the condescension, dismissiveness and arrogance that some (think: Bill Maher) latch onto in college and extend into a sort of perpetually adolescent sneer-and-kneejerk.

He is also, clearly, a guy who thinks – you cannot come up with an act like Penn & Teller with a closed mind – and, perhaps because his schtick is all about illusion and unreality, one gets the impression that Penn Jillette does work to keep the world around him, and himself, “real” by his own lights.

So it is interesting, and moving, to watch this gifted man struggle to bring words and context to something that surprised him – to keep things as “real” as he can, while engaged in mild (but also real) wonder and awe.

I like this video because it is a rare thing to see any man or woman expose themselves in this way – in a way that says, “I had a wow-experience and I am not afraid to tell you about it, even though half of you may say I’m a sentimental chump and the other half of you will say I’m hell-bound chum.” I like it because even though he resolutely insists that he’s still a good atheist, he is not too proud to say, he was moved by a “good man” who believes very differently. I like it because he is not afraid of a fight, or to show us a moment where his intellect and his heart are engaged in a bit of a tussle.

That’s courageous. It’s rare. Left or right, believer or atheist, it’s rare, and so I admire it.

There is a message to Christians, here; two actually. The first is passive: make note of the fact that it was a gentle Christian who was willing to accept Jillette where he was, as he was, with openness and a positive mien, who was able to touch him. Aggressiveness and negativity won’t get you there, which is why Christ eschewed it.

The second message is as far from passive as you can get, and it comes from Jillette himself; “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that?”

Think about it. How many times have you not engaged someone – and not exclusively for the purpose of proselytizing, but on any level – because you’ve simply assumed they are ‘not the sort’ to be receptive to you, or they are ‘one of them’ – the avowed secularists? Is that a sort of passive, impersonal “hate?” When you’ve passed them by, have you stopped to think that everything a Christian says or does, how a Christian comports himself or herself, minute-by-minute, gives endless witness, and so only kindliness will do?

I know I’ve failed in that. Often. Too often.

There is a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.

Penn Jillette is a whiz with words. And this atheist, when he finally found his words, summed things up pretty succinctly: “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that?”

The video clip was posted December 8 – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – and Jillette seemed like he wasted no time in making it. What an Advent!

And this is interesting too.

Browse Our Archives