Friday, December 16, 2011

A Stern Judgement (A Lesson in "Love the Sinner")

When Howard Stern was announced as Piers Morgan's replacement on America's Got Talent I smiled.  It was a smile that really had little to do with NBC's casting choices and much more to do with anticipating my wife's reaction when she found out.  This was going to be good.

AGT has been the bane of my darling's existence since Jerry Springer walked onto the stage to introduce the very first episode.  By the third episode I was getting the look that said, "Seriously, you're still watching this?!" And by the time the first cross-dressing, angel-costumed man slid off his spinning rope thing (is there a name for those?) I had learned that this was one show on the DVR that could wait til she was out at a jewelry party or otherwise engaged, lest I incur her wrath.

And she wasn't all wrong.

There is a lot to hate about the show.  My wife instinctively identified that the show, though ostensibly about finding new kinds of talent, is really about appealing to the ancient Roman in all of us. America's Got Talent is our coliseum. The authorities parade all sorts of "entertainment" before us, and with a mixture of disgust and amazement we await the thumbs up or thumbs down that will seal their fate. Now I know most reality TV has an element of this, but AGT seems to boil it down to its essence.  Even the booing crowds (a huge pet peeve of mine) might as well be chanting "off with his head!" until Howie Mandel rises and shouts back to them, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!" So in light of all this, when Piers Morgan stepped down, you had to assume they would try to find a new ring leader who would fit into this three judge circus.

Which brings us to Mr. Howard Stern.

In my own unscientific poll of fellow Jesus lovers (which pretty much just involved me perusing Facebook and Twitter)  he is not a popular choice.  Words like "boycott", "yuck", and "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!" pepper my feed (it's the 12th capital O that lets people know you're serious.) and it's certainly not a surprise.  Stern's radio show has been defined by his perversion and his willingness to find lines and then saunter over them gleefully.  But will this really change anything about the show?  Hasslehoff and Morgan were just as sickeningly lecherous with some of the female acts, and Stern's brutal honesty might actually play well in that setting.  It's not like the judges on AGT have been known for putting through the most sane of choices.  I usually just find myself rooting for those one or two acts who actually validate the title of the show, while ignoring the rest anyway.  I know going in that for every Terry Fator there will be 5 Prince Poppycocks and my DVR's 30 second jump ahead button will suffer from repetitive stress disorder as a result.  For me it's worth it to pan for the gold through the silt and I don't think Stern will change that.

The truth is I don't think much of our response to the Stern announcement has to do with the actual show, I think it has to do with our growing case of "Red Rover Syndrome".  The seeming need we have to divide up into teams and try to run headlong into each other, as if somehow we can capture our culture by force.  It results in an "us vs. them" attitude and once you are "them", watch out.  This is all fine and dandy when you're discussing whether you want to watch a judge on a reality TV show, but it's gets decidedly more perilous in other situations, like say, I don't know, the death of a prominent atheist?

Christopher Hitchens died today.  A man who spent much of his life denying the existence of God and trying to convince others of the same.  When he was diagnosed with cancer last year I remember seeing a smattering of posts that almost seemed to revel in the news, as if cancer was all of the sudden one of God's henchmen sent to silence His most vocal critic.  Thankfully this sickening theology seems more of the exception than the rule but it is the logical end to "Red Rover Syndrome". Even some of the "I bet he believes in God now" tweets happening today carry a hint of a smirk, a smirk I'm pretty sure isn't on the face of a God who loved him desperately and is feeling the eternal separation of that relationship on a level we will never know.  It's as if we like the idea of "love the sinner, hate the sin" but when push comes to shove it's often much easier to go ahead and hate both.  It's just so easy to confuse someone's values with their value, to mistake someone's work for their worth.  I should mention this tendency works to the other side of the spectrum as well.  We elevate people because their beliefs sync up with ours  (I'm Tebowing even as I type this). It's a natural human tendency, no matter what your world view, to categorize this way, but don't you think we should be the ones to buck that trend?  The only line I see drawn is the one that separates us from the God who made us, and I'm pretty sure we are all supposed to be working together to help as many people cross that line as possible.  Instead of playing Red Rover, maybe we should treat life as one of the ropes course wall climbs where everyone has to get over.

It's much harder to draw the separation lines once you realize we aren't the ones holding the pen.

In reality there is no "us" or "them", we are all the same.

This doesn't mean Mr. Stern will be a great judge of talent on a network reality show, but it does mean we should probably treat him nicely and avoid making direct personal attacks. In lobbing those grenades we engage in our own coliseum distraction and are no different than the booing audience calling for blood.

So in light of Hitchen's passing and Stern's promotion I'm recommitting myself to fighting ideas and not people, to attacking untruth, but not those who believe it, to wanting the best for any and all fellow members of this fraternity of mankind.

Oh, and I'll also be watching America's Got Talent...

when my wife isn't home.