October 26, 2014

Thank You George Carlin

Done. Thanks.

Wikipedia has a very complete Carlin entry.

Comedians and those who knew the man discuss Carlin’s life and contribution.

When I heard that George Carlin had died, one of the first thoughts I had was how he had, in his own way, lived a life devoted to the “word,” i.e. the comedic word, and the truth, at least as Carlin saw it.

Carlin changed comedy and brought a massive amount of laughter into this world. Time magazine has a good recollection of Carlin’s contribution. I admired Carlin and relished his incredible insights into the nature of human existence. He made me laugh and he taught me a lot about how to think differently from the status quo. He was the embodiment of Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” He’d recently been nominated- and will receive posthumously- the Mark Twain Award, and that’s an appropriate recognition. In every respect, Carlin was a worthy imitator and successor to Twain. In these safe and politically correct times, that’s worth an award.

Really, in his own way, Carlin was a great humanist. He didn’t just make comedy; he took comedy from the nature and foibles and follies of human existence. View people have ever been able to see below the surface with Carlin’s incredible powers of ironic observation, and even fewer have been as skillful at telling the truth. Carlin was perpetually amazed at what was their to see and hear from the human comedy, and he was committed to making those discoveries known.

For example, go to Youtube and find Carlin’s routine on materialism, which is profoundly labeled “Stuff,” and you’ll be edified, I promise. (That’s the Christian-ese word for positively influenced by the truth.) While Carlin’s routines are often too profane for most Christians, they contain always keen, sometimes breathtaking examples of observation and ironic truth-telling.

What strikes me as continually ironic is that Carlin and other comedians have become the truth-tellers of our time, while many Christians, especially in their official capacities as official religious spokespersons, have become the embodiment of truth avoidance and truth obscuration. Or, if you’d like to get on the more cynical bus with me and the Ecclesiastes Band, we’re more known for being liars about the human journey than we are for telling the truth. In that sense, I can say a hardy Thank God for George Carlin, who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was, even if it totally overturned the tables so nicely arranged by the orderers of society and the custodian of decent thought.

Carlin embodied Shakespeare’s ideal of the fool. (See King Lear for details.) The Fool was a truthteller wrapped in the costume of a clown. Because you had agreed to submit to his agenda of laughter, you opened yourself up to his agenda of truth. One of the first conversations between Lear and his fool includes a death threat, but the Fool is not intimidated, and soon Lear is begging his Fool to continue being the one person who will tell him the painful, but precious, truth.

Carlin was often plunged into controversy of his own making. He saw the hypocrisy of assigning shock value and criminal consequences to words and he played the trump card of the “7 Words You Can’t Say” routine and changed the culture. I know there are plenty of Christians who equate the Golden Age of morality with a lack of profanity, but I’ll have to differ on that one a bit. Behind Carlin’s crusade to use offensive words was another agenda: an understanding of words with social, political, racial and religious significance that were also dangerous to the status quo. Word control was a form of oppression, and Carlin was the liberator in Fool’s clothing. Christians should be verry careful before they side with the thought/word police. What you gonna do when they come for you?

Yes, Carlin took aim at God and religion for most of his career, and if you can’t laugh at the truth of what he was saying, then I wonder what the truth means to you. Carlin was a clown, critic and prophet unafraid to point out the contradictions and embarrassments of religion that most people prefer to ignore. He was raised Catholic and I heard him give genuine, heartfelt thanks for his Catholic school education in a recent interview, a gift he assigned to the Catholic teachers at his school and a gift he appreciated throughout his life. I have a feeling that Carlin was not so much of an unbeliever in God as he was a servant of the truth, and that put him on the side of the infidels most of the time, because too many religious people find untruth and lack of truth to be useful allies.

But how many people do you know whose abhorrence of religion isn’t because of what religion confesses to believe as much as how religious people conduct themselves and their place in the world? While I reject the hysteria of the New Atheists, I find myself frequently standing with Carlin as he assesses religious hypocrisy.

Yes, Carlin was an unbeliever, but there is a lot of nonsense not worthy of belief these days, and a person who loves the truth should stand with the prophets and say so, whoever they are.

I’m not for making atheists our spiritual mentors or encouraging more pastors to do stand-up, but I am for saying thanks to George Carlin for showing many of us what it is like to use words with truthful, playful, revealing power. To say thanks to George Carlin for showing us how to think differently and to really see what’s right there in front of us all the time. To say thanks to George Carlin for making us take responsibility for our manipulations of power by manipulating words in a way that puts the other person down. And thank you to George Carlin for all the many, many insightful, humane, wonderful laughs.

Comments

  1. LK: I don’t think “devout” is an adjective I’d use to describe myself. I believe in the God who revealed himself in Jesus and I seek to be a student of Jesus.

    This certainly sounds devout to me! Or vague..
    It sounds like you are saying Jesus is God and you wish for him to teach you all he knows.
    At any rate, I think the fact that you find something valid in George Carlin’s writing shows Christianity in the United States is slowly evolving (as any long standing institution does).
    In 2008 what is considered par for the course in terms of Christian behavior, church worship, and even lifestyles, would have been horrifyingly inappropriate to Christians of even forty or fifty years ago.

  2. Dear Jim:

    Finally a voice of clarity and reason (and very well put I might add). I couldn’t have said it better myself. There is still hope.

    – The Pilgrim

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our salvation “status” is, at its core, between God and each of us individually. I appreciate the term “mystery” when it comes to heart issues such as this. It’s a simple point, but to me it’s also deep and fascinating.

    Am I pretty darn sure my husband is ‘saved’? Yep. I believe his confession of faith, and I observe as God continues to grow & mature him. Can I say so with absolute authority? In the end, no–only God knows for sure.

    I am only slightly familiar with Carlin, and I sure didn’t get to observe any fruit of the Spirit from him…but then again most of the American viewing public will never see my fruit of the Spirit either. In the end, only God knows his heart.

  4. rampancy says:

    I’m with those who enjoyed and appreciated George Carlin’s humor and his comic perspective – and I’m Catholic, to boot. Having suffered most of my spiritual abuse from other Christians (and having my moments where I was closest to God and Christ with my non-Christian friends…go figure), I really related to a lot of his frustrations with the church and with the duplicity seen in some of Christianity’s most visible so-called advocates.

    I especially appreciated his really biting sketch on “Conservatives” and abortion – it really hit home as it made me remember how many Christians I’ve met and read truly view the value of human life as I’ve seen them fall into the jingoistic repetition of tired clichés like the “Culture of Life”.

    We need more people like him to give comfortable, complacent Christianity a good shake, if only to rouse it from its insular, closed off reverie. We love to harp on people like Carlin and Dawkins (yes, I’m including him here), piling heaps of names and derogatory labels on them, completely ignoring the fact that they’re calling us out on real issues that we should be addressing and talking about ourselves. Of course, we don’t talk about our problems because we want to believe we’re better than everyone else…and we certainly don’t want to hear about our problems from people like Carlin.

    A lot of Christians are so assured that their salvation is already wrapped up in a neat little package waiting for them at the end of the rainbow, completely forgetting that in doing so, they really are usurping God’s place by placing themselves as the ultimate arbiter of who does and doesn’t get to attend the great Country Club of Heaven.

    I’m thankful that Carlin was able to call Christians out on the arrogance seen so often among us, and to do it in a way which made us laugh.

    RIP, George – you will be missed.

    And finally, thanks once again Michael for such an insightful post.

  5. Thanks for the great tribute to George Carlin. He was one in a million.

    I hadn’t planned on leaving a reply. THEN I read some of these comments and needed give my two cents.

    I grew up a Christian AND a preachers kid. From my first day on this earth I was told by my parents what I was going to believe. And if I “chose” not to believe, I was going to hell. SO, I did what anyone would do faced with these choices, I decided I would believe.

    In a previous post the following comment is made about George Carlin, “He chose to die as an agnostic, if not an outright atheist.” Maybe I’m not correctly interpreting the meaning of these words, but I find them to be aimed at scolding people who choose to believe differently. I am also an agnostic and sometimes do lean towards atheism. My beliefs are NOT the result of a hate or anger towards Christians. It is the result of looking at the facts and logically deciding what makes sense and what doesn’t. I prefer to call myself agnostic, because unlike a lot of Christians, I am willing to admit that I may very well be wrong.

    The comment that really got my goat though is from the person who needed to point out that based on his beliefs, any good works done by George Carlin are irrelevent. Hmmm? I’m not nearly as smart as Mr Carlin was, but this clearly creates some questions for me. If there is a God; WHY does he/she place the utmost importance in believing? It seems to me that things like Love, Respect, Kindness and Compassion, would not be irrelevent to God. I could be the most loving person on earth and do everything in my power to help my fellow human beings, but in the end, if I am unable to make myself believe, I will burn forever in a lake of fire. I’m sorry but I find this to be cruel.

  6. George Carlin’s death ought to cause us to tremble a bit. Sentimental reflections on his humor and willingness to “tell the truth” are a bit troubling in light of the fact that he routinely mocked God and, as far as we know, died in his unbelief. (I believe in death bed conversions and can only hope that in his final moments Carlin turned to the Savior.) Were some of his jabs at goofy Christians accurate? Of course. Is any of that a comfort to him now?

    I’m not in favor of making a long list of all the people who are going to hell. But why must we act as if God has not spoken clearly on this subject? Is it arrogant and cruel to agree with the words of Jesus that those who do not believe are condemned? Or is it arrogant to call Jesus deceived or a liar? Is it loving to deny the terrifying reality of hell? Or is it loving to warn unbelievers and mockers like Carlin the same way Jesus warned his original hearers?

  7. Barry Jenkins says:

    I am nonplussed. How could those that profess Jesus Christ as their Savior espouse a man that spoke against their foundational belief? I do not criticize; I only marvel. On a positive side, you have given me the perfect opening for this Sunday’s message on Job 36:18.

  8. Hey Mike,
    Hope you’re having a great time in our lovely city of Louisville on sabbatical!

    I’m not here to condemn Carlin or anyone who feels like he’s made a positive impact on his or her life. I’m for finding the Lord’s truth wherever you can. However …

    It seems en vogue these days for Christians to hold up and honor those who belittle our God and our faith in order to appear “loving” and “accepting” or “hip,” while we admonish and tear down those who try to live the truth (but fail),or those who try to work out their faith with fear and trembling but don’t fall in line with our theological litmus test. (How many of us would seriously mourn the death of some honestly seeking but misguided TBN personality, for instance?) Since when are we supposed to hold up and mourn with great words those who lived by “truth, at least as [the way they] saw it” when it’s in such glaring contradiction to the Truth that we hold sacred.

    Is it because we don’t want to look and sound like the button-downs who’ve turned our relationships with God into Pharisaic “religion”? Do we go too far in the opposite way? I know I’m guilty of this sometimes. I’m just posing questions for discussion here, not placing judgment.

    And while I’m sure that he’s the type of guy Jesus would’ve asked to grab a bite, I don’t think he’s the type of guy who brings our Creator and our Savior much joy.

    And sure, I can laugh at somebody who calls out Christians for foolish behavior. We should never take ourselves too seriously. But I think that we “post-whatever” Christians often think that we could get together with folks of Carlin’s mold and we could have a great laugh together about the “fuddy duddies.” Something tells me, though, that that’s probably not how it would go down because, make no mistake, it’s not just Christians that Carlin despises – It’s God. There is no doubt about it, he hates your God. He hates the God that saved you and me, and he thinks you’re a fool for believing in Him. Check out the link here to one of Carlin’s most famous routines if you doubt it:

    http://www.celebatheists.com/index.php?title=George_Carlin

    How many of you would spare a right-wing politician if he spewed vitriol of this manner?

    Once again, I hope I don’t come off as some condemning stuff-shirt. That’s not my intention. If some of you found truth in Carlin, that’s great. Should we love and be merciful to him? Absolutely. Should we shy away from the specks of truth in his act as though they didn’t exist? May it never be! But to point others to him only creates another obstacle for us from having what little purity of mind we allow the Holy Spirit to give us.

    (PHI 4:8) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

    (2 Tim 2:22) – Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

    Peace be with all of you! Pray for me (and I’ll do the same for you) as we all work out our faith with fear and trembling.

  9. Can you picture George Carlin’s stand up routine when he’s standing next to some of these “Brothers” and “Sisters” at the gates of heaven. Not “Seven Words you can’t say on TV” but “Seven Truths about Salvation often quoted but nt not believed by Christians”.

    I’ll give you number 1: God Saves, not works, Thank you God. Good comment Skerrib

  10. Jerry Redman says:

    Thanks for the tribute, as well as for giving us the forum to do the very thing in which Carlin engaged his whole life…exchanging ideas in order to discover (or more deeply discover) truth. As a follower of Christ, some of what George said about God brought me chills, but not because I found it to be blasphemy. Instead, the chills were due to his willingness to ask the questions and voice the doubts and anger many Christians secretly have concerning God, but don’t have the stones to actually admit, much less speak out loud. As Mike has already posted, George “faced his theodicy without blinking.” Would to God more of us who call ourselves Christians would do the same.

    As far as Carlin’s eternal situation is concerned, may he receive the same mercy in eternity I know I will also need.

  11. I wonder why we keep trying to decide on God’s behalf. The only opinion of ours I expect he listens to is when we pray for mercy for ourselves or for others. To decide a man’s hellbound?? When did He grant us that authority? I think our energy is better spent praying for the man, and for others who might be in spiritual jeopardy.

  12. Posters: I will no longer post any comment on Carlin in hell, etc. That’s not what my post was about. Your assumption that I am saying something about his eternal destiny shows that some of you can’t read well enough to have the right to comment, and I’m tired of deleting your irrelevant posts.

    Josh: It’s a comedy routine. Not a sermon or an academic lecture. When you treat a comedy routine as a worldview lecture, you may be on pretty thin ice.

    To the guy using me in a sermon:
    If you say I said one word about Carlin other than that he was a truth telling comic, then you’re lying to your congregation. Which given your profession is probably just a vocational normality.

  13. Tim,
    you wrote:

    The comment that really got my goat though is from the person who needed to point out that based on his beliefs, any good works done by George Carlin are irrelevent. Hmmm? I’m not nearly as smart as Mr Carlin was, but this clearly creates some questions for me. If there is a God; WHY does he/she place the utmost importance in believing? It seems to me that things like Love, Respect, Kindness and Compassion, would not be irrelevent to God. I could be the most loving person on earth and do everything in my power to help my fellow human beings, but in the end, if I am unable to make myself believe, I will burn forever in a lake of fire. I’m sorry but I find this to be cruel.

    God is certainly not indifferent to the things you mentioned (love, etc). God wants us to believe IN HIM. This means that we trust him, and thus make him the central object of our affections, hopes, etc. All good things that we can do would then flow naturally out of this relationship, since God is the source of all of those things. The real question concerning non-Christians and their relationship with God is whether or not it can go the other way around, whether a commitment to doing good means that a person actually does trust God, at least in some implicit way. The standard objection to this idea is that it is somehow an endorsement of works righteousness, of being able to earn God’s favor by being a good person. However, I fail to see how someone can be trying to earn the favor of a God they don’t believe exists! The closest I’ve seen to that is atheists who say something like, “well if there is a God, I’m a good person so he’ll like me.” But I think there are other possibilities, that there may be such a thing as implicit faith. I think you should know that with God, it never comes down simply to “did you believe proposition X?” Rather, it’s a question of whether you embraced God himself somehow, or rejected him somehow.

  14. I think the state of Carlin’s eternal soul is up to God…not us. As for what he did about Jesus Christ, I don’t know.

    His comedy did not appeal to me because of his trashy mouth. The guy could really engage in gutter talk.

  15. Michael – This was an excellent post and one that was truly refreshing to read. Thanks, I really appreciate your way of seeing human beings and controversial issues. Amongst Christians, it’s tragically rare.

  16. Hey, here’s a question, from a formerly traditional Christian who now falls somewhere between Deist, Agnostic, and social justice Christian, depending on the day:

    I see many Christians here who show appreciation and grace toward George Carlin.

    I see other Christians who seem incapable.

    Why are some Christians so hellbent on portraying a God less capable of extending grace than many of his own followers?

    Seriously.

  17. rampancy says:

    @phil:

    So therefore, if someone leads a general life of virtue but is not by your general definition a “Christian” (i.e. Mahatma Gandhi) then than person is hellbound, but what about someone who murders an abortion doctor but is ostensibly Christian? Do they get off the hook?

    I find this a very puzzling question, as I have often in my experience known many people (Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, Wiccans, etc.) who have distinctly demonstrated far more compassion, mercy, love and grace to me and others around them than the Christians in my life.

  18. iMonk,

    I enjoy your blog, but am not sure why you decided to post such a positive piece about Carlin.

    I agree that its not cool to openly comment on someone’s eternal destiny right after the’ve passed, but I feel it is equally uncool to post on how pithy & controversial a man Carlin was when he very well may have been lost. I just don’t get it.

    Gavin

  19. It’s interesting the various assumptions we bring to blog posts, isn’t it?

    Writing is going to be as varied as the writers experience and interests.

  20. Evan,

    I don’t have an answer for you, because I have personally experienced the same thing.

    I suspect that some of it is personality, some environment.

    It may be due to some of the same reasons that some abused children grow up to be abusers, and some do not.

    One thing I do know, God wants us to be merciful, as He is merciful to us. I know that I am in great need for His mercy, so I need to show it to others.

  21. Phil,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response to my post. I’ve asked that question several times of Christian friends, but you are the first to provide an answer that I can get my head around.

    I can see that in showing love to others I may unknowingly be trusting in some kind of higher power. It is when I get stuck in my own head that I become selfish and blind to needs of those around me. What the Christian God seems to be saying in the Bible is that unless I give this higher power the name of Jesus, I will go to hell. That’s a tough one for me.

    What some Christians fail to see is that Agnostics and Atheists are people seeking the truth, just like they are. In Josh’s comment here he questioned why George Carlin should be honored. He asks (How many of us would seriously mourn the death of some honestly seeking but misguided TBN personality?) I just think it’s wrong to assume that George Carlin wasn’t honestly seeking. His journey may have lead him to a different conclusion than Josh, but in the end, I believe his search may have been just as honest. When I was a Christian I can’t say that I would call myself a “seeker” of the truth. I just accepted what I had learned from my parents as being the truth. It was as an adult that I started to actually seek out answers to the questions that I had. The answers lead me to the conclusion that I did not have enough evidence that Jesus Christ is God. This does not mean that my search is over.

    Finally, I’ve read quite a few comments on her from people who feel that George Carlin was disrespectful and mocking of their religion. Carlin mocked EVERYTHING. This is what a comedian does. It seems to me to that there is a double standard. My Christian friends often tell me that I’m going to hell and honestly make fun what I believe or do not believe in. But if I make fun of their beliefs I am someone being disrespectful.

  22. dumb ox says:

    I don’t think saying a kind word about someone at his or her passing is somehow a slippery slope into cultural relativism. I think it is part of being in the world but not of it to point out goodness and talent in an individual, despite the sin that person has done. People, no matter how vile, cannot completely bury the image of God with which they were born. I think we need to be the ones to bring that out. No, it doesn’t save them in a Pelagian sort of way. Our humanity is general revelation that witnesses to the existence of God.

    In contrast, evangelicals seem to laud a non-christian not for glimmers of God’s image, but because he or she pays lip service to a religious cause or issue even though everything that such a person does, says, and supports is entirely secular, greedy, and wicked. The focus is not on God but on us as evangelicals and our causes.

    In Luke 7:1-9, the Jews urge Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant “because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” – not because he believed (because THEY didn’t!). I think the same is true for this generation of evangelicals. We enlist non-christians to champion our causes because what it does for us, not to draw them to Christ. The reason is because we are no closer to Christ than they are. This is why the coming of Jesus took the Pharisees by surprise: despite all their God-talk, they had no need for him; they had the temple, the synagogues, their own power, and their own rules; they didn’t need God.

    Carlin had some honest-to-goodness funny material, and I don’t mean the vulgar stuff. I think that humor was a gift from God. What he did with that gift may be a different discussion. Again, with all our “God talk”, what do we do with the gifts God has given us? Build buildings? Make lots of money (and give a little away)? Hob-knob with the good ‘ol boys in Washington? Regularly visit the local worship-tainment center? Are we ever merciful, as God has been merciful to us? Is there any glimmer of God’s image in us – we who claim to have the Holy Spirit?