Is Chris Rock a Prophet?
New York Magazine recently published an interview with Chris Rock that has already been getting coverage from other media outlets (You can read it here). It is honestly one of the most fascinating pieces that I have read in some time. It's a sprawling conversation covering Ferguson, racism, the process and difficulty of doing comedy, income inequality, Bill Cosby, the slowness of change, politics, and, because this is why the interview is taking place, his new movie.
What Rock has to say is incisive and often funny, but what fascinates me is his honesty. We live in a culture where every opinion that comes out of someone's mouth seems engineered by a group of people in a lab to generate some sort of response. Oftentimes I feel like politicians, public speakers, and preachers parse out every syllable of what they're saying to play to their base. The conversations going on in the media always feel scripted and therefore stilted.
So it is interesting to me when Rock says that one of his main approaches to comedy is asking the question: "Okay, what if the thing that everybody's talking about is wrong?" I have noticed that in work of great comedians. There is this tendency among Rock, Louis CK, and others to go against the grain, to talk about the things that no one else is talking about. It can be unsettling, uncomfortable, and crass, but it cuts in a way that might speak more truth than what you see on the evening news.
Another quote that I can't get out of my head followed a question about whether it's possible to be funny when you're playing to people in power. Rock answered, "I'll say this. Poor people laugh harder than rich people." There is a thread of something there that seems almost biblical to me; like it's a remix on the Beatitudes or speaks to the rawer emotions of those that are on the outs. That reminded me of something else Rock had said earlier.
During Advent, we read the prophets. This is in part because we see them pointing to Jesus, but the entire time they are talking about how those that are poor, abused, and underfoot have not been forgotten by God. The prophets are always getting in trouble because they are speaking truth to power. That gig earns a person a lot of backlash: hatred, abuse, and even death. Those in charge loved the prophets until they found themselves on the wrong end of the punchline. Interestingly, we don't read much of what the poor thought about Amos or Isaiah. They probably loved those guys.
Prophecy is the business of the church. And I don't mean prophecy in the future-predicting kind of way. Prophecy is speaking about the things in the world that don't line up with how God wants them to be. Prophecy is about goodness and justice.
I do not see the church being particularly prophetic these days. You may be thinking, "What? The church rails against culture all the time." Yes. The church is all too happy to talk about what is wrong with those people out there. That kind of talk is absolutely what the kings wanted from their prophets. "Tell us how God is going to cut down our enemies and make us great."
Yet prophecy challenges. It cuts to the issue of what is messed up in our hearts. It speaks up for the vulnerable. It upsets the places in which we have become comfortable. That's a tough gig. Even though prophecy includes mercy (it is not a never-ending list of "This is why you're a horrible person"), people typically don't want to hear about what's wrong with the world. We would just rather keep the troubles out of sight and out of mind. Or there are even times when we would like to be convinced that the wrong things we are doing are actually right even though they are hurting others.
We don't want to recognize that there is still racism. We don't want to recognize that income inequality leads to millions living in poverty while we build multi-million dollar facilities. We don't want to recognize that pumping chemicals into the air and blazing through our natural resources is neglecting our God-given duty to take care of our home. We don't want to think about the cost of lives for wars that protect our national self-interest.
So the prophecy job sometimes finds its way outside of the church walls. When we don't speak to injustice then someone else will. That's a credibility problem for the church. It makes us look even more out of touch with the world. Many times this voice has come from the world of music. Think Dylan, think U2 singing "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
But since people like their music pop, it seems like comedians have taken up that prophetic banner. I was listening to a podcast driving home last night when the lyric of one of the songs between segments grabbed my ear:
when the music plays
we aint saying too
much through it
we just add to
we just do it
then get mad
when they don't
now they love louis ck
and david chapelle
'cause the truth is
speaking more truth
than we in music
like we traded mediums
now we the ones
that act foolish...
- "Hang On" by Shad
Here's the thing: Prophets are going to speak up somewhere. If a prophetic stream dries up, it will begin to flow somewhere else. For God, there is not a mouthpiece that is off the table. I mean there's a story in which God spoke through a donkey for crying out loud. God speaks through people of every age, every station of life. Why not rock musicians and comedians?
Which brings me back to Chris Rock. When he was hosting SNL a few weeks ago, his monologue was basically a portion of his standup routine. He earned a lot of controversy for jokes about the Boston Bombing and the new Freedom Tower in New York. But the thing that I really remember was a bit about our culture of materialism. How he closed out that portion is now been making the rounds on the internet because of its timeliness during the Christmas season:
It was hilariously delivered, but it was also painfully true. How true was it? After I saw that quote again on the internet yesterday, I got an email from a Christian bookstore encouraging me to buy the newest holiday offering from the Duck Dynasty gang.
Is Chris Rock a prophet? I don't think that he's setting out to do anything like that. I don't have any idea what he believes about God. And at the end of the day, he is trying to be funny. But he seems to realize something about humor. We often laugh the most at the things that cut us the closest. He seems to realize laughter can help people look at things in different ways. It can speak truth to power. It can shine a light on the things that are messed up.
He may not be a prophet, but he definitely serves a prophetic function in some of the things that he says. Not everything. We are talking about a guy who starred in two Grown Ups movies with Adam Sandler. But we could definitely learn a thing or two from him when he speaks and makes us laugh with prophetic punchlines.