What Colbert can teach Catholic catechists

Colbert and James Martin

Satirist Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. I have come to the rather surprising conclusion that he embodies a formula for effective catechesis, writes Patrick Manning in America.

Since the debut of his late-night satirical news show, The Colbert Report, in 2005, Colbert has gained immense popularity. Each night his program opens to the thunderous applause and chanting of a packed studio audience. The show has garnered many awards, including two primetime Emmys, several additional nominations and the honour of coining the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2006: truthiness.

Yet Colbert’s influence goes beyond introducing new vocabulary into American culture. In an article in The New York Times in 2012, Charles McGrath observed that Colbert’s conservative, blowhard persona was beginning to transgress the bounds of his television studio and meddle in the real world. Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result.

As members of a church tasked with reaching out to the world in a new evangelisation, teachers of the Catholic faith should be intrigued by the way Stephen Colbert has captivated his audience. What might we do to be as effective in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Colbert has been in spreading the gospel of Stephen? Instead of spying on the Sunday school classroom where Mr Colbert has served as a Catholic catechist, I suggest attending to the place where he is most in his element—on air.

Stephen Colbert’s meteoric rise to fame has been aided by his charismatic personality, improv comedy training and a talented team of writers—advantages the average catechist cannot count on. Yet there is something more basic and replicable underlying his success. Indeed, I have come to the rather surprising conclusion that he embodies (unintentionally, no doubt) a formula for effective catechesis proffered by St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries: delight, instruct and persuade.

First, Augustine tells catechists in On Christian Doctrine that they must delight their audience: 'A hearer must be delighted, so that he can be gripped and made to listen.' This Church father knew that it matters little whether one speaks the truth if one’s audience is not interested enough to pay attention. A boring presentation makes an audience less receptive and less likely to return, while a pleasing presentation renders an audience eager to listen and even to come back for more. In short, style makes a difference.

FULL STORY Truth and truthiness (America)

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