If you have never watched John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” you should.
Oliver grew up listening to Peter Cook and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” so his comedy sometimes veers into the surreal.
You will likely be offended by Oliver’s liberal use of the f-word (his show is on HBO, so he can use it as often as he likes, and he likes it a lot).
But, at heart, the British comic is a moral crusader. Bad people hide behind the sheer complexity of their sins and dare journalists to expose them in two minutes, or 300 words, without stupefying their audience with mind-numbing detail.
Oliver talks machine gun-fast and the one-liners, quirky analogies and sight gags never stop. We’re too distracted by the comedic flourishes to realize that we’re learning about horrible people doing horrible things and getting away with it. The private prison industry, for instance, or payday lenders. We are enraged, educated and entertained simultaneously.
Last year, Oliver took on Seed Faith TV preachers like Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and Robert Tilton. He even established his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, to show how easy it is for religious charlatans to rake in tax-free money. Oliver demanded cash donations and thousands of dollars rolled in (he forwarded the loot to Doctors without Borders).
When Terry Gross interviewed Oliver on her “Fresh Air” program, she focused on his send-up and take-down of the Seed Faith industrial complex. At the end of that conversation, she asked her guest if he had ever gone to church.
Oliver said he grew up in the Church of England, attending every week with his parents until the age of 12. That was a tough year. His favorite uncle and several of his school mates died one after another and young John Oliver needed to know what God was up to.
The church people told him it was all “God’s will.” He was so offended by the “garbage answers” he was getting that he walked out and never looked back. In his mind, organized religion had become toxic, a horror to be avoided at all costs.
It isn’t unusual for adolescent boys and girls to walk away from the church. Twelve is a bit young, but I suspect John Oliver would have parted ways with the Church of England by the age of 16 even if no one close to him met an untimely end. A church that traffics in clichés, denial and bromides can’t satisfy a bright, Cambridge-bound young man with a passion for justice and a wicked sense of humor.
I recently shared the story of my baptism. I didn’t walk the aisle because I understood what all that “blood of Jesus” atonement talk was all about (I didn’t). And I didn’t get baptized because I was inspired by the lovely music, the Late Great Planet Earth eschatology, or the very ordinary men and women dotting the pews.
Quietly and deliberately, I had decided to follow Jesus, and baptism gave me an opportunity to make that decision public. It was either roll my own religion or walk away.
C.S. Lewis, the patron saint of American evangelicalism, became an atheist at 15. He was enamored of Norse and Celtic mythologies, and the version of the Christian narrative presented in the church of his day sounded lame by comparison. Lewis didn’t become a sure-enough Christian until he was 33. And that wouldn’t have happened without the patient tutelage of friends like J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of us must fumble our way forward with no advice from Gandalf’s dad.
I’ve been wondering what it would have taken to keep John Oliver in the church. Or, alternatively, what it might take to lure him back.
Actually, since Oliver was born in 1977, I was surprised to learn that he was raised in the church at all. But his religious roots go pretty deep. Several of his recent ancestors were parish priests and a paternal great-great-grandfather was William Boyd Carpenter, Bishop of Ripon and court chaplain to Queen Victoria.
But in 1990, the approximate year John Oliver bid the church a not-so-fond farewell, 37 percent of the English population claimed to be Anglican with 36 percent professing “no religion.” Three decades later, 53 percent of the population is religionless and only 15 percent retain membership in the Church of England. Only 8 percent of the English population attend church regularly.
If England is one of the least religious nations in the western world, the United States occupies the other end of the spectrum. But according to a recent Gallup poll, church and synagogue attendance figures in America have also shown a decline in recent years, falling from 70 percent in 1980 to 54 percent in 2017.
When the Gallup poll asked if respondents had confidence in organized religion, those saying they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” dropped from 68 percent in 1975 to 41 percent in 2017. Asked if they had absolutely no doubts about the existence of God in 2005, 80 percent said yes. By 2017, just 12 years later, only 64 percent claimed that level of confidence.
Rates of religious affiliation, confidence in the Bible, and belief in God decline precipitously as the pollsters move from older age cohorts to younger.
The catastrophic erosion of religious faith witnessed in John Oliver’s England is being imported to America. The impact is more dramatic in Western and Northeastern states, but is noticeable even in the Dallas-FortWorth metroplex, the New Jerusalem of the American megachurch.
So, what will it take to retain our young people?
I have 10 suggestions.
- We must stop trying to retain our young people. The John and Jane Olivers growing up in our churches cannot be scammed. They know when they’re being sold, and they flee for the exits.
- Keep it simple. Children grasped the kingdom message of Jesus because they didn’t overthink it. Stick to kingdom basics: preaching good news to the poor, defending the stranger, the prisoner, the sick and the hungry, radical forgiveness, enemy love, non-violent resistence, peacemaking and making room at the table for all God’s children.
- Drop the complicated atonement theories and define salvation as the surprising consequence of kingdom living.
- Insist on incarnation. If Jesus didn’t reveal the heart of God, who cares what he said? Alternatively, if Jesus did reveal the heart of God, we should live his way even when we aren’t sure it makes sense.
- Transpose the Bible into the key of Jesus. Young people (and their parents) need to know what to make of the un-Jesusy parts of the Bible.
- Kingdom religion demands kingdom hymns, psalms and spiritual songs. Let’s write them and sing them.
- Raise the bar of moral expectation. The gospel is simple, but it’s never easy. If there’s no “fear and trembling” to our religion we’re not shouldering the cross of Jesus.
- Shun legalism. The first generation of Christians couldn’t agree about the do’s and don’ts of discipleship and we won’t either. They agreed to disagree and so must we.
- Ask the hard questions and resist easy answers. John Oliver left the church because he could smell “garbage answers” a mile away. Like William Blake, we must not “cease from mental fight.”
- Finally, understand that we can’t keep some of our kids without losing some of our adults. The form of religion we have inherited was packaged for mass appeal. It can still be sold to the Boomers, but the Millennials aren’t buying. And that’s a blessing.