(Thanks to Christy Lang for showing me this!)
If you’re not a Hulu user, go register online (it’s free) and then watch this episode of FX’s “Louie.” The show is a mash-up of Louie C.K.’s stand up comedy routines and skits that are loosely based upon his life. In this episode, which takes place in a Catholic school in 1977, young Louis become convinced that he is responsible for killing Jesus–until his mom tries to make him feel better by telling him that none of it is true.
Click here for the episode. You can skip to 6:20 (kids sitting in pew in the sanctuary) and watch through18:24 (Louis’s adult comedy routine). Never mind the sit-com feel of the show; these scenes are haunting, and they pretty much illustrate the dilemma of Christians who are trying to steer between “Jesus Camp” and “moralistic therapeutic deism.” As Christy asked, “What does faith look like that is passionate, but not violent or guilt-inducing?” Are fear or faithlessness our only options?
There are times I’ve felt like the humorless nun in the scene from “Louie,” pitching a serious point to a room full of snickers and rolled eyes. And I admit to more satisfaction than I should have felt when a group of normally intransigent guys at our church watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ one year, leading one to admiringly say of Jesus: “Dude, that guy had guts.”
But most of the time I err on the side of Louis’s mother, trying to soothe away guilt, attempting to soften religion’s sharp edges, urging young people not to take their own sin too seriously. “You are a good kid” is my message most of the time–and I believe this is part of the good news Christ wants kids to hear. God made them in God’s own image, which is to say that God made them good, very, very good, not because of who they are, but because of the God they reflect.
But there is more to the story. To reflect the image of God takes more than we’ve got; the world conspires against goodness, and children know it. Youth are the first to sniff tension in the air, the first to feel shame, the first to absorb fear and its consequences. Children know when something is wrong, and when we console them without naming sin for what it is (theirs or ours), we teach them to deny the moral compass that helps them discover God’s image in themselves and others. They come to believe they are the only ones watching what they do, and (despite what Louie’s mother hopes) this is not a liberating discovery. It is a millstone around their necks. The image of God becomes so muddied that young people no longer recognize it in anyone, with disastrous consequences.
Were we to comfort Jesus, as Louis does–were we to want to make things better for Jesus–we would be taking out the nails in the hands and feet of all of those we have crucified over the centuries. We would be binding people’s wounds and comforting those who suffer and “living the alternative,” as Peter Storey says, that the church is called to be in the world. But to comfort Jesus requires us to have the very impulse that gets Louis in trouble: remorse.
Garrison Keillor once observed that today we rationalize, we do not have remorse. Remorse has become unfashionable–which is too bad, says Keillor, since remorse can motivate a world of good. A twinge of guilt on the part of a careless lover can make him more thoughtful in the future. A dose of shame from inserting ourselves at the head of the line can lead to more compassion next time. A sense of regret for the sins of the world could lead churches to try to relieve some of them. Frankly, a little remorse on the part of Christians would be (in my opinion) a step in the right direction.
Of course, when Louis’s mom tells him, “You are a good kid,” she is telling him the truth. Yet she does not understand that Louie’s goodness stems from his image-of-God-ness, evidenced in his earnest desire to make the world right and remove the nails that cause Jesus pain. Louie knows that he is broken, and that he must change to make things right; this is the root of his remorse, and his redemption. Yet Louie’s mom wants to spare him from remorse–which means she must deny that the image of God is in him, and nullify his faith. It’s an understandable path to follow. Louie won’t get in trouble again.
Which is a shame.