I was sitting in my hotel room recently when I realized I missed an old podcast interview with Norm Macdonald. This simply could not stand. For the longest time I've been a huge fan of Norm, devouring his stand up, talk show appearances, and most other things one can gorge on YouTube. So, knowing I had a few hours to kill, I eagerly listened to the show. In some ways, Norm is exactly what you might expect. He's funny, sharp, and filled with great old stories about his days at Saturday Night Live. But in some ways, he (like so many other stand-up comics) is not what you might expect. He is philosophical, theological, and unsettled. Specifically, he's unsettled about suffering and death. Unlike many of us, who distract ourselves enough to ignore the inevitable always coming our way, Norm hasn't always been able to do that. He told Marc Maron once:
"I can't stop myself from constantly ruminating over death."
As a result, Norm's been looking for solutions. He has looked for answers from the great Russian novelists Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He has had periods of time that he's looked for hope in the church (sometimes referring to himself as a Christian), while other times, he has sought solace from Judaism (sometimes saying he's probably most comfortable in that faith). In the context of the interview I was listening to, he began discussing this persistent quest for truth when he said something that rocked me:
"I have a Rabbi who I talk to a lot... he's a real scholar. My pastor doesn’t know anything-I mean anything.... he's just a pleasant guy. If you ask him a direct question, he'll go: 'What? Didn't you hear my sermon?'"
And this is the part that got me:
"But his sermon's always like 'How to be a nice fella' or some nonsense."
Immediately, I stopped the recording and rewound it to listen more closely... Yes, he said what I thought he said:
"But his sermon's always like 'How to be a nice fella' or some nonsense.“
Now, before I go off here on a tangent, let me acknowledge a few things. First of all, I have no idea who this pastor is. Second, I have no idea what denomination the pastor is from (though from other discussions I’ve heard, he appears to be broadly evangelical?). I have no idea about anything other than this is somebody Norm Macdonald knows who happens to be a pastor. So, I don’t want to rashly indict the whole of God’s church based on this one impression from Norm. However...
(Tangent Time) I wasn't terribly surprised that this had been his experience with whatever church he was attending. Based on my times witnessing and talking to people all over New York City, I've shared here before, that I have met very few people that actually associate Christianity with what it really is. The vast majority of the time, Christianity is associated with political positions, and well, as Norm says it, telling someone "how to be a nice fella." Norm's smart enough to know that "Being a nice fella" does not do a thing to fight off his fear of death. Sadly, it is not the amazing proclamation that "our Savior Christ Jesus has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10) but the milquetoast mush of a thousand self-help books that Macdonald and so many others have heard emphasized. The distinctly Christian good news that Christ has died and risen in your place for the forgiveness of all your sins (Romans 5:1-11) has foolishly been swapped out in favor of "Jesus, Life Coach." The proclamation heard is not St. Paul confidently taunting our greatest enemy with the words, "O death where is your sting? O death where is your victory?" but the snore inducing, "Be a better you." It all reminds me of the oft used quote from William Willimon describing modern Evangelicalism’s preaching: "Unable to preach Christ and Him crucified, we preach humanity, and it improved."
I can’t blame Norm for calling this message what it is: “Nonsense.” Thankfully, that’s not the whole story. In fact, I have reason to be encouraged that some preacher somewhere is declaring to him what Christianity is really all about. If I had to wager a guess, it might be his good friend, legendary country singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who is an unapologetic man of the cross.
For example, listen to this little nugget he shares in another interview: "Some people believe that man is divine, like kind of a hippie idea. I can't believe that because I know my own heart, and I know that's not true. Other people believe that we're wretched like the cynics or the atheists would believe we're all just wretched nothingness, just animals, just creatures. I can't believe that. It doesn't make any sense, that we're just beasts. I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we're both divine and wretched, and there's this Middle Man that's the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we're born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense."
Just like in the previous interview, I had to rewind to make sure I was hearing all this right. Yeah, that's actually what he said. In this short statement, Norm notes the fallenness of his own heart (that he's a wretch), while at the same time acknowledging that there's something about us that is connected to the divine (what we might refer to as the Imago Dei, the fact that we're created in the image of God). And notice what Norm says everyone needs in his equation to be made right with the Divine again: A "Middle Man the Savior" aka, Jesus Christ. Yes, at its most basic, that's the message the world around us who are all facing suffering and death need to hear declared with thunderous confidence. That though you are wretched, through Jesus Christ, God has provided a Mediator who has won eternal life for you and for the entire world. My hope is that Norm is trusting in this message for his victory over death. As was mentioned earlier, it's not always clear where Norm's at, but he's dropped hints...
Over on Twitter, scattered every once in a while between seemingly endless tweets about golf, gambling or comedy, sometimes he’ll fire off something a little more substantive. A little while back, he tweeted out this simple message on Reformation Day:
“Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, Glory of God. Smart men say nothing is a miracle. I say everything is."
Yes, Norm Macdonald was listing out the Five Solas of the Reformation and declaring it all to be miraculous.
To that, I can only say, "Amen."