US Catholic Faith in Real Life

This American Life ruins Christmas

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The usually fun and thoughtful public radio weekly This American Life decided to ruin the holidays this year with a decidedly pretentious and unfunny attempt at holiday jokes, "Comedians of Christmas Comedy Special." But beyond the really surprising lack of quality--a poorly told 20-minute story of Christmas in prison started it all off--Mike Birbiglia's Little Altar Boy really took the cake.

To begin with, we had to suffer the de rigueur sex abuse joke--"The answer is no," says Birbiglia, noting he was passed over probably because he talked too much. Can we all admit that sex abuse jokes just aren't funny? They unfairly smear the other 98 percent of priests who never touched a child inappropriately, and they make light of indescribably suffering. But that was just the opener.

Birbiglia's whole story was leading to why he doesn't go to church, except on Christmas, because he could never attend an "institution" that convinced his mother she was going to hell. The back story involved some seriously painful surgery, major anxiety medication, and probably some event from his mother's life of which Birbiglia was completely unaware. Either way, his mother, hyped up on anxiety meds and in serious pain, thought she was dying and would go to hell.

It was a sad story, but such a cop out to blame an "institution" for such a bizarre situation. I get that we Catholics sometimes fall into this trap, and too many of us have let people think that Catholicism is finally about staying out of hell, but it's completely unfair to paste the entire "institution" with guilt for your or your mom's issues.

Unfortunately in much American media--and I count This American Life among the bright spots of journalism--that's what Catholicism is: your mom's church that "made" her think she was going to hell, so you can dismiss it.

That's the world we live in. But other than being sad and/or angry (I was both) at having something so important to me ridiculted and dismissed, what's the best response? I'm not the guy who says we should be looking for a fight with secular culture or NPR or anyone else. But a cheap shot is a cheap shot, and not fair at all to the people who make up that "institution." It seems to me that Ira Glass and the crew at This American Life would have been slower to produce such a blase criticism of any other culture that's part of the patchwork it covers week in and week out.