This week's New York Times Magazine had an article about a Christian comedienne who's all the rage on YouTube. You can sample her comedic offerings in the YouTube below. The article about Anita Renfroe was written by Mimi Swartz, an editor at Texas Monthly. Most of the readers who passed it on to us complained about the anthropological approach of the reporter, as evidenced by the headline: "Did You Hear the One About the Christian Comedian?" Here are some representative passages along those lines:
Renfroe is also a devout Christian and for about eight years has been slowly building a career as a comedian on the Christian women's circuit. Like Mike Huckabee's easy humor, Renfroe's wit comes as a surprise to nonevangelicals. . . .
"I have a good time almost all the time," Renfroe told me. "But I do feel a little bit of pressure." That's understandable given her most important task: proving that being a Christian comedian is not an oxymoron.
These are the types of passages that say much more about the reporter and the New York Times than the subject of the piece. As a Lutheran, I don't qualify as an evangelical, but it never occurred to me to classify a group that includes tens of millions of Americans as devoid of all wit and humour. Of course, I actually know more than a few evangelicals. Heck, some of my best friends are evangelicals (cue: rim shot) and they're very funny people. How you can be an editor at a Texas publication and write lines like that? It makes me think an editor tried to shape the story in that direction.
I think it's good that the Times is covering cultural stories outside the comfy confines of Manhattan. (This isn't the first time the Times has written about Christian comedians.) And it's true the mainstream comedy blogs and sites don't cover comedians such as Renfroe. The fact is that most of the mainstream media reflect the values and cultural tastes of people in a few blue zip code cities as opposed to folks in the rest of the country.
Renfroe is treated as a novelty when, in fact, she's more an example of some pretty big trends. But when the article is stuck on the notion that a Christian comedian is crazy talk, how insightful can the story be?
Thankfully the reporter had quite a few words to work with. She gives readers a look at Christian women's conferences, the place where Renfroe got her start. And yes, it's full of snarky comments about women sharing hotel rooms to save money and the less-than-gourmet food choices they make. But Swartz has some good color about the speakers at the conference. She does a good job of writing up Renfroe's jokes and showing how evangelicalism's embrace of entertainment worship has helped her develop her comedy.
Swartz notes that the comedy club circuit has rewarded raunchy and profane humor more than Renfroe's fare -- jokes about mammograms, underwire bras and spousal submission. But back to the New York Times' tone deafness:
Renfroe's comedy -- and indeed, much of the comedy in evidence at Women of Faith -- while still "clean" and often wrapped in homilies dedicated to a higher purpose, seems to owe as much to feminism as to Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry. There is an undeniably subversive element in any group of successful women urging less successful women to step into life and refuse to be defeated. Renfroe would rather label that call "empowerment" than "feminism," because in her mind the goals are not the same.
Actually, there is nothing subversive about women encouraging other women. And hard as it may be for the mainstream media to accept, strong women predate the feminist movement.
I may not be what you would conventionally describe as evangelical (I include the caveat since "evangelical" is another term for "Lutheran" but that's not how the media use the term) but I was brought up by devout Lutherans who pretty much rejected feminism and who also told me I could be president or anything else I wanted to be. I was constantly encouraged to emulate the mighty heroines from scripture as well as church history. And I was also given role models in my congregation. In other words, my parents and fellow parishioners relied on thousands of years of church history to encourage me. All while rejecting much of feminism.
Still, I think she asks some interesting questions about evangelical Christianity's intersection with culture:
All Christian comics must ultimately decide how they will define themselves -- as Christians who happen to do comedy or as comics who happen to be Christian -- and that pressure grows with success. So far, Renfroe has remained exactly where she wants to be: squarely in the middle of that continuum. But events have conspired to challenge her comfort zone. After the YouTube video went viral, Renfroe was invited to appear on "Good Morning America" to discuss it. . . .
That day, they asked Renfroe whether she might also be able to perform comic vignettes on the show. Renfroe sent them a list of 25 suggestions: segments on beauty salons, the ignominy of sweatsuits, fighting for carts at the grocery store, menopausal side effects, etc., and [senior broadcast producer Margo] Baumgart was thrilled. The religion issue never came up in discussions, perhaps because another network was already expressing interest in Renfroe. "We won't hide it, but we won't highlight it," Baumgart says. "We love her for who she is." That was good with Renfroe: "Christian is who I am; funny is what I do," she told me. "I think the people who make the decisions don't really care if I'm Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. I think they just care if I'm funny."
It's nice the reporter included this distinction from Renfroe. It's a shame she didn't use that perspective as a launching point for the entire article.
Art: A funny strong, empowered woman who somehow predated feminism.