According to author James Baldwin, “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
This might explain the popularity of Louie C.K., whose rise to stardom has transitioned him from accomplished comedian to household name, not only because of his time writing for luminaries like Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien, or because of Louie, his critically-acclaimed bio-dramedy on FX, but also from an insightful comic bit that went viral in 2008, entitled “.”
Well now he’s back, with another insightful, melancholy quasi-comedic rant about why he won’t let his daughter have a cell phone. It starts off being about how kids today don’t know how to communicate with proper eye contact, but then before you know it, he’s waxing philosophical about perpetual distraction, existential sadness, texting and driving, and doing a crazy Springsteen impersonation. It’s a five minute tour de force that is brutally funny and shockingly poignant.
I love almost all of Louie CK’s humor, even the crass, over-the-line jokes. They’re just all so painfully honest. With a sentence or two, CK can masterfully project an aura of disregard for what you think about him, which is part of the appeal. And it’s not in an iconoclast, look-at-me-I’m-a-rebel way, but more of a matter-of-fact, this-is-just-who-I-am-*sigh*-whaddya-gonna-do sort of way. Most of his material comes from a side-eyed glance at society at large, and his way of glibly revealing the fraudulent nature of contemporary American pride and excess.
Essentially, Louis CK talks a lot about privilege. Racial privilege, yes, but also the privilege of wealth and prosperity in general, which demands nothing more than the pursuit of and allegiance to itself. But unlike Chris Rock, CK speaks not as a critical outsider, but as one trapped in the machine, all too familiar with the soul-crushing effects of fame, fortune and power.
In that, he has a lot in common with the Biblical figure Solomon.
Solomon was a man of incredibly vast privilege. His reign was part of a decidedly prosperous era for the kingdom of Israel, and he took full advantage of that wealth. With untold riches, multitudes of both wives and concubines, and a reputation for wisdom, he was like Steve Jobs, Tony Stark, and Hugh Hefner all rolled into one. He was the most interesting man in the world long before The Most Interesting Man in the World.
And yet, for Solomon, staying thirsty was not a catchphrase, but a lament. All throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, assumed to have been written by Solomon, is a tone of resigned futility. Verse after verse describes the author’s attempt to find fulfillment through the pursuit of worldly pleasures. And it all adds up to nothing, vanity, meaninglessness. Like chasing after the wind or trying to grasp smoke.
This is what Louie CK was referring to when he talked about that “forever empty” feeling. The fallen nature of sin in the world has created an inescapable sense of foreboding that we adults have to contend with on a daily basis, even if only subconsciously. All of the unfairness of life, all of the frustration, all of the pent-up, unfulfilled longing… it weighs on us. Like graffiti on a random wall, we’re conditioned to believe that there is no gravity, the world just sucks.
As a Christian, I know that there is an antidote for this existential gloom, and it’s not just listening to cathartic music. I believe that the emptiness we feel is evidence that we are in need of a Savior, and that this fallen world is not meant to be our home.
But in too many Christian circles, we’re conditioned to project the exact opposite message. The popularity of the prosperity gospel, combined with the advent of social media, mandates that we project Christian positivity at all times. This is one of the reasons why there aren’t enough worship songs that give voice to lament. We’re not allowed to publicly demonstrate feelings of emptiness, because somehow we think it’s bad PR. We think we’re supposed to look like we have it together at all times, so as to somehow show the world that the Christian life is the best choice because it guarantees the most successful outcomes (kids in the best schools, job with the most money, biggest house, et cetera).
But being confident in our hope doesn’t require us to never show any sadness. On the contrary, the popularity of Louie CK’s latest viral clip is proof that honesty and vulnerability is something that resonates, that causes people to stand up and take notice, and sometimes even stop you in a sporting goods store.
As someone just venturing into stand-up, I admire CK’s bold, unfiltered style, even though I know that as a worship leader, I can’t afford to take all those kinds of risks in pursuit of a laugh. But I hope that every time we see a bit like that go viral, it will be a reminder that perhaps we could do more to be a bit more honest and vulnerable. It’s true that people won’t hear the gospel if no one tells them, but it’s also true that they won’t have a concept for their sinfulness if they’re not allowed to acknowledge that something about life is wrong.
Even if that something is, y’know… little kids with cell phones.