Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Coming Home to a Carlin Companion

By Becky Garrison
This article was originally published in the 3rd/4th Quarter issue of American Atheist

When I caught Kelly Carlin’s A Carlin Home Companion at the 2012 South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin, I became privy to an intimate glimpse into the soul of a man who saved me. My Episcopal priest/sociology professor father introduced me to Laugh In, The Smothers Brothers, Tom Lehrer, and other fare inappropriate for elementary school children. How many kids can recite The Lord’s Prayer and “The Vatican Rag?” So naturally I connected with George Carlin and savored his move from hippie-dippie weatherman to counter-cultural icon. Along the way, his critiques of American culture—and religion in particular—help keep me sane when my family’s idealism morphed into alcoholism and I became orphaned as a teen in the late seventies. I feel confident that without George’s critique, coupled with the absurdity of Monty Python, I would, by now, be pushing daisies (though with my immediate family’s history, I’d probably end up as fertilizer for kudzu).

Through Kelly’s eyes, I could see the fingerprints of her father. She has George’s sweet yet smartass smile and his ability to cut through the bullshit and get at the core of what it means to “try” and live an authentic life. (Emphasis here on the word “try,” as Kelly laid bare the entire family’s struggles when it came to battling their addictions.) Her selection of video clips and personal stories revealed a depth of thinking and personal connection Carlin rarely showed the world.

Initially, I found myself a tad surprised that despite Carlin’s anti-religious rants, god was not present in the Carlin household, in either a positive or negative connotation. I learned that Kelly does not have an inner need to rebel against god, because she didn’t have the Catholic upbringing that drove her dad. Instead, she was free to choose her own path and become her own person, though she confesses that trying to find out who Kelly was sans the “Carlin” name proved to be tricky as she navigated her way through a life she describes as “surreal on steroids.”

When she walked us through her parents’ deaths, I could almost feel her touching what the Celts term “thin space”—that line that separates this world from the next. (Not to turn into Mufasa mush here. Anything Disneyfied tends to turn my stomach.) But by the end of her piece, I saw more than George’s smile in Kelly. I could feel his genetic code embedded in her DNA, which she reinterpreted through her own unique life lens.

As Kelly’s story progressed, I could understand why George deemed her the shaman of the family. I found a narrative that proves how “none” does not mean “nothing,” as though without god there remains this void that needs to be filled. Instead, she gave me a glimpse into the spiritual life of the “Nones,” the fastest growing group in the spectrum of belief systems, often quoted by those religious leaders who lean somewhat left of center, and who ply their wares on the progressive Christian author/speaker circuit.

Despite their seeming overtures to those outside the Christian (read: Evangelical) bubble, the funding streams of these leaders indicate they’re committed, at least financially, to promoting a kinder, gentler form of progressive Evangelical/Emerging Christianity (1).Some, like current Sojourners Web editor Cathleen Falsani, have a decidedly evangelistic take, as evidenced in her review of the documentary Believe, where she offers to believe on behalf of comedian, actor, marathon runner, and aspiring politician Eddie Izzard until she feels Izzard can believe in her interpretation of god (2). 

Of course, they also hope you will buy not only their shtick but their books, CDs, and other spiritual swag as well. As a broke-ass religious satirist, I have been tempted more than once to join in peddling my wares to the masses. After all, such moves made millionaires out of the likes of Rob Bell, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. Setting aside my inability to actually pen such faith fluff without losing my lunch, I am haunted by the astute words of the late comedian Bill Hicks. He aptly noted, “You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story, OK? You’re another corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang bang.” (Bill Hicks Rant in E-Minor, “Artistic Roll Call,” (1997). 

In his rant, Hicks acknowledges he’ll look the other way if a struggling artist takes the occasional gig. Even my idol George cut a commercial during a time of genuine financial hardship. But Hicks zeros in on the proclivity for those in the spotlight to cash in on their talents, a move that over time snuffs out the creative sparks that made their original work sing. Carlin remains one of the few artists who could go commercial for a bit and then emerge with his integrity intact.

I confess that I also bought somewhat into the aforementioned peers’ promotional strategies, as evidenced by a talk I gave at the Greenbelt Festival in 2007. “The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail” was based on my book by the same name released in 2008 (3). I penned said book in large part because I thought that if people could only recognize the existence of a non-Gingrich god who doesn’t proclaim Santorum-like spirituality, they would surely come over and see the light. But if I could have known that this book project would end up poorly edited, replete with a Christian-branded PR campaign, I would have said no to this venture from the get-go.

Instead, I have now come to realize that trying to “Christianize” a Carlin (or anyone else for that matter) proves to be not only an exercise in futility but also an act of outright cruelty. As George taught his own daughter, we all must be free to exercise our liberty of conscience. In the words of my ancestor Roger Williams, “Men’s consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained.” Instead of this Evangelical/Emergent proclivity to convert the other, why can’t we just embrace the mystery that is life? Whether one is a freethinking agnostic, as George was, or an apophatic/agnostic Anglican like me, we need to be free to follow our souls as we understand them, unfettered from the sanctions of any governmental entity. For how can we have free will if it is force-fed to us by a fundamentalist state?

Yes, I have Roger embedded into my genetic code just as Kelly possess George’s spirit, thus begging the question of which familial spirits inhabits each of us. What do we take from our past and how do we incorporate this familial DNA so that we can learn to pass the best parts forward and leave the rest behind?

During my travels to promote my book Jesus Died for This?, I realized I now live so far out of the box that I no longer can fit within even the most liberal of traditions. While sitting in on another session at SXSW, “Bridging the Digital and the Divine,” I realized all this talk of building spiritual SEO content ended up building a bridge to nowhere. Also the fact that fewer than 25 people attended the panel confirmed my suspicions that outside the structured confines of organized religious entities, there is scant interest in commercialized faith.

Time for me to just throw all my Christian cardboard into the trash can. Then, during a screening of Let Fury Have the Hour at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, comedian Lewis Black’s rants reminded me that there is no inside- or outside-the-box thinking. There’s just thinking. Boxless is beautiful.

The more I connect with spiritual Atheists and agnostics, as well as the occasional religious community or individual, I realize that while we all think for ourselves, we often speak a similar language that connects us in our shared humanity. I would give up on Jesus altogether, but I have seen enough clergy who act more Tutu than terrible to know something is there beyond me. Also, I still participate at times in the rituals of the Anglican church because the Eucharist remains how this former altar girl still communicates with her daddy, who baptized her at six weeks old and prepped her for confirmation when she was eleven.

Like Roger before me, I’ve become a seeker who is no longer saved but still searches.
While I was processing my reactions to how Kelly’s and George’s journeys intersect with my own bow-legged walking, my agent called. He suggested we put together an e-book in time for the 2012 election cycle. Immediately, the echoes of my ancestor came to mind. We agreed that I should do a book on the seven classical virtues, Roger Williams-style, that explore common ways we can live together, in the public square, that honor us all. Why have we given up the discussion of virtues to Christian conservatives like William J. Bennett, who beat the virtues to death? In Roger, I think I may have stumbled upon a soul who can speak to liberal people of faith, as well as those who claim no faith tradition.

Now I’m not advocating for creating a common ground where we all come together to sing Kumbayah and ponder our navels in search of some esoteric god-goo. My hunch is that a gathering of this nature would send Roger running for the hills and set George off on one of his infamous hysterical rants against what he termed “self-righteous environmentalists; these white, bourgeois liberals.”

Obviously, one cannot extrapolate Roger’s pre-enlightenment theology onto a 21st-century global pluralistic world. But his scandalous interactions with the Narragansett Native Americans indicate that he would probably be one of the first clergy out there offering equal rights and rites to LGBT folks and anyone else marginalized by the Christian church (4). Rather than create Puritan enclaves designed to separate the saved from the damned, Roger chose to embrace all, knowing we are not isolated individuals but part of a shared global humanity.

Also, I strongly suspect Roger would pull one of his Bloody Tenet moves and go all John Cotton on those “Christian” leaders who push the electorate to vote in their version of Americana Christianity. (With well over 35,000 denominations—give or take a few thousand—determining the definitive descriptor of the Christian faith proves to be an exercise in futility.)

But Kelly reminded me that we need to bring back the spirit of George as we head toward the 2012 election. Yes, I know George ranted against voting, but what I am describing goes well beyond deciding who sits in the Oval Office. In these past four years, I’ve witnessed a rise of a Christianized form of bigotry and hatred that I hoped had gone away with the McCarthy era. When I started writing for the religious satire magazine The Wittenberg Door in 1994, the same year the Religious Right took over Congress, I thought we chronicled their final demise. If you had told me in 2008 that our political climate could get dumber than Dubya, I would have told you that’s a political impossibility. I would have been certain that, despite living in fearful times, Americans would never be so na├»ve as to be driven by a fear-based theology with no grounding whatsoever in Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings.

Wrong. Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, or Michelle Bachmann could easily be characters lifted from a Jonathan Swift story. Who in their right mind could have predicted that a Dan Savage-inspired Internet meme would ever be taken seriously as a presidential candidate? Why in the name of the Abrahamic God would any sane Christian demonize women for choosing to practice responsible family planning? Who in their right mind would assume that Barack Obama’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ means he also holds a membership in the Muslim Brotherhood? No wonder the Statue of Liberty had to undergo renovations last year. Her heart cried until it burst.

We need the voice of Carlin more than ever. While he may be gone from this earth, Kelly reminded me that he’s still present with us. Now is the time for us all to channel our inner ancestor. What would they say if they were standing next to us? While they can no longer speak directly to us, we can take our cue from Kelly and use our voices to continue their legacies. While George didn’t engage in topical political humor, I feel confident he wouldn’t stand silent during this latest round of Americana-branded unbiblical bullshit. And neither should we.

(1) See “Deconstructing Dominionism” in American Atheist, 4th Quarter 2011, for my report on some of these funding sources.
(2) [

(4) For my analysis of evangelical responses to LGBT folks, go to

Image: via Kelly Carlin

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

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