Dave Rubin, the ‘pelvic issues’ and Jewish comedians

| Bishop Robert Barron | February 9, 2017 | 13 Comments

Recently, I was interviewed in Los Angeles by Dave Rubin for his popular program “The Rubin Report.” Dave is a stand-up comedian, political satirist, protégé of Larry King, and spokesman for, I think it’s fair to say, the classically liberal, secularist world view. He has demonstrated a particular interest in the issues raised by the new atheists and by the supposed conflict between religion and the sciences. He is also an advocate of gay marriage. You might be wondering, therefore, why he’d want to talk to a Catholic bishop.

But this reveals one of his most appealing characteristics, namely, a willingness to engage points of view very different from his own. I found during my pleasant, stimulating hour with him that he has studied the methods of his mentor, Larry King, which is to say, he asks good, searching questions, but doesn’t play “gotcha” or try to trip up his interlocutor.

About half-way through the conversation, Dave turned to several hot-button issues, including abortion, pornography and gay marriage. I was more than happy to engage all of these, and I did so in a way that, I hope, struck the right balance between moral demand and mercy. I suppose you could watch the video and decide for yourself. But I will confess that the moment we turned to these matters, something in me tightened, precisely because I knew that, though this part of the interview covered perhaps 10 minutes, it would pretty much obscure everything else that we talked about. And judging from the thousands of comments on the videos, my instinct has proved to be more or less accurate. As I have argued before, this preoccupation with “the pelvic issues” has served to undermine the work of evangelization.

When you read the great evangelizing texts of the New Testament — the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, the book of Revelation, etc. — you don’t get the impression that what their authors wanted you primarily to understand is sexual morality. Rather, they wanted you to know that the great story of Israel had come to its highpoint and that God, in the person of the crucified and risen Messiah, had come to reign as king of the world. God, redemption, the cross, the resurrection, Jesus the Lord, telling the good news — these are the master themes of the New Testament. Again, please don’t misunderstand me: God impinges upon all aspects of life and therefore placing our sex lives under the Lordship of Jesus matters. But I fear that for so many people in the secular world today, religion is reduced to the policing of sexual behavior, and this is massively unfortunate.

I’d like to draw attention to one topic from my conversation with Dave Rubin that I think merits special consideration, since it shows an important link between Biblical religion and the very liberalism that Dave represents. Toward the end of our interview, he asked me about humor in relation to the Bible and referred to a number of famous Jewish comics from Mel Brooks to Jerry Seinfeld to Larry David. I replied that whenever I hear such figures, I do indeed think of the authors of the Scriptures, for the Bible is marked, through and through, by a playful irony and by a profound skepticism regarding power, authority and any claim to human perfectibility. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the author of the book of Jonah, the composer of first and second Samuel — especially in regard to kingship and institutional corruption — if you doubt me on this score. And this is why, I insisted to Dave Rubin, that much of our political sensibility in regard to checks and balances, and much of our healthy skepticism in regard to the accumulation of power by any one person or one group, are born of these Biblical instincts.

Nowhere is this principle on fuller display, I explained, than in the central symbol of the Christian religion. The cross of Jesus, depicting a tortured and humiliated man put to death by a corrupt political power, is held up as a kind of taunt to imperial Rome — and to any of Rome’s successors down through the ages. What Christians say through that sign to all oppressive empires is this: You think you dominate the world through your threats and military power, but God’s authority is greater than yours, and God’s might overwhelms yours. This is why it is a delicious (and typically Jewish) irony that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, places over the cross of Jesus a sign that reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” making Pilate the first great evangelist.

Relatedly, there is no text on earth more insistent upon the foibles, follies and wickedness of human beings than the Bible. Whereas many philosophies of the ancient world — Platonism and Gnosticism come readily to mind — teach some form of human perfectibility; and whereas many ideologies of modernity — Nazism and Communism most prominently — hold out utopian fantasies, the Scriptures squint skeptically indeed at such programs. Blaise Pascal, opining that the one who would make himself an angel will in fact make himself a beast, was operating out of a thoroughly Biblical perspective. I would argue that political liberalism at its best — wary of power, critical of political oppression, protective of those likely to be exploited by various forms of imperialism — is deeply rooted in the Jewish/Biblical mindset.

Anyway, I am very grateful to Dave Rubin for the interview and the opportunity to explore a number of issues related to faith and society. I just hope that his viewers can appreciate that there is a lot more to Christianity than the “pelvic issues.”

Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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Category: Commentary, Word on Fire

  • Carol Nelson

    See what Church Militant had to say about this interview.

    • Dominic Deus

      Carol–I’m creeped out by anything with “militant” in its name. Militancy is not a beatitude or, in my opinion, even a virtue. It’s like irritability or crankiness; not a sin but not a personality trait that gets you invited over for dinner. Well, unless it’s a dinner for militants which raises the question “Do they really care about the food?”

      This IS my happy face…

      • Charles C.

        You’re not familiar with the Church Militant, Church Penitent, and Church Triumphant?

        Creeped out or not, the members of Christ’s Church on Earth have been called The Church Militant for centuries.

        Now the apostolate named Church Militant is another issue. I’m just trying to get you over your “Creeped out” barrier, and I’m starting small.

        • Dominic Deus

          Charles–excellent point! Starting small is always good with me. You are right; I was thinking primarily of the Church Militant apostasy (my word) which I regard as being perilously close to outright Christian hate groups. My favorites are the ones on radio that I hear driving between Minneapolis and Madison. I can stand them for about an hour.

          Regarding the Church(s) Militant, Penitent and Triumphant, they too bother me. The have always seemed to me to be an overwrought attempt to explain that you are either in Heaven, on Earth or in Purgatory and attribute way too much, too complex formulations of thought regarding proud triumphalism, suffering penitentialism, and the view of life on earth, human and otherwise, as a war.

          This is, to me, a very impoverished definition of life on earth, life in the House of God, God’s creation here, and a very dim realization of what seems obvious: We are all spiritual beings having a temporal experience. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/959207c970840f4de9eca557eb71498cb15efc067609441b5c999543d0c8e9c9.jpg

          • Charles C.

            Dear Dominic,

            You point out, quite correctly, that it is impossible to squeeze complex ideas into one word. There will always be distortion. Many one word descriptions irritate me, and a few anger me, but the tripartite division of the Church with the accompanying labels is pretty minor in my mind.

            If the Church is the people of God, then recognizing that there are three major divisions among the people makes sense to me. His children are in His presence, here on Earth, or awaiting the completion of their preparation to come into His Presence after their death.

            Church Penitent causes me the least amount of trouble, but then I accept the concept of purgatory as a place of expurgation or penance.

            Church Militant and Triumphant seem to be almost of one piece for me. Fighting against evil, both without and within ourselves is a constant struggle or battle. St. Michael is pictured thrusting a spear (or sword) through the Devil for good reason. “I have fought the good fight . . .” also sounds pretty aggressive to me. If we had relied on “I have finished the race . . .” we might have ended up with “The Church Athletic,” or, Heaven forbid, “The Church Jogging.”

            And if you’re in a battle, being “Victorious” seems to be a worthwhile goal.

            In any event, though not perfect, there are many, many things which bother me more. This one doesn’t even show up on my screen.

          • Dominic Deus

            Charles–I see common ground creeping up on us again!

            “Fighting against evil, both without and within ourselves is a constant struggle or battle. St. Michael is pictured thrusting a spear (or sword) through the Devil for good reason.” I like that. The recognition that the Devil is within us as well as outside in the world makes it seem very honest.

            I agree. Ancient trinitarian views of the structure of the Church are not of much interest to me either. I am sure they served a good purpose in the earlier Church. We have Christ’s work to do here and now and speaking for myself, I’m running out of time 😉 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8d6d086587493929a6eb0c3c68bb208b21313d4d0a9173b61f41da45cf587841.jpg

            It’s my new driver’s license picture. What do you think?

  • Dominic Deus

    Bishop Barron: I rarely read such writing from a Catholic bishop. Blessed with Archbishop Hebda as we are, I have hoped to discover more kind and pastoral bishops but I never expected to find one with a keen ear for the humor and irony of scripture. To me it stands to reason that God would have a great sense of humor and if we believe we are made in the image of God that means we have to appreciate how gloriously funny life can be. My personal favorite is the Wedding at Cana when Mary tells Jesus about the wine problem and he replies testily “Woman, what would you have me do?” Mary just smiles and tells the stewards to follow his instructions. She knows he loves her and will do whatever makes her happy. She’s a Jewish mother and he is her son. It’s a done deal; funny–but sweet.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/82bd23ddb021f14435ba19624869cd31257c8cc4d1fa9243c38bb47a07511f4b.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/959207c970840f4de9eca557eb71498cb15efc067609441b5c999543d0c8e9c9.jpg

  • Dominic Deus

    Bishop Barron: “But I fear that for so many people in the secular world today, religion is reduced to the policing of sexual behavior, and this is massively unfortunate.” Point well taken, Now the question becomes “Why ever would *that* be?” 😉 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/06426ea68388ce3ffe1ef6f6c5a5ee443c18f53a312803f2476d73d2f9dead64.jpg

    My guardian angel pestering me again.

    • Charles C.

      Because, for most secular people, sex is the fundamental personal issue and they tend to see the world through that lens. They don’t see Church documents on immigration, the environment, Communism, Modernism, human dignity, bioethics, and on and on and on. They don’t see them because they ignore everything that doesn’t affect their major concern, sex.

      And just as a burned finger hurts if it’s put into mildly warm water, those seculars are “hurt” by anything that isn’t full-throated support for whatever it is they want to do this month.

      As the Church is one of the last remaining structures in the West which declares, however weakly, that some sexual activities are wrong, it receives a hailstorm of criticism based on the critics’ distorted thinking and excessive sensitivity

      • Dominic Deus

        Charles–I think it is more a matter of sexuality being the issue in which the Church’s experience is most alien to their own and yet the Magisterium seems determined to have the final say on matters sexual.

        I’d wager young people neither know nor care about communism and modernism is an abstraction they have never heard about and would not care about if they had. I know many intellectuals who think modernism wasn’t much of a concept to begin with.

        Sexuality is a different matter. Almost everyone knows about it and all those who know, care. Unlike the aforementioned modernism, it was a great idea from the beginning and nothing in the last 8000 years (and probably longer than that) has diminished its intimacy, its humanity, and its mystery.

        The Council of the Baptized has published a position paper on healthier sexuality and it can be found here:



  • Paula Ruddy

    Robert Barron says that political liberalism is “deeply rooted in the Jewish/Biblical mindset.” Though that study has been made by other scholars, the implications for U.S. Catholics have not been made clear to U.S. bishops, clergy, or people in the pews. It could be key to healing present polarities. I wish Barron would address the question seriously with his impressive communication skills.

    • Charles C.

      I may be misunderstanding you. Are you saying that (I always thought his first name was Bishop, not Barron) the Bishop is saying that the politics of America’s Liberals and Progressives are deeply rooted in the Biblical mindset?

      If you are, I think there is a better reading of his words.

      Would you clear that up for me, please?

      • Paula Ruddy

        I think he is talking about the philosophical movement in liberal democratic egalitarian ideas of government that took root in the Enlightenment. But he could go into it more deeply for us.