Larry Wilmore is a veteran comedy writer, producer, and actor. He is most recognized as a correspondent on The Daily Show and the host of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. What he’s not well-known for is being a defender of the Christian faith. His new venture, the Ringer podcast Black on the Air, may well change that. At the very least, listening to these episodes has challenged me to be open to finding truth where I might not expect it, and to resist pigeonholing people with easy labels.
Wilmore seems to take his faith seriously and mentions it often, including in his takes on the news cycle.I had enjoyed listening to Wilmore as a guest on Bill Simmons’ podcast, so when I heard he would have his own, I was quick to subscribe. Before tuning in, I had vague expectations. Beyond The Daily Show, I knew little of Wilmore’s career, only that he was a comedian with liberal leanings. I was more or less expecting something entertaining to listen to at the gym.
The show is divided into two parts, Wilmore first providing solo commentary on hot topics from the news cycle and next interviewing guests “from the worlds of politics, entertainment, culture, sports, and beyond.” These guests have ranged from Bernie Sanders to Kumail Nanjiani. About a month ago, Wilmore interviewed radio and TV personality and author Charlamagne Tha God to talk about his recent best-selling book Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It (which I feel like I now need to read). Along the way, the two engage in a completely unexpected worldview discussion. Even more surprising is that about half-way through this talk takes an overtly theological turn.
This caught me off guard, in the best kind of way. Charlamagne recounts an incident from his teen years when he was jailed briefly for shooting at a car full of people. His bullet went through the lone empty head rest, but could have just as easily killed someone. Responding to Wilmore’s question about whether he believes in divine intervention, Charlamagne says, “Oh yes, and I believe in divine misdirection.” Charlamagne then explains that he’s been fired from radio four times. But he’s interpreted that as God moving him in a different direction. Or, as he more eloquently puts it, sometimes “our good plan is not actually God’s plan for us.”
What about the shooting, Wilmore wants to know: was that God’s plan, too? Here, Charlamagne clarifies that “anything bad that happens is you; anything good that happens is God.” He underscores personal responsibility, and concludes that “destiny isn’t a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice.”
This sounds a whole lot like a primer on divine sovereignty and human responsibility, nothing I would have expected from the podcast. Although those more technical terms didn’t appear in the discussion, it was nevertheless a lucid interaction with the issues. I would quibble with some of the semantics, but I was happy to hear a plea for faith in God’s redirection of our lives alongside a plea for making wise choices, even more so because it came from a surprising source.
I’m not familiar with Charlamagne’s religious background, but I’ve gathered from Black on the Air that Wilmore is a practicing Catholic. He seems to take his faith seriously and mentions it often, including in his takes on the news cycle. Politically, I don’t align with Wilmore, but I’ve been pushed to think about my views in ways I didn’t expect before listening. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to listen to an interview with Bernie Sanders, for example, but I appreciated and was challenged by Wilmore’s time with him. Wilmore also makes sure that his guests are challenged, which shows clearly in his interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Tyson’s reflections on his calling as an astrophysicist led to a discussion of scientific illiteracy, which turned quickly to a discussion of religion. As Tyson sees it, fundamentalists read their Scriptures as a science textbook. This often goes hand in hand with finding proof of God’s work in the universe in the absences of scientific knowledge (a fallacy dubbed “God of the gaps“). Tyson rightly points out that we shouldn’t attribute God’s activity to areas science doesn’t understand yet. Or, as he is famously quoted, “If God to you, is where science has yet to tread, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”
It’s at this point that Wilmore turns the conversation to Tyson’s personal religious views. He begins by bringing up Pascal’s Wager, explaining that he’d rather bet on the existence of God and be wrong than to bet on the non-existence and be wrong. He asks Tyson a pointed question about where God exists for him, “this astrophysicist who has studied the origins of the universe from a physical standpoint.”
This opens up a lively discussion where Tyson eschews the label “atheist” (since most people are not defined by what they don’t do). He also challenges labels of all kinds as “intellectually lazy ways of asserting you know information about someone before you even have a conversation with them.” More to Wilmore’s point, however, Tyson narrows the conversation to the God of Abraham, although he wrongly claims this is a God shared by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Somewhat predictably, he launches into an objection to God via the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, whence evil?
Wilmore actually stands his ground and pushes back on Tyson’s objection. While he does so from theoretical deism (what if this God is non-intervening?), he still catches Tyson off-guard in a few places. At one point, he slyly notes the irony of a scientist blaming God for natural disasters. Wilmore wonders if from a scientific vantage point, one can really blame God for the Indonesian tsunami and Haiti earthquake, as Tyson does. Tyson counters that insurance companies call this sorts of things acts of God.
Here, Wilmore presses the point a bit more by bringing up miraculous healing. Tyson acknowledges the person is likely to credit divine intervention. But he implies it might have just as easily been incompetence on the doctor’s part in the original diagnosis. Wilmore then points out that it cuts both ways. If God has power over weather patterns, he also has power over the care doctors provide.
I was not expecting this kind of apologetic move. It’s a clever one, and something you’re usually trained to do in seminary if you take an apologetics course. I don’t know if Wilmore has background studying this kind of thing. But if he hasn’t he’s either put a good deal of thought into the topic, or thinks on his toes well. The discussion wraps up with Tyson admitting to skepticism rather than atheism. He seems to want what amounts to scientific evidence for God’s existence. But as one can see in the discussion of doctors, miracles can always have a naturalistic explanation if you want one.
While I can’t vouch for all of Wilmore’s theology, I enjoyed his willingness to engage Tyson and not be afraid to ask hard questions. Because he seems to be operating from a place of faith, he wasn’t shaken when Tyson brought up the problem of evil. In an unexpected place, he provided a good model of apologetic dialogue, even if one disagrees with the content of what he was defending. Wilmore certainly didn’t argue with Tyson, but he didn’t let him escape some level of critique and thoughtful interaction. They both seemed to enjoy their conversation, and I’m looking forward to the next time he’s on as a guest.
Tyson was right to say labels are “intellectually lazy.” Had I prejudged what Wilmore had to offer on his podcast, I would have missed out. But instead, I sat (or rather lifted weights) and listened, a habit that we would do well to cultivate more of these days. I didn’t have an actual conversation, but I suspended judgment and was pleased with what I found. I don’t agree with everything, but I think my perspective has grown from including an unlikely voice in the mix.