What David Letterman Can Teach Us About the Gospel
Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Dr. Moore is the author of several books, including Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel and The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. A native Mississippian, he and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons.
- 2009 Oct 07
If you pay a little attention right now to David Letterman, you could learn something critical about carrying the gospel to your neighbors, and to yourself.
I'm not talking about re-tooling some Christian version of the late night comedian's "Top Ten Lists" or his "Stupid Pet Tricks." I'm not talking about his cynical humor, or emotionally detached coolness. I'm talking about why he was so scared of a blackmailer's extortion.
We've all been there.
Last week Letterman started off a segment on his nationally-broadcast program "The Late Show" by telling his viewers a "story." The studio audience, laughing along, seemed not to be able to tell, at first, if this was a set-up for a joke or a skit, but it became clear this wasn't a gag.
Letterman said that he had gotten into his car at six in the morning one day to find an envelope in his car, an envelope with details and evidence of Letterman's sexual affairs with women on his staff. The extortionist wanted two million dollars or he'd make it all public in a screenplay or book.
At first glance, this is just another celebrity soap opera, and, frankly speaking, not a particularly shocking one. What interests me, though, is not that Letterman was doing "terrible things." What else would I expect a man outside of Christ to do?
What's interesting to me is that the blackmail scared Letterman, and the reasons why.
Letterman said the extortion note was disturbing, first of all, because he feared the mysterious correspondent was watching him. Someone who knew this much about his life, would this figure be tapping him on the shoulder from the shadows? Pulling him into the back of the car?
Letterman also, though, was upset by the note because it was true.
Letterman acknowledged to this viewers that he had, in fact, had sex with women on the "Late Show" staff. He also said that seeing his "terrible things" there in print, with evidence for it all, in front of him, made him feel "creepy." Even in his deadpan comedic, "aw shucks this ain't so bad" wink-and-grin performance, we can hear a terror, a terror that is common to humanity.
If the envelope in the car had accused Letterman of being a member of an Islamic terrorist cell, he might have still been worried that the crazed writer was around, but, after getting out of the parking garage, Letterman wouldn't have been, in his words, "menaced" by the accusations. Why not?
It's because he knows he's not a member of an Islamic terrorist cell. There could be no evidence to show it, because it's not a fact. The power the blackmailer had over the comedian was in the truthfulness of his accusations, and in the cold, rational evidence he had for each of his charges.
You and I once felt a deeper, more primal blackmail, and it scared us to the core. In fact, we often still do. Now, for most of us, it's not the same kind of transgression or the same type of discovery. But we're blackmailed just as surely, in fact even more so.
The Scripture says that Satan's reign over this present order is by holding us captive through the slavery of the "fear of death" (Heb 2:15). And why are all humans afraid of death? Because, like Letterman's letter in the back of the car, our conscience is pointing us to judgment, with a "black box" of evidence of our guilt (Rom 2:15-16).
That's why the gospel is such good news for blackmailed creepy people like us.
Jesus says of Satan, in one of the most remarkable passages to me of all of Holy Scripture: "The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me" (John 14:30). Jesus' calm is the same as if I were asked to take a DNA test to prove that I'm not the father of one of Michael Jackson's children. I know there's just nothing there.
Jesus knows that, as the one sinless human since Adam's catastrophe, Satan has no evidence of guilt in Jesus. He's been tested, and he's still standing.
Jesus doesn't fear Satan's accusations because he has nothing to hide, from the demonic watchers, from his Father, from himself. He is truth, and the truth makes him free indeed. With his tranquil conscience, Jesus marches right to the pole of slaughter, paying the wages of sin for those in the satanic slavery.
That's why our Lord Jesus shows us, through our brother John, that "the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God" (Rev 12:10). And how do those in Christ triumph over this accusation? It's "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony" (Rev 12:11).
Satan has nothing left to accuse because at the Place of the Skull "you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). If you've already been exposed, you can't be re-exposed. If you've already been damned, you can't be re-damned.
David Letterman said the accusations bothered him because he's a "tower of Midwestern Lutheran guilt." But there's nothing particularly Midwestern or Lutheran about it. It's a signal of a conscience that points to judgment. But it could also point to the One who has borne all the penalty due at judgment, including the public humiliation of being caught. We've all been there.
Let's remember the gospel, and learn from Dave Letterman how scary blackmail can be. As the accusations come at us, let's acknowledge the truth of the satanic claims. Let's find ourselves in Jesus. And let's point to a bloody cross and an empty tomb where those accusations were verified and crucified.
Poor David Letterman. This extortion is nothing like the one he, and billions more, are facing from a threatening presence who can't be indicted by a New York grand jury. Let's pray for him, and plead with those like him in our neighborhood and in cities and villages all around the world, as we remember what it's like to be that scared.
And let's remember not to be paralyzed by cosmic blackmail. The satanic powers have the evidence against us; yes, they do. But every accusation comes before an Advocate with a still conscience in his chest, scabbed-over spike-marks in his hands, and a crushed snake skull at his feet.
The satanic accusations are usually true. They wouldn't bring them up if they weren't. But if Christ Jesus is raised from the dead (and he is) then they can't paralyze us anymore.
In fact, if you think about it, they're just stupid demon tricks.