By: Ian DeJong | March 13, 2023
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the Crown views.
“Once you have understood something—analyzed and critiqued it—you have changed it” (Crouch 2008, 69). This is what well-known Reformed scholar Andy Crouch calls the “academic fallacy” in his 2008 book Culture Making. University students in the age of social media may be tempted to assume that merely thinking out loud completes the pursuit of justice. Redeemer is sadly not innocent in making this mistake. A recent popular yet contentious performance by one student might make Crouch’s fallacy for universities a viable diagnosis.
Third-year Brent Geertsema is known as one of the funniest students on campus. When performing at talent shows and coffee houses his usual routine involves capitalizing on the inside scoop of drama at Redeemer to get his crowd laughing, a skill accompanied by his dry humour and occasional self-deprecation. During this year’s Redeemer’s Got Talent performance, however, Geertsema experimented with a much harsher brand of comedy, an act that gave mixed opinions in the audience.
Judging by the audience’s reaction, one notably harsh line delivered by Geertsema was, “We need students who believe that the school administration cares about what the students want.” He then used President David Zietsma’s supposedly “stupid” proposal for an ice rink in the quad as his reference. It was “partially funny, partially awful, partially rude,” in the words of Student Senate President Marshall Chapman. “Bold,” as Dr. Timothy Epp puts it.
When I followed up with Geertsema this past week, he mentioned how some of his criticisms were creating a positive impact: “From feedback I got from students, I definitely feel that [the performance] has opened a conversation about the administration’s wants versus the students’ wants and how they don’t always line up.”
Although Geertsema may have been guilty of using Crouch’s “academic fallacy,” we should not blindly accept that the school administration is always tending to the student’s desires. Institutional critique is important. It is not a bad thing, nor is it a foreign idea to most Christians. We should not abandon our ability to protest bad ideas and, in turn, propose good ideas, which is possible through many avenues. This is also not a new issue at Redeemer. As seen in the Senate presidential debate this past Monday, both candidates (Gareth Sinke and Sebastian Caldwell) made openness to student feedback a priority in their campaigns.
For students to direct their criticisms to the administration is a task that comes last on our day-to-day agendas. We hate to be seen as sensitive, rude, or not sophisticated enough. Geertsema, on the other hand, had the guts to be the face of student criticism. Most of us hide behind our screens on course evaluations or RateMyProfessor when we identify problems. For Geertsema to do it in front of a live audience and release it on social media is certainly admirable.
Geertsema’s “comedic criticism” may have generated a positive reaction among students, but how does it really work as an effective method of critique? This article will attempt to answer this question by providing a balanced view between criticizing realistically and respecting those in authority.
The Limits of Comedic Criticism
A proposal for an ice rink was not the only problem identified by Geertsema. To put it more formally, Geertsema protested against a) Redeemer’s decision to give the main building a formal name (“Founder’s Hall”), b) the school administration for having no idea what students want, and c) Student Senate for existing.
These controversial takes might urge any listener to question the limits of comedy, especially when they sound like exaggerated disapproval. There is undoubtedly a line in stand-up comedy, and famous comedians overstep it all the time. But it may be a stretch to think that Geertsema crossed the line. Why? His primary role, as a comedian, is to make people laugh. Celebrity comedian Dave Chappelle states this another way in his Netflix special, The Bird Revelation: “I say a lot of mean things, but I’m not saying it to be mean. I’m saying it because it’s funny” (Lathan 2017).
Geertsema mentioned in my conversation with him that comedy performed at its highest level always comes with addressing large and contentious questions: “I feel like you are probably doing comedy wrong if you don’t hit on larger issues, whether in a small school or in the world as a whole.”
On another note, the art of stand-up comedy can even bring a sense of unity among Christians (Matt Falk’s stand-up night at Redeemer is a telling example). For many of us, laughter is good for the soul; we can use it to build friendships or understand the absurd nature of our faith.
However, the problem with nearly all forms of comedic criticism is that the two words—comedy and criticism—are incompatible. Comedy is an art form; criticism is a tool for change, and we cannot sharpen our tools for realistic and effective change if we simultaneously see institutional problems as a laughing matter. It is, therefore, difficult for the administration to know how to accept complaints when a performance has an inherent conflicting dual purpose.
Five Critical Solutions
That leads to the first step in effectively enacting change at an institution like Redeemer. Once you have located a problem that affects students, you need to find an avenue of critique where you can clearly identify the problem. In the case of comedic criticism, it is not always clear if we are supposed to laugh or be galvanized to fight for change.
What is even more crucial in criticizing an institution is to identify the solutions. A wise Buddhist teacher once said, “Criticism without a solution is merely an inflation of the critic’s ego.” If neither Senate nor Redeemer’s administration are not presented with concrete solutions, the criticism becomes less valuable.
The paradox of comedic criticism also raises a problem of right intention. Criticizing an institution to make people laugh is far different from performing criticism to call out flaws in the system and genuinely answer student complaints. This is why it says in Proverbs 16:2, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits” (NKJV). Our calling as Christians is to speak the “truth in love,” which will allow us to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15 NIV). Not only do our intentions matter, they ought to reflect the desire to see our administrators grow as servants of God.
To avoid Crouch’s academic fallacy, it is also important for the critic to enlighten himself on why we see certain structural problems. We ought to do this through dialogue with those that operate within the structure. In my personal experience with student journalism, I have learned that a short conversation with student senators, academic deans, or the administration will lead you to rethink some of your previously held criticisms.
Lastly, if you want to see a change in Student Senate, Redeemer’s administration, or frankly, any other institution, make yourself aware of all the realistic avenues of critique. Student journalism has proven effective, demonstrated by Senate’s decision to email monthly updates, a change made after the Crown released an article calling for Senate reform. Likewise, publishing an article in Resound, writing a formal letter to the administration, visiting a Senator in his/her office, or fitting it into a school project/essay are all reasonable alternatives.
As alluded to above, it is not un-Christian to voice criticism against an institution. Redeemer itself is a community founded on the ideas of Abraham Kuyper, a theologian and politician who claimed that sin powerfully flows into the establishment of institutions. Likewise, South African bishop, theologian, and human rights activist Desmond Tutu made a memorable remark about pursuing change in a failed society: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in” (2023).
All in all, while I disagree with his method of critique, I believe that Brent Geertsema made a courageous effort to address his concerns and create a space for dialogue about aiding the administration. Hopefully, you can take part in that dialogue and see Geertsema’s performance as an inspiration for the pursuit of a better experience on campus. As long as honesty meets respect, constructiveness meets kindness, and truth meets love, you are more likely to witness a change in a healthy manner. Through an appropriate exercise of institutional critique, you have the opportunity to become more like Christ.