You might be Jeff Foxworthy if . . .
A. You are the Mark Twain of redneck jokes.
B. You were the long-time host of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
C. You helped launch the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
D. You are about to host The American Bible Challenge.
How about all of the above?
The first thing that ran through Mr. Foxworthy’s head when offered the hosting gig for the new show was, “The Bible as a game show? Am I gonna get called to the principal’s office for that?” Of course, that was followed by his now familiar laughter.
Steve Beard, editor of Good News Magazine, spoke with the world-famous comedian about his new show that premieres Aug. 23 on the Game Show Network, the Bible, and what makes God smile. Here are a few highlights from their conversation.
OK, I just have to ask. Growing up in the South, were you raised United Methodist or Southern Baptist?
I was raised good-old Southern Baptist. We thought the Methodists were going to Heaven, but we thought they had to take a covered dish. [laughter]
What lured you to host a Bible game show?
I kinda went back and forth on this. The big plus for me was that people were not playing to win money for themselves, they were playing to win money to bless somebody else. Whether it is to build wells in Africa or inner-city youth—I really liked that about it.
The challenge to me was how do you do this in such a way that it is not just a bunch of facts or laws? How do you do this in a way that makes the Good News appealing—especially for somebody who is not a believer? I told my wife that if I say no to this, they can go get a guy off the street that doesn’t believe at all. When stuff comes up, someone else would not be able to put any of this in context.
I will give you an example. When we were working on the pilot, one of the little games that they had in there was: Is it a biblical law or an obscure law from a U.S. state? One of the questions was “Thou shall not have a mohawk.” [laughter] It is actually a Levitical law. I told the producers that I understood asking a question like that, but that they’ve got to let me put it into context. That was written to the Israelites after they had left Egypt and it was God saying, “I don’t want you to look like them anymore. You’re my chosen people.”
I don’t want some 20-year-old kid with a mohawk sitting at home on the sofa at one in the morning and watching this and thinking God doesn’t love him. That’s kind of the challenge of it.
What has developed your view of the Bible?
I’ve been in a men’s small group—same set of guys for 15 years. We meet every Thursday morning in a BBQ joint. Over 15 years, we’ve covered a lot. We spent two years in Romans. I’ve got a pretty marked-up, highlighted, written-in-the-margins Bible.
You’ve also made it clear that you are a comedian and not the Bible Answer Man.
Exactly. I teach a Bible study for homeless guys every Tuesday morning in downtown Atlanta. I’ve been doing it for years. I love doing that because they get it. When you live under a bridge, it is kinda hard to act like you’ve got it going on over somebody else. The Good News is that in and of myself there is nothing I can do to be righteous before God. It is by His grace, it is through His mercy. It’s through the blood of Jesus that I am able to stand before him. They get it.
How did you get involved in that ministry?
I am kind of ashamed to admit it, but I never really had a heart for homeless people. I always did events for kids with cancer and children’s hospitals. I met the guy who runs the mission in Atlanta and went down there for lunch. This 22-year old kid sat down and I asked him to tell me his story.
“When I was 11 years old, my mom killed herself,” he said. “And then about a year and half later, my brother killed himself. It was just my dad and me and we were OK and I was going to college. In my second year of college, my dad killed himself.” He said, “I just got tired of hurting so I started smoking crack.”
I looked at him and said, “You know what, I would have started smoking crack too. Wow, you could be me. I could be you.”
There but by the grace of God, go I!
When the guy from the mission invited me down there, I kept asking, what do you want from me? Everybody wants something. You either want me to write you a check or do a free show so you can raise money or you want something. He said, I don’t want anything. Just come hang out.
I went and had lunch down there two or three times and then finally he said, “Ok, I do want something. I want you to lead a small group with these guys.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “I am so unqualified for this.” Well, they started it with me and 12 homeless guys and three years later we have 13 or 14 group leaders and about 120 homeless guys every week.
Does a comedian find a lot of funny stories in the Bible?
Look, the Bible is full of rednecks. First of all, David killed a guy with a slingshot. A slingshot! “You might be a redneck if . . . you’ve ever killed someone with a slingshot!” Right?
The longest conversation in the Bible with Jesus was with the woman at the well—who has been married five times and was shacked up with guy number six. If there would have been trailers in the Bible, she would have lived in one.
Samson tied the tails of foxes together and set them on fire so they would burn the neighbor’s field. Please! That is Redneck Hall of Fame stuff.
I think there is a lot of funny stuff in the Bible. I think that some in the world find Christians unappealing because they don’t see any joy. Where are our smiles, our laughter? Joy is one of the attributes of God. When I think of myself as a parent, I love it when my kids are laughing. There are moments that are serious, moments that are sad, moments that are funny—but that is all part of life, life to the full. It is a little bit of everything.
What is it like for a Christian on the comedy circuit?
Look, you are making your living in nightclubs. People are drunk, people are smoking, people are with someone else’s wife. I’ve had people tell me that as a Christian, I should not be around all that. OK, but who was Jesus hanging out with? He wasn’t hanging out in the synagogue all the time. He was with the whores and the drunks and the tax collectors. That’s what he did.
When asked, where do you point to begin reading the Bible?
You know what, I love Galatians. It is kind of almost “grace plus nothing.” There is nothing that you can bring to the dance. It is just the grace of a loving Father. I’d also say Romans. There’s so much good stuff everywhere.
Every year when I start with a new group of homeless guys, I just feel as if you could preach the prodigal son story every week of the year. That is always where I begin. It is called the Son but it has nothing to do with him; it is a story of Father. And it doesn’t matter if you do everything wrong, it doesn’t matter if you think you have to follow every single rule. This story is about how the Father just loves them both.
The Jews used to say that if you want to see God laugh, tell him your plans. What is it that brings laughter to God?
I agree with the Jews about the plans. [laughter] When somebody tells me what God is up to, that is my red flag for them. Because every single time that I thought that I knew what God was up to, it was so much bigger and better than whatever I had thought it was.
When they were walking out after the Last Supper, Jesus says, “Hey, I know that we talked about a lot of stuff and seen and done a lot of stuff in the last three years, but if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: Love one another—love one another as I have loved you. By doing this, they will know you are my disciples.”
I think that when we are able to love one another, that is when God smiles. I think God loves what goes on down there at the mission. I’ve been with my daughter to dig wells for little villages in Africa and just had people jumping up and down with smiles that you couldn’t wipe off their faces because they had water. And I think that when you just go to love on somebody like that, it is what makes God smile.
I think God probably rolls his eyes at a lot of the religious stuff we do, but when we are able to love on one another I think that makes him smile.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Galatians 1:10: “Am I now seeking the approval of man or of God?” I’ve learned long ago that I can’t make everyone in L.A. or New York happy, but I try to live my life asking that question.
Reprinted with permission from Good News Magazine (goodnewsmag.org).