When Stephen Colbert and Paul Simon talked about faith

Two amazing personalities open their souls on national television. What a gift!

Stephen Colbert hosted singer and songwriter Paul Simon on

(RNS) — It had been a long time since I had watched “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” When I finally got around to revisiting the show, I found myself instantly rewarded.

The show in question was his recent interview with singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who is now 82 years old. 

Toward the end of that conversation, Paul and Stephen focused on his latest (and perhaps, last) album, “Seven Psalms.” He revealed that the album was the result of a dream, in which he heard a voice telling him to create this prayerful work.

The album is not only beautiful in a musical sense. In it, Simon creates an entirely new religious language.

“The Lord is my engineer;

The Lord is my record producer;

The Lord is the music I hear…

the Lord is the earth I ride on;

the Lord is the face in the atmosphere, the path I slip and slide on

the Lord is a virgin forest;

the Lord is the train I ride on;

the Lord is the coast, and the coast is clear;

the Lord is a forest ranger;

the Lord is a meal for the poorest of the poor; a welcome door to the stranger…

The Lord is the ocean rising; A simple truth surviving.”

So, Paul and Stephen were discussing the album, and then Stephen asked Paul about his own faith. Paul responds with some rather cosmic statements, hardly rooted in any particular religious tradition. Check it out here; go to the 28:33 mark.

Then, having sketched his own faith, Paul turned to Stephen and said one word.


With that one word, Paul Simon achieved something radical in the annals of talk show television.

In general, questions are pretty one way; the host asks the questions to the guest.

But, here, suddenly, Paul asked Stephen to respond to his word and to name his own faith.

With that one word — “you?” — Paul Simon affirmed that faith is not a monologue.

Faith is a conversation. 

What could Paul Simon’s end of the faith conversation have been? There have been moments in his career when he touched upon Jewish sensibilities; I write about them here.

But, in general, his Jewish identity — at his own admission — has been more ethnic and cultural than religious. It was a Queens, New York, 1950s Jewish identity.

His words, as quoted in “Miracle and Wonder,” an audiobook collection of interviews with Malcolm Gladwell:

Being Jewish is a cultural sensibility that you grow up with. How, exactly, you define that — I don’t know. It’s there, but it’s only there because that’s the world I grew up in. It’s not a world that I wanted to grow up in. It’s not a religion that I chose to follow. But, it was a culture that I was comfortable in and aspects of it was something that I admired.

I would suspect that Paul Simon has always been more Jewish than he had imagined, and not merely “Jew-ish.”

What about Stephen Colbert? Stephen is a serious Catholic. He has taught Sunday school at his home church — St. Cassian in Montclair, New Jersey. Rumor has it that he is a very effective teacher. He makes his teaching meaningful for his students, doing it with a playful sense of humor.

Moreover, this is hardly the first time Stephen Colbert has asked a guest about faith.

Like, for example, America’s most prominent Roman Catholic — President Joe Biden.

In 2015, then-Vice President Biden was a guest on Colbert’s show.

It was an emotional and spiritual tour de force. Their conversation covered several different subjects, but at a certain point they came to the most sensitive topic of them all — the death of Biden’s son, Beau Biden, from brain cancer. Check it out here; this part of the conversation begins at around the 3:00 mark.

As you know, this was not the only tragedy in Biden’s life.

On a personal level, his name should not be Joe Biden.

It should be Job Biden.

In 1972, his first wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident.

That — besides their Catholic faith — is what Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert have in common. When Stephen Colbert was just 10 years old, his father, James, and his two older brothers were killed in a plane crash in North Carolina.

On that television show in 2015, the normally funny Colbert took off the mask of the clown, and he put on a much more serious persona.

He asked Joe Biden about his faith.

Biden opened up. He talked about his personal theology. He talked about how his faith had helped him get through the various crises of his life. He talked about his connection with religious ritual.

Biden and Colbert talked with each other about how to transcend tragedy. It was a moment of rare, profound honesty, of two souls opening to each other, displaying their humanity with no facade or filters.

It was riveting television. It was compassionate and revealing.

It was not only a rare, public conversation about faith. It was also a rare, public conversation between two men — being vulnerable and real with each other, shedding tears together. How many men would actually long for those types of conversations with each other?

Back to Paul Simon and “Seven Psalms.”

Paul Simon walked where rabbis fear to tread. He actually created new metaphors for God.

Those metaphors belong in a new, barely imagined Jewish prayer book of the future.

Let us return to: “The Lord is my record producer.”

What does a record producer do? Record producers supervise a musical project before it goes out. They work with the musicians to make sure they perform well. They supervise the technical engineering of the recording. They might create the entire sound and structure of the musical work. They would very well determine the order of the tracks on the recording.

“The Lord is my record producer.” God is there, behind the scenes, urging us to make these performances good. God takes the tracks of our lives and lays them out in order and re-mixes them and brings certain sounds and textures to the front and pushes others to the back. 

Finally, these are Paul Simon’s words for us:

Tribal voices
Old and young
A history of families sung
The endless river flows

I believe we Jews are the tribal voices; old and young; celebrations; a history of families sung.

Think of it now, whatever faith you have or don’t have; whatever people claims you.

Reach back into your family histories — to your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — and imagine them all with you today.

If “Seven Psalms” turns out to be Paul Simon’s swan song, his final contribution to American culture, then we might say, echoing the words that we will say on Passover, exactly a month from now: Dayeinu.

It will have been sufficient.

While we are on the subject of religious poetry, you have not experienced any religious poetry the way you will experience Israeli poetry, post-Oct. 7. That is the subject of our next Wisdom Without Walls conversation — Sunday, March 31 at 3 p.m. Eastern time. We will be learning with one of Israel’s most famous and most beloved educators, Rachel Korazim — who will share that poetry with us. It is, in a word, devastating. Register here. We look forward to seeing you on screen.

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