If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you know nothing unites your friends (aside from political debate and celebrity gossip) like a juicy link from The Onion, America’s most popular satirical news site. Because I have so many Christian friends, Onion articles that touch on religious themes tend to garner the most “likes” in my feed.
A couple of years ago, when a story appeared with the headline “Christ Reluctantly Enters Area Man’s Heart,” it dominated my feed for days. Its appeal was its wink-wink honesty about the foibles of Christians. It skewered our judgmental moralism. When Jesus is quoted in the article as saying, “To be honest, before Derek confessed his sins, repented, and sought my grace in pious supplication, I was really looking forward to sitting on my throne and judging him,” we’re meant to chuckle at our own sanctimonious reflection—and mend our ways.
Terry Lindvall, the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College, has written what might be deemed the backstory to The Onion. His book—God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert (NYU Press)—leads readers through the comic savagery that believers have perfected over the centuries. From the time of the prophet Elijah, who derided the god Baal as taking too long on a toilet break (1 Kings 18:27—according to literary scholar Raymond Anselment, “the most popular illustration of divinely sanctioned ridicule” in religious history), to the sorts of modern-day Christians who tweet and favorite links from sites like The Onion, Lindvall’s book unfurls a delightfully variegated tapestry.
Stories of Mockery
Some predictable names and tales appear. Monty Python, G. K. Chesterton, and Jonathan Swift have cameos. And of course, reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) is prominent. Luther satirized the countless dubious relics in the Middle Ages, making a list of ones he expected the Catholic Church to trot out next: “Three flames from the burning bush on Mount Sinai . . . A whole pound of wind that roared by Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb . . . Two feathers and an egg from the Holy Spirit.” Sprinkling his rhetoric with ample references to anal emissions, Luther could even turn his mockery back on himself: “I resist the Devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.” Luther wanted to puncture religious pretense wherever he found it, including among his own ranks. He wasn’t above passing gas to do so.
Alexander Pope (1688–1744), the English poet, makes a memorable entrance in one of Lindvall’s chapters. Pope once made fun of clergymen committed to being nice above all else, refusing any and all boat-rocking: “To rest, the Cushion and soft Dean invite / Who never mentions Hell to ears polite.” As an Anglican, I feel the bite of this zinger, and can picture a few of its contemporary exemplars.
Readers will also meet satirists they may have heard of but never bothered to read. The poet Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) is for some reason under-appreciated among evangelical readers, despite his close association with heroes like Chesterton. An ardent Catholic, Belloc displayed his zany yet rapier wit in public debates with prominent atheists such as George Bernard Shaw. I’m looking forward to reading his Cautionary Tales for Children to my godsons when they get a little older: “Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion”; “Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death.” It’s the kind of dark humor that the Coen brothers might enjoy. For Belloc, it was aimed at keeping kids in the Christian fold.
I was also delighted to see Lindvall describing one of my favorite episodes from the now-finished TV show The Colbert Report. When psychologist Philip Zimbardo went on the program and proposed that God was ultimately responsible for evil in the world, Stephen Colbert shot back that Satan, not God, ushered woe into Paradise. Zimbardo chuckled, “Obviously you learned well in Sunday school,” to which Colbert yelled, “I teach Sunday school, [expletive]!”
A Book for the Nightstand
In his memoir Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis writes that the perfect book to read while eating a meal is “a gossipy, formless book that can be opened anywhere.” By that standard, God Mocks would be ideal for leaving on your breakfast table for a couple weeks. You could dip into it while sipping coffee before work, reading a snippet here and there. Or, maybe better, given its scatological subject matter, you could keep it in your bathroom for those times when you are . . . seated. As for me, I plopped the book on my bedside table: It’s ideally read in small doses, like the pages of a calendar that you peel off every day.
At the same time, this menagerie structure is the book’s chief weakness. By styling itself as a grab bag of anecdotes and icons of religious mockery, Lindvall’s book dispenses with the need for an overarching narrative.
True, he does propose a template for evaluating each of his subjects—a “Quad of Satire.” A vertical axis plots the distance between “Humor” and “Rage,” while a horizontal axis charts the length between “Ridicule” and “Moral Purpose.” Someone like the jaded Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) would occupy the upper-right-hand quadrant, scoring high on “Moral Purpose” (he needled organized religion for the sake of winning genuine faith) and “Humor” (he donned pseudonyms and lampooned establishment figures). Meanwhile, the apostle Paul—who once advised Christian advocates of circumcision to let the knife slip and slice more than just skin (Gal. 5:12)—would score high on “Moral Purpose,” but would belong farther down the vertical axis in the “Rage” zone.
As helpful as this tool is, Lindvall doesn’t use it to explore the theology of satire. He hints at, but doesn’t develop, the reasons why satire is so important for Christians to appreciate and practice. There are lots of little stories in this book, well worth enjoying and returning to. But there’s no large-scale, capital-s Story that puts in place all the puzzle pieces. God Mocks reads more like an encyclopedia than a coherent narrative of how—and why—religious satire has developed over the years. I wanted Lindvall to venture an overarching Christian theory of ridicule, but he never did.
The Laughter of Faith
According to Lindvall, satire “aims not just to slice and dice, but to correct and reform.” I agree with that as far as it goes. But I’d like to return to one of Lindvall’s subjects and, with his help, propose my own theology of mockery. Luther, whose potty humor Lindvall displays in its full glory, understood that mockery could indeed accomplish exposure. It could lift the veil on human arrogance, self-importance, and religious preening.
Luther also understood, though, that such wounding of human pride had no salvific power in and of itself. Mockery is the voice of God’s perfect law: It skewers and condemns but has no ability to save. Borrowing some words from Paul, we might say that satire “works wrath” (see Romans 4:15). It can stir people to try doing better, but it can never fully deliver on that promise. To achieve lasting reform, what’s needed is resurrection—the gospel of new life as a free gift, received through the laughter of faith. However much the wit of a Chesterton or a Colbert may point out our social ills and personal peccadilloes, it is ultimately powerless to change our behavior.
This is why, for my money, the most important scene of religious mockery in the Bible isn’t Elijah’s poking fun at the prophets of Baal. Instead, it is God’s poking fun at the ridiculous overconfidence of death: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Only God’s mockery can lead to our eternal life. When God mocks, his words are effective, securing what they intend to accomplish. Our own satire, no matter how artful and well-executed, can take us only so far.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos).
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