I don’t know why, but Protestant evangelicals have had a hard time with humor, whether creating or enjoying it. Maybe it’s ancillary to us abandoning the arts. Late night TV is owned by practicing Catholics Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. No one tells a good Bible joke like Jim Gaffigan, who even refers to his wife as a “Shiite Catholic.” But we, whose claim of “faith not works” should have let us off the hook back in 1517, are so obsessed with working out our salvation with fear and trembling that we have a hard time laughing at ourselves. Until recently, the only humor sanctioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith was the church-bulletin blooper. And one can groan only so long before that tuna hot dish belches back up.
Of course, there is humor in the Bible. Take Job’s snide reply to his accusers and Jesus’ stinging comebacks to the Pharisees. Or how about Paul’s satirical rant in Galatians about circumcision? (I hope no one took him literally). But we got into the habit of reading every verse as if Charlton Heston were bringing it down Mount Sinai. This may be the most cogent argument the Catholic Church had for keeping Scripture out of the hands of the peasants: We wouldn’t get the jokes.
There have been a few pilgrims in the crusade to make Christians lighten up, already. The Wittenburg Door, may it rest in peace, was the Mad Magazine of Christendom. Then the internet came along and opened the floodgates of all sorts of Jesusy humor. (I’ll leave aside the “bitter ex-Christian” sites. They’re like stepping in a Taylor Swift-Katy Perry feud.) Ship of Fools still offers some of the best caption contests ever. And Lark News, the first satire website to come across my radar, wrote the best headline ever: “Homeschooler Spends Three-Day Suspension in Backyard Tent." But they were just voices crying in the wilderness, “prepare ye the way of The Babylon Bee.”
The Babylon Bee is a Christian-themed satire website in the vein of The Onion, lampooning the faithful across denominations, political affiliations, and age groups. The Bee, launched in March 2016, arrived at the perfect time. The 2008 meltdown had decimated our savings and morale, Rob Bell had gone Oprah, and we were all going Code Red over a presidential election. The Bee provided much-needed comic relief. And it captured the perfect tone of speaking truthful harassment in love. Hallelujah.
So what happens when you build a successful brand with legions of followers and huge revenue streams? A publisher gives you a book deal that promises to make you hundreds of bucks. I applaud the Bee for going for it anyway.
The result is How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living. Using their signature satirical tone, authors Adam Ford and Kyle Mann offer an entertaining 10-step guide on how to match Jesus in holiness.
It’s not easy to adapt short-form comedy into a longer form. Just watch the Saturday Night Live movie The Ladies Man. (Actually, don’t do that. You’ll never get those two hours back.) At times, the Bee authors get long-winded on a short subject or on something we’ve been painfully aware of since the Y2K scare. But there are delicious descriptors even in the long-winded passages, so it’s worth your time.
Their 10 steps to flawless living cover everything from church membership to winning the culture war. The authors seem to take particular aim at two types of errant Christians: those who use church as a personal growth tool and those who use faith as a weapon. The book addresses them as if they’re the same entity, which I found confusing at first: The convenience-driven Christian is rarely a Bible-thumper. But their intent is to expose all forms of hypocrisy in the bride of Christ, whom they love. So if you don’t see yourself lampooned in the first chapter, keep reading. They’ll get to you.
Chapter One (and the first step to perfection) is “Joining the Right Church.” Clue: It’s a megachurch with a woke name, a rad website, and no definable doctrine—all designed to meet your needs. After all, church is all about you. Next, “Worshipping Like a Pro” sends up every annoying feature found at a monster church, from the fog machine to the tattooed pastor chilling on a bar stool. The authors’ advice on where to sit in the pitch-black sanctuary is brilliant:
Although you’ll be stumbling around in the darkness at this point, you should be able to feel your way toward your seat. … The ideal spot is to sit about three-quarters of the way back, next to an aisle. This way, if the overpowered lasers set the building on fire, you’ll be able to get yourself out of there while the poor fools sitting in the middle of the row burn to death.
The book continues with “Doing Life Together,” a phrase that makes my teeth itch. Some choice tips on how to ace this step include crowbarring the gospel into any conversation and correcting other people’s prayers. We’ve all been there, brethren and sistren. And we’ve probably done that.
The authors also school the reader on how to safeguard the home against Beelzebub. It involves homeschooling, courting (dating, but for righteous people), and Kirk Cameron movies. It was so funny and spot-on that I cried. Sad tears. Because, well, Kirk Cameron movies.
My favorite bits were in the chapters on looking spiritual online and winning the culture war. When it comes to social media, the book advises the following: “Make sure not to let a single post that contains an opinion even slightly different from your own pass you by. … Dig your heels in and stay up late into the night flaming that person.” Just the other day, a Facebook friend posted a desire to dialog with people who thought differently than she did. Four comments in, someone ranted about the NRA and Planned Parenthood, winning the Buzz Killigan award for the day. I had to count to 10 not to respond. Too often, I do respond. It never ends well. But you know that. You’ve probably done it.
The book takes the biggest risk when addressing the conflation of theology and politics. “Republicans are the chosen defenders of the sacred truth that America is God’s people. … Become a Republican or lose your salvation and suffer the eternal wrath of God.”
Please don’t take umbrage. They hit those liberals too.
If our culture decides your beliefs are offensive and archaic tomorrow, immediately drop them and declare that anyone who still holds to the belief system you held just twenty-four hours ago is an intolerant bigot.
Based on Bee posts and Adam Ford’s comic strip at Adam4D.com, I’d peg him as a political conservative and a neo-Reformed type. You know, those dudes who have adopted the three postmodern solas: sola beera, sola bearda, sola balda. If that’s the case, he offers a wicked nugget for his own:
“For those of you who consider yourselves truly righteous, you might want to choose a Presbyterian or Reformed church. Of course, never, ever say you chose a Reformed church. Always say that God, in His sovereignty, predestined you from eternity past to attend said church, for His glory alone.”
Equal-opportunity satire. How refreshing.
Taking Ourselves Less Seriously
There’s an adage, “Never make fun of a group of which you are not a member.” The authors clearly love Jesus and his bride. Is How to Be a Perfect Christian funny? Yes, it’s hilarious. Is it a successful piece of satire? It would be easy to enjoy the entire book and never make a connection to one’s own sin or to dismiss the broad strokes with a string of “Yeah, but”s. “Yeah, but every group has its quirks...” “I never took it that far...” “At least I’m not as bad as [insert NRA, Planned Parenthood, or Episcopalians, and stop self-examination in its tracks].” As our Lord and Savior was fond of saying, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
If we really are saved by faith and not works, then we of all people should be comfortable lampooning ourselves. And if we need a 10-step program in taking ourselves less seriously, Step Two is reading How to Be a Perfect Christian. Step One is making The Babylon Bee your homepage.
Susan E. Isaacs is a writer, actor, and comedienne with many credits in TV, film, stage, and radio. She has taught screenwriting and sketch comedy at the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Azusa Pacific University, and she is the author of Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir (FaithWords).