Last month, Snopes fact-checked an article from the satire site The Babylon Bee. On its website, Snopes explained its rationale:
The Babylon Bee has managed to confuse readers with its brand of satire in the past. This particular story was especially puzzling for some readers, however, as it closely mirrored the events of a genuine news story, with the big exception of the website’s changing the location. We found dozens of instances of social media users who were puzzled by this article.
Meanwhile, The Bee’s CEO told Fox News that Snopes running its fact-check could end up deeming the website as “fake news” and make it harder to share its stories on social media sites.
The Bee may be the first Christian satirical piece that Snopes has examined, but it’s hardly the first satirical site that organization has fact-checked. That’s partially because humorous fake news can get anyone, says Bob Darden, the former editor of the late Christian satire magazine, The Wittenburg Door.
“On the cover, we had a statement that said, ‘The world's pretty much only religious humor and satire magazine,’” said Darden, explaining The Door’s method for trying to prevent people from taking its articles too seriously. “That was our tip to anyone who read The Door. When articles or things got picked up by various outlets, we always insisted that we had that little tagline.”
Darden joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss what makes satire Christian, how politics changes humor, and why the best parodies make it clear that the subjects are also things the writer loves.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 173
You were the editor of The Wittenburg Door from 20 years. Can you give us a quick description of what The Wittenburg Door was?
Bob Darden: The Wittenburg Door was a religious humor and satire magazine. Its purpose varied through the years, but the purpose that I most identified with was that it used humor and satire to hold a mirror before the evangelical church.
Ted Olsen: It started off as a magazine trying to help youth pastors with some satire in it, and then the humor and satire grew to be the core focus. It's also known for its awesome interviews and other things, but most people remember it for its satire, its humor, its cartoons, and it's doing all of that in service and love of the church.
Bob Darden: It's all kinds of things, but satire at its highest form is written to exaggerate elements of an event, a story, or an idea to help people look more closely at that original idea or event. It's not necessarily humorous.
The Swiftian satire, depending on your taste, may or may not have been funny, and certainly with The Wittenburg Door there are things that we thought was funny that clearly nobody in our reading audience thought was funny, and vice versa.
There have been all kinds of studies on satire—about education level of the people who read it and employ it and, as we're seeing with The Babylon Bee, how is that stuff is accepted and believed.
In the past, satire has been more or less the province of people of a certain level of education to take the idea that this is not attacking me, this is attacking this idea from an almost rhetorical point of view.
But once you got away from the initial core of people, then you get the problem with The Babylon Bee and occasionally The Door, where just the average reader would not know if it was one thing to another. And there are times when you want that, but for the most part then it no longer is satire because people don't get what you're trying to do.
Do you see anything in Scripture as being in the genre of satire?
Bob Darden: Jesus could use hyperbole and exaggeration on occasions. There are times where Jesus uses language to make a point. The whole idea about a camel going through the eye of a needle, is that satire? Is that an actual needles gate where a camel gets on its knees? Or is Jesus making a rhetorical point?
And there are times in the Book of Job and other books in the Bible where I wonder, "Are these people really involved in clever wordplay?" My colleagues at Truett Seminary say the Bible is full of clever wordplay in the original Hebrew.
You wrote a book on Jesus’ humor. Do you think his humor was satirical or was it ironic?
Bob Darden: I didn't really get into a whole lot of the satire of Jesus, but part of the argument of Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor was that one of the areas that Christians in a way have neglected to continue his message is humor and joy and laughter.
We've long said that 11 o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but it's also the most dour hour. Every now and then, a preacher will say a bad pun and the congregation will laugh uproariously, partly because they're so needy and grateful that somebody would even inject a little humor.
I go to probably more black churches than white, and those churches rock with laughter before, during, and after services, and I think we're missing something when we think it all has to be Puritan- and Pilgrim-styled church service.
Let's lean into that more. There are theologians who have written books on the spirituality of humor. Some end up in the space that laughter is basically apocalyptic, or at least eschatological. It has to have a sense that something is wrong, something right now is intensely broken, but it can be redeemed and that there's a future hope—they emphasize that a joke has to have both of those things. Do you think that's an explanation for why black churches would have some more humor—because when your choice is between laugh and cry or laugh sounds better?
Bob Darden: Absolutely. I love that idea that Peter Berger continues to write about and goes back to, because I do think it is such a rich vein.
We're not talking about jokes. We're not talking about puns. We're not talking about riddles. We're talking about something bigger and vaster and deeper, this cosmic idea. As a number of writers have said, Easter was the biggest joke of all on Satan—thinking he had won, but really there was a deeper message.
Satire is a subset of humor, and it's done well and done badly, just as humor is done well and badly. And we ignore this particular tool in our arsenal at our own peril.
Based on your background, there's obviously an array of different communication forms that you're accustomed to. When you decided that you wanted to confront the church with some of the stuff that you saw going on, what led you to pick satire?
Bob Darden: Satire picked me. I'd written a single article for The Wittenburg Door on the legendary WaHobbs, the world's worst Christian music band, that ended up getting national play, and actually a recording contract for this band that was a little family in Iowa. The current editor had wanted to step back from doing The Door after doing it for its first 20 years. He said his season of satire had passed. And so they asked me to step in as senior editor.
And where did your ideas come from for the magazine?
Bob Darden: About 90 percent of the magazine was written by freelancers, so we would get dozens of unsolicited submissions every day. We would start pulling out the ones that made us laugh.
Miraculously, each month people would be on somewhat of a similar path, and we'd pull all those issues together, commissioned interviews with major theologians, and would package them together as The Door, and it made it look like we'd been thinking about this all along.
Who were the subjects that writers were allowed to target? And what types of things, people, or ideas were off-limits?
Bob Darden: I'm not sure there was anything off-limits, but contrary to public opinion, we did have a balance and boundaries. The personhood of the living Christ and the blood of Jesus was off-limits, but we believe Jesus was fully human, laughed, and danced and made merry.
One of my favorite cartoons was of a biblical-age little boy standing half in a doorway, and off panel a word balloon is saying, "Shut the door, Jesus! Were you born in a barn?" The readers either love that or hated it. But in fact, Jesus was kind of born in a barn. Does that demean Jesus, or does it help make Jesus more human without poking fun of the divinity of Christ?
Were you interested in talking about Christianity at large or was it supposed to be focused on American evangelicalism?
Bob Darden: Under the previous editor it was probably more focused on the evangelical church in America, but when the Trinity Foundation took over The Wittenburg Door, I think they wanted it to look more at Christianity at large.
Why this became so successful, and why this became essential reading in not just every seminary in America but for every major theological leader I ever talked, is that all of the people who worked on it, including me, loved the church. They loved what the church was trying to do at its best.
But it seems to me the best satire, and when the magazine was at its best at making a difference, is when it was coming to satire out of a place of love. If you're doing satire because you want to tear something down, then it becomes very close to bullying.
How do you demonstrate love for political enemies or religious enemies in a satire? I came across a quote from John Piper where he says he loves satires, but it's difficult to do satire without sounding arrogant. Or as another theologian said, "It's very hard to show that Christ is magnificent and that I'm clever at the same time."
Bob Darden: When it works, you're an equal-opportunity offender. You're after right and left, Christian and Protestant, and you're casting your arrows across the board. Satire is lining ten people up, shooting them with a paint gun, and the person who yells the loudest you shoot ten more times.
There was some of that at The Door. We would get letters and there were the ones that said, "You idiot, you've gone too far with this one. Cancel my subscription." But there were letters that showed there were things that people resonated with.
We would get letters saying, "I had to give up on the evangelical church. I've been burned by too many toxic pastors and relationships and dogma, and the only thing that keeps me with any connection to my faith is The Wittenburg Door." We received those monthly and I'd read them very carefully and ask, what is it that is driving these people, these honest seekers away from faith? And when we identified what that was then that would become a target.
Most of the time when The Door failed, it was because I hadn't sharpened and honed the point enough, or I didn't know what the writer was trying to accomplish with this. Sometimes we just have a top ten list that would be funny, but for the most part if it wasn't goal-directed, then it could have been Mad Magazine or National Lampoon.
What are some examples of pieces that you feel exemplify the best stuff published in The Wittenburg Door?
Ted Olsen: There was a great one that came out when I was in college that was the Book of Revelation told through any number of fiction writers perspectives—everyone from Tom Clancy to Frank Peretti to a bunch of other writers—but it was clear through the way those writers voices were being emulated that whoever had been writing this piece loved those authors and also loved Scripture.
Another one that is a very classic Door piece was back when designer jeans were a thing. There was a fake ad for various Christian celebrity designer jeans. And it was like, "Billy Graham, loosens with age."
Bob Darden: We did from time to time take something like the story of the Prodigal Son and the author retold it from the point of view of the mom, who is never mentioned, and how different that story would have been from the mom's point of view.
The Door was the one place where people could take those kinds of chances. It happened to be funny, but it had incredible insight and made me go back and reread that story again and again.
Another one that sticks with me for the same reason is the story of David and Goliath but told as if it's the Kennedy assassination and all of the unique parallels between the two. The five smooth stones, what happened to the other stones? It comes out in one translation that he's on a grassy knoll overlooking. And on and on and on, these funny little parallels the writer made.
And there's nothing funny about the Kennedy assassination, but at the same time what that did was to help me really look at Scriptures we've read so many times and heard so many times, that they become white noise. And to look at the Scripture fresh one more time and see if there's actually a whole lot more going on to it than what my fourth-grade Sunday school teacher was telling me.
That's part of what satire does—when it works.
When you think about Scripture and Christian satire, there are verses that admonish deceiving our neighbors or joking around. Is there an aspect where we should really heed the warning of Scripture to not do the "I was only joking" kind of humor?
Bob Darden: On the cover, we had a statement that said, "The world's pretty much only religious humor and satire magazine." That was our tip to anyone who read The Door. When articles or things got picked up by various outlets, we always insisted that we had that little tagline.
During the earlier years, they didn't have that. Instead they said, "To believe greatly, it's necessary to have doubted great." Which I also believe, but I liked ours a little better because shock value and deceiving people is not the same as going through a process of trying to point out something that's wrong with love.
The Wittenberg Door and other Christian satire at its best would be like the little boy in the old fable who was the only one who would say the king is buck naked. Everybody else was just nodding about how well-dressed the king was. Well, good satire is sometimes that little boy who points out what we're all either afraid to say or just overlooking.
Does humor change as the political climate changes, especially in times of high political conflict?
Bob Darden: Most of the great black comics come out of the civil rights movement. They come out of a time where either you laugh, either you make fun of it, or you give up. And all those years of persecution for the great Jewish comics who came out in such great numbers for so long. And now we're seeing so many more woman comics than we ever saw before because so many things are not better for women.
A good society, a strong society, should be able to handle laughing at itself. If your president—whatever party you’re in—can't handle laughter, particularly laughter at his or herself, then there are other issues that need to be resolved and very quickly.
How do you think social media changes how we experience satire?
Bob Darden: It's very difficult to do a successful satire in 144 characters. 144 can do a pun, it can do outrage, but it can't do the kind of nuanced writing based on reality with a hope of redemption that satire does.
On Facebook, you can link to The Borowitz Report or you can link to The Babylon Bee, but it is not the place for creating. So that group of grandmothers who are forwarding kitten pictures to their grandchildren, we had discovered in recent elections that those people who had grown up in the air of media that had multiple layers of accountability, really hadn't developed the ability to separate out. They don't know the difference between ABC News and something that looks very close to ABC News, but it's really coming for in some Russian bot in Romania.
What next step do you think satirical outlets should take when people end up misinterpreting them? If it really hurts their business model to put satire on the front of it, what are best practices for confronting people who are sharing satire sincerely to let them know that it is actually satirical?
Bob Darden: I don't think it ever hurt The Door that it was called a religious humor and satire magazine. Everybody knew when they turned to Ship of Fools; everybody knew when they turned to Lark News. You knew that that was the intent. When The Babylon Bee, whether intentionally or not, doesn't make it clear that it's satire, then they deserve whatever heat they're getting.
Ted Olsen: I have a different take. I have seen the most outrageous satire that is obviously fake still be passed around as belief. We've run a couple pieces over the years that had satire, had parody, at the top that people still believe. So I don't know that putting satire or parody keeps people from believing stuff. Snopes fact-checks things from The Onion and other satirical sites that people share like fake news. They are primarily responding to reader questions. But I also know there's a lot of people who pretend to be duped that are not actually duped, and I know there's a lot of people who pretend to be outraged that are not outraged. There's a big game that is hard to parody because it is itself a parody.