Religious satire

February 20th, 2018

Biblical satire

In God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, Terry Lindvall, who serves as the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan University, explores the history of religious satire — both that which is directed toward religion and its institutions and that which comes from religious satirists. The title God Mocks is based on Psalm 2:4, which presents God as a satirist.

Satire has a purpose beyond derision, ridicule and making fun. As it attacks, says Lindvall, “it aims not just to slice and dice, but to correct and reform.” He argues, “At the heart of true satire is recognition of a moral discrepancy between what is proclaimed and what is practiced, often with an attempt to remedy it.  . . .  It demonstrates the core of orthodox Christian thinking that all people know they should live in certain ways — and that no one does.” Though it uses wit and humor, satire isn’t always funny, but it weds “wit to moral concern.”

Lindvall notes that there are many satirists found throughout the Bible. For instance, Elijah mocks the Canaanite prophets who were trying unsuccessfully to get Baal to rain fire on a sacrifice. Elijah taunts them, saying, “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” (1 Kings 18:27).

The vocation of these biblical satirists is to expose and correct the folly and foolishness of their own community of faith and its hypocritical leaders. They use mockery to attack adultery and idolatry, but their ridicule isn’t for sport. Instead, they identify with their objects of attack. According to Lindvall, the biblical satirist “may be God’s prosecutor, but he is also entwined with the people he ridicules. A true satirist sits in the dock with those who are guilty and identifies as an integral member of the satirized community.”

Lindvall sees the grand comedy of the New Testament in the resurrection of Christ after the tragedy of the Crucifixion: “The Gospel, as good news, presupposes bad news. As inevitable tragedy precedes unexpected comedy, so the fallen and foolish state of humanity sets up the coming of biblical satire.” The Crucifixion itself comes on the heels of Jesus being mocked and scorned by both the crowd and his captors. In the Resurrection, we see that Jesus, in a sense, has the last laugh both in regards to those who mocked him and to death itself. Paul joins in this mockery of death in 1 Corinthians 15:55 saying, “Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?

English and continental Satirists

Reformer Martin Luther is best known for nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, but Luther was also notorious for his scalding pen. Luther believed that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to text of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” He acted on this with his jeering denunciations of those whom he confronted. He mocked one opponent saying, “Your writings and head are disordered and mixed up, so that it is exceedingly annoying to read and difficult to remember what you write.” To another, he wrote, “In lying fashion you ignore what even children know.”

Luther was also known for his scatological humor, and he didn’t mind offending others even with more vulgar terms. He referred to the pope as the “cuckoo that devours the church’s eggs and then craps out cardinals.” When he felt the pope was paying too much attention to him, he responded, “When I fart in Wittenberg, the Pope in Rome wrinkles his nose.”

Luther wasn’t the only religious figure to embrace satire. In A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift, an Irish clergyman and writer, created one of the best-known English satires when he made a case for the cannibalism of Irish babies. This was Swift’s way of calling out the British government for its close-fisted way of dealing with Irish subjects and their poverty. Swift argued that eating babies would provide economic benefits for both the children’s parents and for the country’s tourism, as travelers would flock to Ireland for this culinary delight. England would benefit as well because a smaller Irish population would present less of a problem.

Like many religious satirists throughout history, Swift found ways to express the theological through the vulgar. Lindvall explains, “For Swift, all our righteousness is as dung.” In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift wrote, “[Human beings] are never so Serious, Thoughtful, and Intent, as when they are at Stool.” Lindvall writes, “Faith and conscience were wedded to his bark and his bite. Both clergy and satirists are called to pull down appearances, to expose evil, and to hold up virtue. As both a Christian and comic poet, Swift tried to elevate God while humiliating those [people] who would not be humble.”

American satirists

“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” wrote Mark Twain — and assault he did, as Lindvall describes. In a letter to his brother, Twain wrote, “I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a pilot [of a riverboat], & the other a preacher of the gospel. I accomplished the one & failed in the other, because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade — i.e. religion.”

Twain’s religious satire was wide-ranging, targeting fundamentalism, the international missionary movement, hypocrisy, sham, judgmentalism, civil religion, war and even the widely held vision of heaven as a place of nonstop singing and harp playing. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, bad boy Huck endures the Bible teaching of the pious and proud Miss Watson, but unlike her, he chooses love over judgment. When she tells him that he won’t find his friend Tom Sawyer in heaven, he decides he’d rather not go there. When faced with the choice of turning Jim, a runaway slave, over to the authorities or avoiding hell, he protects Jim.

In our present day, the most well-known Christian satirist today is arguably late-night host Stephen Colbert, a devout Roman Catholic who teaches Sunday school and calls satire “parody with a point,” Lindvall says, citing a Reel Spirituality article. While addressing Congress about the cause of migrant workers, Colbert quoted Jesus, saying, “And you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our brothers right now, [you do it to me].” He continued, adding, “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.  . . .  If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

Does satire work?

At one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves indulging in the joys of satire; but beyond this enjoyment, a question haunts us: Does satire actually work to promote change? When asked this question, Lindvall said in a recent email interview, “Satire has rarely been effective in promoting social change. From Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Baal through Amos’ irony in trying to persuade Israel to repent, humorous discourse tends to miss influencing the will of the primary target.”

Lindvall continued, “When Erasmus spoke through Dame Folly about boring theologians . . . and libidinous monks, both Pope Leo and Luther enjoyed his wit. However, neither recognized themselves in his mirror for fools.”

However, there are exceptions to this. C. S. Lewis, for one, “broke this mold as he satirized his own sins and found a receptive audience. Such honesty combined with sharp humor struck home through his Screwtape Letters. He was effective because he hit a target he knew very well: his own soul,” said Lindvall.

In his interview, Lindvall concluded that “religious satire, if witty and leavened with grace, can be remarkably effective, especially when the satirist identifies with his or her target. No need just to ridicule and kill all the prophets of Baal. One can hope to laugh others into the Kingdom.”

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