Red and Blue God. Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshiping the Almighty Dollar
by Becky Garrison, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
Christianity. Politics. Satire. The three make up an unsavory trinity that is both painful and sweet. Kind of like the fun of preaching a funeral and then running away laughing before the real preacher shows up.
Not that I’ve ever done that.
There was a time when a little magazine called The Wittenburg Door cornered the market on this trinity. Then came The Simpsons, South Park, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Pretty soon religio-politico satire became part of mass culture. Even so the question remained, were Christians laughing? I don’t know the answer to that. I just think they should be.
Red and Blue God. Black and Blue Church is serious reading from a seasoned Christian satirist. Becky Garrison, senior contributing editor for the Door, is serious about shedding light on the glaring inadequacies in both left and right Christian politics. Beginning with her time spent as a chaplain at Ground Zero soon after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, Garrison illustrates the difference between real ministry and real love, and sick instances of making a buck in Jesus name. From Ground Zero she moves to the Republican National Convention in 2004. She mills around both in the ultra right circles and at the leftist demonstrations outside. Becky, we learn, is the daughter of an Episcopal priest who was raised to hate all things Conservative. So out of rebellion she flirted with Republicanism in college. The result is a savory and yet sympathetic roasting of each side with a serious interest in picking up the slag that both overlook.
Issues such as homosexuality, abortion, school prayer, AIDS, and poverty get new treatment with all the nuance revealed that more people should know about. Just when you think you’ve got the issue’s pros and cons in hand, Garrison reveals the way Church people ignore and distort real issues and bury their work gloves. See what I mean about serious? So is the book funny? At times I smiled, laughed aloud, dropped my jaw in disbelief, or groaned. How do you make a book serious and funny at the same time? I don’t know but Becky Garrison did it. In addition to her own stories and reflections, she packs the book with Door interviews, luminary quotes, and even a great song lyric from the Austin Lounge Lizards titled “Jesus loves me (but he can’t stand you)”.
This kind of book creates a problem for me as a pencilneck. A brief history of Satire as a genre reveals that it has a very fragile effect. Take for instance Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. No doubt intended as a satire and parody, it was instantly popular as some sort of child’s fantasy and later as proto-science fiction. Would it have become one of the classics of the English language if people had gotten the joke? Well, when Swift got more pointed with his book A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick his readers did get the joke, and they were not laughing. He faced harsh criticism for its’ “bad taste” and came close to losing his livelihood.
Unlike factoid writing, satire uses irony, which makes the assumption that the audience is on the side of reason. Brozowski and Mazlish have written that satire
“assumes a civilized opponent who is sufficiently sensitive to feel the barbs of wit leveled at him. To hold something up to ridicule presupposes a certain respect for reason, on both sides, to which one can appeal. An Age of Reason, in which everyone accepts the notion that conduct must be reasonable, is, therefore, a general prerequisite for satire.” The Western Intellectual Tradition From Leonardo to Hegel, p. 252 (1960; as repub. in 1993 Barnes & Noble ed.)
Satirists are constantly accused of nihilism – attempting to destroy and leave nothing – when truthfully their attention is itself a flattering of the object. Take for example the occasion of Stephen Colbert’s “flattery” of George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner April 29, 2006:
“We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.”
The reactions to this scathing satire were mixed. Some liberals lauded Colbert as a prophet. But the question on many people’s minds was “how could Bush just sit there beside Colbert so unaffected?” If the satire were such a sharp rebuke did the President just not get it? Or did he feel completely removed from the joke?
In an interview for SMH the “king of sophisticated satire” Tom Lehrer remarks, “‘I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” The article goes on to articulate the difference between what Lehrer regards as witty humor, what is difficult to satirize, and what is off limits. Just because something can be turned into a joke doesn’t mean it has serious effect.
Satire has many devices, but used effectively it has a constructive end in mind. With Christians I see satire used as a painful way of showing love. Pouring iodine on wounds, it creates strength and builds an immune system in the object. In our day and age it can rouse our political sympathies and play off them, but because the American audience is largely immune it rarely sparks interest or changes minds.
The Church is a body with many very different members, offering a picture of diversity and impartiality in who can be called part of the Body universal. In service to the Church satire creates a boundary situation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “only in the conflict of wills does genuine life arise.” (Sanctorum Communio) Satire has the potential to show us greater possibilities and help us laugh at the uniformity we needlessly demand. A recent story in the Wittenburg Door imagines various leading social activists (Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis) as rap gangster archetypes. Ron Sider with bling hung all over him talkin’ smack is the most outrageously diverse and “other” idea possible!
The Trinity Foundation which publishes the Wittenburg Door embodies a way of life that begs to differ with those who think of satire as criticism without responsibility. They sponsor The Dallas Project, a challenge for religious folk to adopt 10 to 20 families who are homeless or on welfare to turn their lives around. The Oklahoma and Dayton projects provide affordable housing. As a ministry they try to live the first century Christian experience of community in a section of row housing in Dallas. A few years back I visited and witnessed first hand testimonies of lives destroyed by the effects of rich televangelists, but brought full circle back into the Church through their community. They also run a nationwide victims’ help line for those taken in by televangelists. Yes, I found out this is serious business.
The Door has used satire as a patient, humble, kindly healing resource for an Evangelical subculture badly in need of the ability to laugh at itself. It takes the long view of that project. In the short term the jabs get very dated. In the long term it’s stated mission is “to bring down to size those persons, institutions, and movements of whatever perspective – any and all – who abuse religion or use it for their own personal benefit.” Within that long tradition, Becky Garrison, for instance, is not shy about asking why clergy affiliated with Yale Divinity School, who talk so much about the social gospel, will bankroll clergy with a lifestyle befitting the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. (Red and Blue God pg. 100-101.)
I have a lot of hope for satire as a genre. I happen to think it communicates the nuances of faith with a lot of potential. But then the cynical side of me (the same one that feeds my love for satire) wonders if ours is a society that can appreciate satire effectively.
Yet I notice that satire, like faith, makes no sense to the uninitiated. It takes a community to instill faith effectively. Oscar Romero reminds us that “we are workers, not master builders-ministers, not messiahs.” If Jesus is about saving people and not institutions than, in the long view, faith is a sensible proposition. In the same way though satire may not sway the masses or unseat institutions it might plant some seed and paint a picture. To borrow an old line from a Larry Norman song, “a song can’t stop the world, but it might stop you.”