The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

Anyone who visits a typical American megachurch worship service will get a quick education on the mechanics of contemporary praise music.

First, the band rocks into action, while swaying worshipers raise their hands high, singing lyrics displayed on giant screens. There may be lasers and smoke. A guitarist or keyboard player guides everyone through worship songs -- loud then soft, softer then louder -- linked by dramatic key changes and musical "bridges." Eventually, there's a sermon or worship video.

What if something goes wrong? This Babylon Bee headline was an online classic: "Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus."

In this fake "news report," a weeping member of the worship band adds: "It's scary, honestly. … This is our third worship leader who's been sucked into a PCBV (Perpetual Chorus-Bridge Vortex) in the past year."

After the 14th chorus-to-bridge transition, deacons called 911 and the victim was rushed to an emergency room. "Physicians are subjecting him," readers learn, "to a barrage of classic hymns in hopes that he will recover."

This is an inside-baseball brand of satire that allows Babylon Bee creator Adam Ford to gently explore the yins and yangs of evangelical Christianity.

"While we satirize our own camp quite a bit, we don't limit ourselves to evangelicalism. We write about culture, politics, other religions, current events, etc., regularly," said Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. He shares more of his personal story in his own web-comics site.

Most Babylon Bee newcomers, however, are almost certainly be drawn there by social-media references to the site's popular items dissecting modern evangelical life.

'The Young Messiah' -- A new/old Bible movie that tries to stay orthodox

Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.

In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.

"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.

"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "

Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.

That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."

That Superman debate: Moses or the Messiah?

Without a doubt, it's one of the most famous and magical incantations in American pop culture. "Look, up in the sky!"

"It's a bird!"

"It's a plane!"

The last line in this mass-media chant is, of course: "It's Superman!"

However, whenever a major product is released in the Superman canon -- such as "Man of Steel," which grossed $113 million on its first weekend -- many fan boys and scribes will immediately begin arguing about two other potential identities, symbolically speaking, for their favorite superhero.

Visit almost any online Superman forum and "someone is going to be saying, 'It's Jesus!' and someone else will immediately respond, 'It's Moses!' and then back and forth it'll go, 'Jesus,' 'Moses,' 'Jesus,' 'Moses' on and on," said the Rev. Gary D. Robinson, pastor of North Side Christian Church in Xenia, Ohio.

The 58-year-old Robinson freely admits he is a passionate participant in these kinds of debates, both as the author of the book "Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan" and the owner of a inch-plus scar on his left arm created by his attempt -- at age 6 -- to fly like Superman through a large glass window.

Like many theologically wired fans, he can quote the key Superman facts, chapter and verse. He thinks the parallels are fun, but shouldn't be taken too seriously.

"I see the Superman myth as a shadow thrown by the Light itself," he said, referring biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. "In it's own way, it's a crude substitute ... but there is no question that there is some kind of allegory in there."

First of all, the future Superman was born on the doomed planet Krypton into the "House of El" and, in Hebrew, "El" -- from a root word that means strength and might -- is one word for God. His father gave him the name Kal-El, or in Superman lore "Son of El," a kind of science-fiction parallel to names such as Dani-el or Samu-el.

Then again, his mother and father saved their baby from persecution by casting him into the river of time and space, hoping he would be a source of hope and protection for others. They used a rocket, not a wicker basket, but it's hard to miss the Moses connection. It also helps to know that writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster -- both were sons of Jewish refugees from Europe -- created Superman in the tense 1930s, inspired in part by anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

Experts in both camps can offer litanies of similar details. Meanwhile, "Man of Steel" director Zack Synder has packed his film with iconic images and symbolic facts. The film stresses that Clark Kent soars into his Superman role at age 33, the same tradition says Jesus began his public ministry. Told by the techno-ghost of his father, "You can save them. You can save all of them," Superman pauses in space -- arms extended and legs together, as if on a cross -- before racing back to fight a demonic figure who is attacking in the earth.

In one audacious scene, Superman visits his local church in Kansas while wrestling with the question of whether he should willingly surrender his own life so that humanity can be saved. Over his head is a stained-class window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion.

The question, of course, is how seriously to take this often dark and humorless video-game era salute to "The Matrix," "Avatar," "The Dark Knight" and hosts of other recent blockbusters, with a few undeniable 9/11 images in the mix as well. "Popcorn and a (World)view" columnist Drew Zahn argued: "Though I won't claim it was written by an author the caliber of C.S. Lewis, nonetheless, the metaphors and messages make 'Man of Steel' a sort of 'Chronicles of Narnia' for an 'Avengers' generation."

Robinson is convinced Superman and other pop-culture myths are fine hooks for conversations about deeper issues and truths. But, in the end, how can ordinary women and men, struggling with the pitfalls of daily life, form a healing bond with Superman?

"Superman is a poor substitute for the Gospel," he said. "Superman offers himself to save our lives. Jesus wants to save us forever, for all of eternity. ... In the end, there's only one real story and we keep trying to create new variations on it."

On the count of three -- pray

At the first inauguration of George W. Bush as president, the Rev. Franklin Graham raised eyebrows by using an edgy word in his prayer.

"May this be the beginning of a new dawn for America as we humble ourselves before you and acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer," said Graham, the fiery son of evangelist Billy Graham. "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Four years later, the word showed up again.

"Now, unto You, O God, the One who always has been and always will be, the one King of kings and the true power broker, we glorify and honor You," said the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. "Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

Scholars who keep watch over the rites of American civil religion took note of the firestorms caused by these prayers. Clearly, it was becoming dangerous to use the J-word -- the name of Jesus -- in the public square.

But it's old hat for Republicans to use explicit God-talk. This year, Sen. Barack Obama and his team went out of the way to invite progressive and even mainstream Evangelicals to the Democratic National Convention -- including taking a turn at the podium. This was cutting-edge prayer in an age of theological tolerance.

One lesser-known voice backed out at the last moment -- Cameron Strang, the 32-year-old editor of Relevant Magazine and son of publishing magnate Steven Strang of Charisma magazine. Nevertheless, Strang the younger was willing to arrange for a rising star to take his place -- Donald Miller, author of the spiritual memoir "Blue Like Jazz."

Miller ended his prayer with a call for unity within diversity, but also found a way to say "Jesus" without causing trouble.

"God we know that you are good. Thank you for blessing us in so many ways as Americans," said Miller. "I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice. ... Amen."

The key was that Miller stressed the word "I," making sure that his listeners knew he was claiming this was his own prayer -- not asking them to share his embrace of the second person of the Christian Trinity.

Still, when it comes to church-state strategy, the most groundbreaking prayer was offered by the Rev. Joel Hunter of the giant Northland Church near Orlando -- especially since his benediction ended the mile-high rally that included Obama's acceptance speech.

A self-identified "pro-life Republican," the preacher offered a conventional prayer that included appeals on behalf of infants, children, the poor, the persecuted and those who are enslaved, as well as for peace and for the environment. Then, at the end, Hunter paused to interject a unique "closing instruction."

"I want to personalize this," he said. "I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer. So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three."

Hunter, on his own behalf, spoke into the microphone: "In Jesus' name, Amen." Meanwhile, 80,000 or so other people were free to name their own God or gods.

After fielding questions about his actions, the pastor stressed that it would be "taking the Lord's name in vain" if he created confusion in such a setting. The goal was ensure that participants did not believe they were being asked to accept a prayer that forced them to "compromise their core beliefs."

Thus, "I did not ask people to pray to another god; I asked them to finish a prayer according to their faith tradition," argued Hunter, on his church's website. "This may be a small point linguistically, but it is a huge point theologically. ...

"As you may imagine, I prayed long and hard before feeling like God had given me the precise words for this prayer. I believe that He in His sovereign way will use it to bring people to Himself."

The exaltation of Mitt Romney

It takes lots of praying, preaching and singing to mourn a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man called Prophet, Seer and Revelator by his global flock.

That was certainly true at President Spencer W. Kimball's funeral in 1985. So when one of the church's most powerful women rose to speak, the leader of its vast Relief Society projects, she simply shared a cherished private memory that pointed far beyond the grave.

While visiting Colorado, recalled the late Barbara B. Smith, "I asked President Kimball a searching question. 'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around those mountains. ... Then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.' "

She also recalled this Kimball quote urging Latter-day Saints to help those in need: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? Perhaps the most essential godlike quality is compassion."

It was already rare, at that time, to hear such an explicit public reference to the faith's doctrine of "exaltation," the belief that through piety and good works truly devout Mormons can rise to godhood and even create new worlds.

While this doctrine has caused tensions with other faiths, it has been a key source for the Mormon emphasis on marriage and family. As a mid-1980s text for converts stated: "Parenthood is ... an apprenticeship for godhood."

Now, church leaders have published an online essay -- "Becoming Like God" -- in which they have attempted to reframe this doctrine, in part by mixing the unique revelations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith with New Testament references and selected quotes from the writings of early-church saints such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Basil the Great.

The essay repeatedly refers to Mormons becoming "like" God, rather than becoming gods and uses the term "godliness" many times, and "godhood" only once.

It also notes that Latter-day saints have endured mass-media efforts to turn this doctrine into a "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets." After all, the showstopper "I Believe" in the rowdy Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" proclaims: "I believe; that God has a plan for all of us. I believe; that plan involves me getting my own planet. ... I believe; that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe; that Jesus has his own planet as well. ... Oh, I believe!"

Nevertheless, the online essay does note that Smith did tell his followers: "You have to learn how to be a god yourself." It also bluntly asks a question frequently posed by critics of the church: "Does belief in exaltation make Latter-day Saints polytheists?"

The essay responds: "For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God's children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the 'fullness of joy' He desires for us."

The problem, according to poet and blogger Holly Welker, is that this downplays images Mormons have for generations used to describe their faith. She noted, for example, that the essay edited a key passage from Mormon scripture to avoid powerful words linked to these beliefs.

Doctrine and Covenants proclaims: "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them."

That doesn't sound like a metaphor, argued the former Mormon, writing at the University of Southern California's "Religion Dispatches" website.

"Having our own planets," she said, is "absolutely a matter-of-fact way Latter-day Saints have discussed this doctrine amongst ourselves, probably because of statements like this one from Brigham Young: 'All those who are counted worthy to be exalted and to become Gods, even the sons of Gods, will go forth and have earths and worlds like those who framed this and millions on millions of others.' ...

"The essay actually deflects rather than answers this question: So, can we get our own planets, or not?"