satire

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

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 Adam4d.com 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.

Maher says Obama's faith is fake

The last thing the White House needed was another TV preacher questioning the sincerity of President Barack Obama's Christian faith. But there was a twist. This time it was HBO's Bill Maher -- sermonizing against religion has become his life's work -- who claimed that Obama is hiding a deep, dark secret. During the Feb. 11 episode of his "Real Time" talk show, Maher said he knows an unbeliever when he sees one and that Obama is probably an agnostic.

This came a week after the president made another attempt, as church people say, to give "his testimony." Yes, his mother was a skeptic, Obama said, during the National Prayer Breakfast, but she was also "one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew." Her values led him to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Baptist, Catholic and Jewish clergy who led it.

"Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me ... to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago," he said. "And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior."

The presidency has, on occasion, driven him to his knees, he said. But faith has strengthened his family, especially "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time."

Those old questions remain a concern months after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. At that time, only 34 percent of those polled said the president is a Christian and 43 percent said they didn't know his current religion. Among strong supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats agreed that he is a Christian.

The bottom line: Millions of voters remain unsure whether Obama is their kind of believer.

Maher's attack was unique, since it came from an outspoken liberal, the acidic wit behind the movie "Religulous," an fierce secularist who is so turned off by faith that he calls himself an "apatheist" instead of an atheist. If Maher has a sanctuary, it's the Playboy mansion.

"With friends like Mr. Maher, Mr. Obama doesn't need enemies," noted Brent Decker, who leads The Washington Times editorial page.

Maher stated his doubts during a roundtable about whether the president is sincere in his attempts to march under a "centrist" banner. The iconoclastic comedian agreed with many religious conservatives on one crucial fact -- that Obama often appears to hide his true beliefs.

"If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really," said Maher. In other words, Obama is pretending to be a centrist and a Christian.

The African-American philosopher and critic Cornel West disagreed: "He is a Christian, he's just a centrist Christian. He's not a prophetic Christian."

Maher stood firm: "His mother was a secular humanist and I think he is too."

This unleashed a lightning-fast series of exchanges, with guests discussing the fact that Obama entered the black church before he entered national politics. As an adult, he had already begun a spiritual journey that took him away from his mother's blend of skepticism and spirituality.

"He changed his mind on the God question, brother Bill," West reminded the host. "He changed his mind on the God question."

Again, Maher insisted that Obama is hiding his true beliefs in the same way that he keeps insisting that he continues to "struggle with gay marriage." It's smart politics for Obama to say one thing while believing the other, said Maher.

Nevertheless, insisted West, "Being a Christian is not a political orientation for the president. He is a Christian."

"I just don't believe him," Maher said.

"Bill, what do you think he is?", asked West. "You think he's agnostic, actually?"

"Yeah, kind of," said Maher.

West grew even more animated, asking, "On what grounds do you say that? ... What kind of evidence you got?"

Maher declined to answer and steered the discussion into safer territory.

Getting in the last word, West noted: "But somebody is wrong about this thing."

Politics, Baylor, The NoZe & Aqua Buddha

If Texas Baptists had a patron saint, the Rev. George W. Truett would almost certainly get the nod. So it was a solemn occasion when the great preacher from Dallas arrived in "Jerusalem on the Brazos" in 1941 to preach a series of revival services at Baylor University, the planet's largest Baptist institution of higher learning. Then loud alarm clocks started ringing in the attic of cavernous Waco Hall, on three-minute intervals.

This pandemonium was, of course, orchestrated by Baylor's Nose Brotherhood. This club for satirists was born in 1926 and quickly became known for its "Pink Tea" spectaculars, which offered "vertical exercising" on a campus that, from 1845-1996, banned dancing. The secret society was "just a fun-loving bunch of boys," Brother Dude Nose Harrison told the Dallas Morning News in 1931.

The Nose became the NoZe in 1965 when, in an event that has achieved mythic status, a campus bridge that once a year was ceremonially painted pink mysteriously went up in flames. The brothers were temporarily banished, but began appearing in their signature glasses, fake noses and tacky wigs.

The question now facing America is whether the activities of the NoZe Brotherhood could cost the Republican Party control of the U.S. Senate.

Alas, this is not satire.

Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway has asked why Republican Rand Paul, in the ominous words of a television advertisement, was a "member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a 'hoax,' that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was 'Aqua Buddha'?"

Being accused of "anti-Christian" activities is not a good thing in the Bible Belt. As the Washington Post put it, Paul stands accused of participating in a "secret society while at Baylor University that published mocking statements regarding the Bible."

The Conway campaign added: "This is an ad about things he did. He has failed to deny any of these charges."

At this point, I should stress that while I am a Baylor graduate from the same era as Paul, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NoZe Brotherhood. I did know some NoZe folks, including one who became a White House speechwriter, and like all Baylor alumni I know that no non-NoZe knows the no-nonsense non-NoZe news that the NoZe knows.

The Republican has acknowledged participating in NoZe pranks. Meanwhile, one of his Baylor colleagues told the Louisville Courier-Journal: "We aspired to blasphemy and he flourished in it."

Sounds like the NoZe to me.

During my years at Baylor, the secret society mocked all kinds of people, including Dan Rather, Richard Nixon, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (a powerful Baylor alum) and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. I was present when Woodward was made an honorary member -- Brother Water NoZe, or some variation on that theme. As I recall, the NoZe crashed his campus lecture, presenting him with his own plunger, while seated on a rolling commode.

The NoZe mocked all things Baptist, targeting the many sacred cows that resided on campus. These NoZe drippings rarely achieved brilliance and often veered into college-life stupidity.

Nevertheless, the Baylor Library maintains a modest NoZe archive. While the brotherhood has been exiled from campus several times, its official historian -- the late Brother Short Nose (William B.) Long -- served on the Baylor board of regents and received his alma mater's highest honor, The Founders Medal.

Drawing on this respected physician's book, "The Nose Brotherhood Knows: A Collection of Nothings and Non-Happenings, 1926-1965," Baylor Magazine published a 2003 report that probed the philosophy behind the brotherhood's attempts to "put the 'pie' in piety" and "the 'pun' in punctilious."

The bottom line: It is, as a rule, quite dangerous to mix satire and religion.

One of the NoZe -- it may have been Brother Bilbo BaggiNoze or Brother IgNoZetius Reilly -- told the magazine: "I have no problems whatsoever with Christianity, but I think blind Christianity is a mistake. People are sometimes afraid to examine other religions, but it just makes your beliefs stronger in the end. I don't think a Christian mission means that we can't look at and study everything in the world. Furthermore, if education is really the goal of each student here ... certainly they'd want to be exposed to as many opinions and as many things as possible."

A Catholic Colbert report

For Catholics raised during the head-spinning days after Vatican II, few things inspire flashbacks to the era of flowers and folk Masses quicker than the bouncy hymn "The King of Glory." But what was a goofy nerd doing on Comedy Central, belting out this folk song while doing a bizarre blend of Broadway shtick and liturgical dance?

"The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices! Open the gates before him, lift up your voices," sang Stephen Colbert a decade ago, in a video that is now a YouTube classic. "Who is the King of glory; how shall we call him? He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages."

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was this painfully ironic comedian mocking trendy Catholics or saluting them? Was he outing himself as a Christian? Was he praising Jesus or risking a lightning bolt?

Legions of 40-something Catholics have strong memories of the first time they saw this clip, said Diane Houdek, managing editor of AmericaCatholics.org. Something in Colbert's performance told them that this was not a random gag.

"Stephen walks this thin line," said Houdek, who runs "The Word: A Colbert Blog for Catholic It-Getters" in her spare time. "He isn't afraid to be critical when it comes to matters of faith, but when he does it's always clear that his critique is from the inside. ... He'll push things pretty far. He'll dance right up to that line, but he will not cross it. He will not compromise what he believes as a Catholic."

Colbert, of course, became the star of The Colbert Report, the fake news show in which he plays a right-wing egotist (think Bill O'Reilly of Fox News) named "Stephen Colbert." Religion plays a major role in the show and there are moments when he speaks sincerely in his own voice.

That's what happened last week when his alter ego came to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. His testimony mixed satire ("I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian") with serious information about the plight of farm workers.

Colbert lowered his mask when asked why this issue mattered to him, slipping in a reference to a Gospel of Matthew parable in which eternal judgment awaits those who deny compassion to the poor and defenseless.

Some of America's least powerful people, he said, are "migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. ... You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now."

It helps to know that Colbert was raised as the youngest of 11 children in a devout Irish-Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. Then his physician father and two brothers died in a plane crash and their joyful home plunged into grief. Colbert soon lost his faith.

Years later, a sidewalk volunteer in Chicago handed the young actor a Gideon Bible and something clicked. Today, he lives a private life with his wife and three children, but he never hides the fact that he teaches children's Sunday school.

As he told Rolling Stone last year: "From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm the first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that."

But there is more to Colbert's faith, and his theology, than that, said Houdek. For starters, a Jesuit serves as the show's chaplain.

"There is evidence of his faith all through his work, if you know what to look for," she said. "This is what makes him so unique, in the extremely secular world in which he is working -- Comedy Central. Yet he keeps doing what he does night after night, because he never comes off as preachy."