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
San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2006
Review by Carl McColman
During my sophomore year of college in one of my literature classes, my professor, Dr. Cohen, gave out an optional assignment: we were reading Jonathan Swift, and so the assignment was to write a satire. But, he warned: composing a worthy satire is no easy feat. “So I’m only going to give an A to papers that truly deserve it. No B’s will be awarded. Either your satire will display excellence, or it will be average or worse. Your grade will reflect this. You have been warned.” I couldn’t resist the gauntlet, and turned in a paper detailing how the Moral Majority was conspiring to sterilize all non-Christian men as a way of stopping the creeping secularization of our society. Of course, since only the few righteous Christian men would be left to repopulate the entire nation, each one would be “duty-bound” to impregnate multiple women with their righteous seed…
At the time I thought the paper was brilliant. Dr. Cohen was not quite so impressed, but he did grant it an A- (and read it out loud to the class, which I’m sure inspired most of my evangelical/fundamentalist fellow students to heartily pray for my soul).
A quarter century later, I realize the main thing I learned from that lesson was not how to make fun of the religious right, but, rather more broadly, just how right Professor Cohen was: it’s just plain hard to write satire well. And I think the challenge of writing religious satire is just even more daunting. All of which makes Becky Garrison’s book a remarkable tour de force. Here, my friends, is a bona fide work of religious satire. Like my undergraduate paper, I think it doesn’t deserve a grade higher than an A- (in other words, it has its share of minor flaws). But given just how tough it is to satirize religion, it’s an imperfect book that’s well worth reading.
Garrison is a senior editor for The Wittenburg Door (“the world’s pretty much only religious satire magazine”), so her satire creds are entirely top-drawer. The daughter of an old-left Episcopal Priest who paid her dues in the Reagan youth, her knowledge of both the conservative and liberal dimensions of American Christianity seems as balanced as it is thorough. The same could be said for her gleeful willingness to skewer both sides of the theo-political aisle. No sacred cow is safe in Garrison’s world, which makes reading this book a jarring experience: again and again, when her rants concerned something I agreed with, I would be lulled into the lazy position of just nodding my head in agreement with her as I uncritically followed along with her train of thought, until — BAM! — she turned her satirical rifle and aimed it straight between the eyes of my cherished beliefs. She covers plenty of ground in this book, ranging from gun control to prayer in public schools to the wacky world of George W. Bush, to abortion, homosexuality, and other hotbutton issues. She shows no mercy for pomposity, or arrogance, or jingoism, or hypocrisy, or political correctness, and she has an uncanny ability to point out how these same character-flaws manifest among both lefties and righties. Because of the topical nature of much of her material, this book will probably feel dated sooner rather than later (so read it now). As a satirist, she spends more time cursing the darkness than lighting candles, although she makes it clear that her ultimate goal is simple: to have Christians detach from all their political nonsense so that we can get down to the difficult challenge of, well, being disciples. Which means learning to love and forgive, and finding ways to create communities that can bridge political and social divides.
Like I said, I think the book has its share of flat notes. A couple of jokes wore thin way too fast (the most obvious being the repeated cheap shots at pedophile priests); the chapter on homosexuality is so short and diffuse that its possibly-promising message seemed stillborn; and some chapters (like the one on September 11) seemed to be paralyzed by a conflicting impulse to be funny while also prophetic. I don’t think the concept of marrying satirical writing with thoughtful spiritual prose is in itself flawed, especially given how wonderful the chapter on abortion and other “life” issues is (indeed, Garrison’s perceptive commentary on the abortion debate is something that I think every Christian, of every political persuasion, should prayerfully read). But the satiric/prophetic tension goes back to just how tough it is to write good satire, and therefore how extra-tough it is to write good religious satire. At times, Garrison sounds shrill and bitchy; at other times, her jokes just fall flat. But these problems only show up some of the time. Thankfully, she has more hits than misses. So when you pick this book up, keep reading even when her attempts to make you laugh seem way off-target. She’ll get back to the bulls-eye soon enough. But just beware: before you know it, she’ll be taking aim at your favorite political or theological position. And it won’t be long before she’ll score a direct hit.