What’s So Funny? – Part 2

When I reviewed The World’s End — for laughs, it’s still my favorite movie of last year — I heard from someone who was distraught by my praise for it.

Hadn’t I seen Paul, the previous film by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost? Why would I praise a movie that involved people who had, in their last project, made fun of Christianity?

The fact is that I still haven’t seen Paul. I don’t avoid it because it makes fun of Christians, but because most of the reviews I read made me it sound generally unappealing.

Still, I’ve seen, and admired, plenty of comedies — and dramas, too — that include unflattering portrayals of Christians. Some would call me guilty of betraying Jesus, guilty of embracing blasphemy, guilty of excusing hatred. They say it’s “mean” and “rude” to make fun of Christians for their beliefs. But then, when I scan conversations among Christians online, I often see believers making fun of people who hold different beliefs — sometimes expressing a hateful mockery. Seems a lot of people object to “comedy as criticism” … only when they find themselves the target of it.

When I run into conflicts over comedy, I often think back to the questions that were raised by the release of Brian Dannelly’s comedy Saved!

When is it appropriate to employ comedy as a challenge to those with contrary worldviews and lifestyles? When is it out of order?

It’s complicated territory. And I was inspired to revisit it when Image posted their Top 25 Divine Comedies.

Yesterday, I posted Part One of the journey I made through these questions in Through a Screen Darkly. This is Part Two. I hope you find it useful.

The following text is a revised version of a chapter from Through a Screen Darkly, © 2007 by Jeffrey Overstreet. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Is Saved! Funny?

When Saved! opened in theaters, I braced myself for the weekly survey of Christian film reviews, ready to sort through a predictable array of outrage. Among religious-press film writers, there are some who seem to believe that any joke made at the expense of Christians is actually an attack on God Himself.

But let’s face it — quite a few lampoons of churchgoers have been right on target in their portrayals of folly. It would serve us well to step back and learn a thing or two from those who are outside looking in. I always get a good laugh out of that moment in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters when a cynical artist, played by Max Von Sydow, sits shaking his head in dismay at the television while a greedy televangelist misleads his audience. The artist remarks, “If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in His name, He’d never stop throwing up.”

If we’re humble enough to recognize our flaws, satire can be a powerful and instructive experience. Republicans are sometimes uncomfortable when Republican agendas are spoofed.

Some Democrats can’t take a joke about their party. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans or white folks like me have all felt a bit hot under the collar when someone has called us out in a stand-up comedy routine.

Having grown up in a Christian community, I can remember feeling incensed when Christians were mocked on television. But that began to change the more I looked around and saw people behaving badly in God’s name. It changed all the more as I began to realize my own capacity for hypocrisy.

Reverend Lovejoy on The Simpsons: A mockery of faith?

Eventually, I began to wonder why Christians overlook the comedy prevalent in Scripture. Christ’s disciples were a laughable crew, kicking up sand along the road and arguing about who would get to sit closest to Jesus in heaven. How could these men — who spent their days and nights in Jesus’ company — be so oblivious to their own arrogance? It’s funny, not just because they’re foolish, but also because I still worry at times about where I stand in the pecking order with other Christians. I recognize myself in that mirror.

A satire like Saved! is like a funhouse mirror. It exaggerates our flaws just enough to draw attention to them.

And yet there was a wave of outrage when Saved! reached theaters. You could find Christians ranting about it on all kinds of websites. They didn’t think it was funny to see a parody of their culture and their lingo.

Granted, it’s one thing to see our flaws reflected in Scripture and quite another to sit in a crowded theater watching them projected onto a big screen. It’s hard to laugh at the darts of comedy when they’re flying straight at you. It takes humility to accept such a public critique.

Molière, a master of comedies for the stage, addressed this difficult subject, saying, “As the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I see no reason why anyone should be exempt.” A few Christian film reviewers seemed to agree, taking a more thoughtful approach to Dannelly’s film. They noted that his barbs were not wounding Jesus Himself but were snagging the self-righteousness of pharisaical evangelicals. The jokes were targeting people who seize and manipulate the parlance and particulars of Christianity for their own glory.

David DiCerto of the Catholic News Service noted the movie’s “mocking tone and unflattering wall-to-wall stereotyping of fundamentalists.” But he added, “Turning the critical cheek, Saved! does seem sincere in trying to remind viewers that religion can be twisted into something divisive rather than unifying and can be used as an excuse for intolerance.” 1 DiCerto was also pleased to see the central character — young, unwed, pregnant Mary — behaving responsibly and choosing to keep her baby.

In my Film Forum column, I set one Christian writer’s dismayed review alongside that of author Greg Wright. It looked as if the two were in a heated debate. “Christians are depicted as notorious gossips,” complained one. In contrast, Wright said, “As a former church elder, I can vouch for the veracity of this charge.” The first reviewer complained about seeing a pastor carry on an extramarital affair. Wright wrote, “I can provide firsthand accounts of plenty of church-wrecking affairs by pastors. I mean, really, this is no secret, is it?” Then the first reviewer lamented about seeing Christians portrayed as “liars, adulterers and hypocrites.” Wright remarked that Christians are definitely not exempt from such charges, expressing surprise that churchgoing film buffs would be surprised by these portrayals.

I agree with Wright — Christians like me are a fair target for criticism.

Nevertheless, I take issue with Dannelly’s film for other reasons. Dannelly is correct in recognizing the tendency for hypocrisy and judgment in Christian culture. But the solution his movie recommends falls far short of wisdom. If he had stuck to cultural satire, as Monty Python did so memorably in Life of Brian, the film could have been brilliant. As it is, Dannelly surrenders the satire and becomes moralistic in the end. He concludes with a vague, wishy-washy lesson about tolerance, basically asserting that Jesus teaches that we should be happy to let everybody do his or her own thing. Even a quick scan of the Gospels will show us that Christ cared about more than just tolerance — he had a fair bit to say about right and wrong and the narrow path to salvation.

Still, Saved! has reflected some embarrassing and important truths about Christian culture that have provoked healthy soul searching in people. Beyond that, it’s a meaningful comedy about much more common human experiences: the problem of peer pressure, the pitfalls of legalism and the painful challenges of adolescence. Human troubles, not just Christian troubles.

A Comedy That Hits Close to Home

Unlike Dannelly, I enjoyed rewarding years in a small private Christian school. But while I cherish those memories of friendships, growth and wise teaching, I also witnessed many things that resemble what we see in this movie. I even participated in them.

During my senior year, the student council planned a pageant. But, being Christians, we knew better than to vote on physical attributes. Thank goodness! We weren’t that superficial.

Instead, we were directed to vote on the merits of a girl’s Christian example. Which young woman was of the most admirable character? This soured my stomach even then. How could I know which girl was the most virtuous? Wasn’t this a bit like determining who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven? In a school where we had been taught that people look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart (see 1 Sam. 16:7), how could I be so audacious as to vote on goodness? Yet there I am in the photo of the royal court, a tux-clad date for one of the princesses, participating against my better judgment and feeling guilty about the whole thing.

Yes, we were just kids. But we were also young adults on the threshold of becoming leaders in our own churches.

Looking around, I wonder how much has changed. If we cannot recognize Brian Dannelly’s parody as speaking powerfully about our weaknesses, how will we avoid the consequences of self-righteousness demonstrated in the film?

* * *

It didn’t stop in high school. I continue to catch myself in moments when judgment flares up and singes the edges of my writing. I do not want to fall victim to the arrogance and condescension that colors so many of the Christian movie reviews I have read.

In February 2002, I read a review of Marc Forster’s film Monster’s Ball in which the Christian reviewer went beyond condemning the movie. He also lashed out at America’s most beloved film critic — Roger Ebert — for recommending the film. Incensed, this Christian media personality publicly claimed that Ebert only liked the film because he “was obviously attracted to the steamy sex scenes” and that he “apparently didn’t mind ogling the naked breasts of Halle Berry . . .”

These accusations were clearly unfounded. The accused critic had, in fact, published quite a different opinion. Rather than praise the film’s unnecessarily explicit footage, he called Forster’s preoccupation with Berry’s shapeliness “the film’s only flaw.” So, what prompted such an inappropriate and presumptuous attack from the Christian reviewer? It’s hard to say.

I wish I could say that the angry reviewer stopped there. But no, he went on venting his grievances against Ebert, saying “it should be noted” that this apparently depraved critic “got to see similar sightings of a voluptuous nude black woman in Beloved.” So? A lot of people saw Beloved. Why even bother to bring it up? And why is the accuser so upset about another film critic seeing movies that include “nude black women”? Is that particularly scandalous, somehow? Is he implying that this is somehow worse than Caucasian nakedness?

This confounding, venomous attack still astonishes me for all kinds of reasons. Why use a review to attack another critic? And why is this critic so preoccupied with presuming another critic’s thoughts and motives?

Similarly, when Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, resigned in 2004, another prominent Christian film critic published an article blaming Valenti for corrupting America and the world, stating, “I hate to see what happens when you face the judgment of God.”

When public representatives of Christian communities use the platforms God has given them to say such rash and judgmental things, it is no wonder that other people call us out. Christ Himself had a few choice words for the pompous and pious.

* * *

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface here. And I can’t point fingers as if I’m innocent — I’ve published plenty of things that I have regretted, and I can only hope that if I do so again, my friends will not hesitate to coax me to reconsider. I would like very much to avoid being the subject of someone else’s satire, but I cannot claim immunity from the sharp needles of comedians. I share in the faults of a Christian culture that has shown its own fallibility in a way that deserves a few pointed jabs.

“Buddy Christ” — Does Dogma mock faith or the corruption of it?

Christ Himself did not hold back from employing comedy to make a point. His metaphors were often laughably extreme. When He spoke of the blind leading the blind, it’s easy to imagine a few chuckles. He also said this: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4). Painful, true . . . and funny. His exhortation that anyone who lusts should resolve the situation by gouging out his eyes is a fantastic exaggeration that makes a profound point even as it causes us to cringe. I don’t know many Christians who miss the humor in it. (And I’ve never met a man who has gouged out his own eyes for lust.)

It’s healthy to laugh at ourselves when error has been exposed. In fact, by behaving in humility, knowing all too well our weakness and our need, we preempt the derisive laughter of those standing apart and judging us. When we acknowledge our faults, the humility subverts most attacks from outside.

The laughter of love frees us from pomposity and fear and takes the sting out of mockery.

Can We Laugh at Anything, Then?

Does that mean anything goes? Of course not.

When it comes to human affairs, well . . . everything we do is fair game for comedy, because everything we do is flawed, and most of it is foolish. Anything we touch is loaded with comic potential. This keeps us humble and accountable in all things.

That is why we love it when men and women of status can laugh at themselves. When Donald Trump participates in comedy at his own expense, he becomes a more endearing figure. At the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, George W. Bush stood alongside a brilliant impersonator named Steve Bridges and participated in a hilarious routine that let us eavesdrop on the president’s unspoken thoughts. The audience roared in appreciation.

However, when comedian Stephen Colbert took the stage with a scathing satire, the audience was often silent in discomfort, offended or alarmed at the way he drew attention to their flaws.

Jabbing the lack of press coverage on serious issues, he pretended to praise the reporters: “Over the last five years you people were so good — over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.” Satire allowed Colbert to question the reporters’ behavior in a way that a lecture or mere gags would not.

Political humor lends itself to cruel caricatures. David Mamet’s Wag the Dog is a sharp-edged satire about the ways in which the government can manipulate public opinion. Tim Robbins’ “mockumentary” about political campaigns, Bob Roberts, made fun of the way that politicians fool the public with show-biz savvy. Robert Altman’s The Player is a fantastic satire about superficiality and corruption in Hollywood. Both allow us to laugh in painful acknowledgment of fault.

Constructive criticism?

But I almost walked out of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 on opening day. I thought the movie contained a mix of creative direction, some revealing information, sharp-edged wit and some rather manipulative arguments. But it was the audience that troubled me.

Many of the Seattleites packing the theater cheered for Moore as if he was leading a revolution. Their hatred for President Bush and his administration was so intense that the people booed whenever his face appeared or his name was mentioned. When cabinet members or Republican congressmen were caught in embarrassing moments, the viewers laughed in derision, shouting obscene names at the screen. I do not believe many of these viewers were thinking through Moore’s arguments. That kind of mad, cackling, sanctimonious laughter does not help anything. It unites people in wrath without providing them with any constructive tools for change.

In the same way, religious humor can be healthy or destructive, although both varieties tend to make believers uncomfortable. When Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cartoons portray a big-bearded, grouchy God in the clouds, we laugh because we have seen such insufficient representations of God before.

We’re laughing at our own feeble illustrations of someone too mysterious and powerful to be illustrated. In short, we’re laughing at ourselves.

But try to make a joke at the expense of God Himself and we’ll be hard-pressed to come up with anything funny. It just doesn’t work. That’s because there’s nothing wrong with God. There’s nothing out of place. Those who try to make fun of God end up exposing their own limited views of Him. They’re usually driven by pride, cruelty, anger and outrage, which ultimately turn the jokes back against the jokers, revealing them to be arrogant and misguided. Likewise, any attempts to degrade Christ through humor reveal the lack of proper reverence and respect in the joker.

When comedy steers our attention downward in a condescending manner, giving us pleasure at the belittlement of others, that’s not healthy either. If a joke is intended as slander or harm to a person, the fault lies with the comedian. For example, due to recent headlines about priests caught in sexual crimes, comedy has taken a harsh turn. Comics have lampooned the priesthood so viciously that they’ve gone beyond merely exposing error — they’re also exposing their own gross prejudice against religion and an eagerness to defame all priests as deviants. This does dishonor to the majority of priests who are innocent of such crimes.

Charles Schulz noted the distinction between comedy and cruelty in a four-panel “Peanuts” comic. Charlie Brown looks on as Lucy draws a picture. “I’ve decided to go into political cartooning,” she declares. “I’m going to ridicule everything!” Charlie Brown responds, “I understand, Lucy . . . By the use of ridicule, you hope to point up our faults in government and thus improve our way of life.” “No,” says Lucy. “I just want to ridicule everything!”

This post is an excerpt from Through a Screen Darkly. Order your copy of the book today.

Employed properly, humor and satire are restorative, not weapons of personal attack. If they remind us of our tendency toward misbehavior and ignorance, we should take our punches with grace and allow for the acknowledgment that we fall short of the glory of God.

The House Without Humor

When I wrote a positive review of Saved! on my website, I received e-mail from readers who told me I should appreciate Christian defensiveness. They said I should respect believers’ desires to defend the Church against its enemies.

I cherish the Church. It is the Body of Christ at work in the world. Any misguided attacks on the faithful grieve me. But the key word here is “misguided.” If we’re critiqued for our flaws, we should listen and be willing to laugh at our mistakes.

“Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. “So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.” In other words, communities that object to any jokes made at their own expense are exhibiting pride and arrogance. If we cannot see the humor in our own failings, we have too high an opinion of ourselves.

It was Terry Gilliam’s testimony that awakened me to the gravity of this situation. Gilliam knows a great deal about clowning in religious territory. In fact, he has some background in the Church.

In the book of interviews titled Gilliam on Gilliam, the filmmaker reminisces about his youthful zeal for the Bible. He led a church youth group. His pastor’s sons were his best friends.

Terry Gilliam’s cartoon God: Who’s the real target?

He almost became a Presbyterian missionary. “But, in the end,” Gilliam says, “I couldn’t stand the fact that nobody felt able to laugh at God. Hold on a minute, I said, what kind of God is this that can’t take my feeble jokes? It was the sanctimoniousness and, ultimately, the narrow-mindedness of the people who were protecting this deity that I never thought needed any protection. Their God was a much smaller God than I was thinking of — less powerful — and he needed them to protect him.”2

Feeling forced to choose between comedy and the Church — a choice no one should have to make — Gilliam became a comedian.

Yet he has consistently affirmed the truth of the things he once more formally professed. Whether or not he would still call himself a believer, Gilliam’s sharp wit has persistently mocked the behavior of the proud, the fearful and the power-greedy. His art relentlessly encourages us to hear a higher call and to have faith in things unseen.

In spite of those who fret that the Almighty might be easily offended, I don’t have trouble believing that Gilliam’s boisterous sense of humor has given God more than a few good laughs. And I am concerned about the perspective that humorless religiosity reveals. If it shakes our faith to hear jokes about Christians’ behavior, perhaps we need to reconsider why we need Christ in the first place.

Notes
1. David DiCerto, Saved! film review, Catholic News Service, www.catholicnews.com, May 2004.
2. Ian Christie, ed., Gilliam on Gilliam (London, U.K.: Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 9.

 

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  • David Germer

    Jeffrey, this is so, so great. Thank you!
    Have you seen Easy A? (I did see it on your “unseen as of yet” list over at your previous site’s year-by-year database, but didn’t know if that had changed). I found it similar to Saved! in many ways, including its comedic and satirical value, and also including its too broadly moralizing conclusion. I hadn’t connected the two until reading your description of the ending of Saved!


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