When It’s Not Funny

When It’s Not Funny February 1, 2015

Last time we talked, we covered a straw man essay written by a Baptist pastor, Bo Wagner, that he called satirical. A pity he doesn’t actually know what satire is, any more than he knows what atheism is. Last time we talked about what he doesn’t understand about atheists. Today we’re going to talk more about what he doesn’t understand about satire.

First, let’s talk about satire in general.

Bo Wagner claims in his piece that he is writing something satirical (ellipsis abuse is his own): “Sometimes a bit of satire says it best…”

But is he writing satire?

Let’s look and see.

(Neil Conway, CC.)
(Neil Conway, CC.)

Satire is a form of humor that uses wit to lampoon and ridicule a situation, person, or group. The goal is to highlight just how ridiculous or morally wrong the target is, and the hope is that the target will be jolted into recognizing the wrong and maybe change for the better. Satire is not necessarily hilarious; it’s meant more to hold up a mirror to make a point.

What is the point of this “satire” that Bo Wagner’s written? What is he hoping will be reflected in the mirror he’s holding up for his audience?

If this were a genuine satire, I’d expect him to be making a point about Christians behaving in the way this atheist does. After all, the shortcomings of this fictional atheist’s life are definitely shortcomings in the kind of Christianity Bo Wagner appears to embrace (I’ve read his other pieces and his church’s website; they’re pretty standard-issue toxic Christians).

In the hands of someone like our dearly-departed Christopher Hitchens, or our still-here-and-adored Stephen Fry, I could see that kind of satire playing beautifully and making a grand point. It might even become required reading. Hell, it might even have become a beloved skit in the hands of a troupe like Monty Python.

But in the hands of someone like Bo Wagner, it comes off as insulting. The main reason for his “satire’s” failure is that it’s hard to believe that its author doesn’t completely believe that atheists think this way. Certainly a great many of his followers are going to think so. I’m sure most of us have run across Christians who wholeheartedly believe that atheists worship or pray to themselves, that atheists think they are gods, that atheists are deeply intolerant of dissenting views, that atheists worship science, that the Theory of Evolution is a showdown between atheism and Christianity, and that science is inconsistent and untrustworthy. These aren’t at all uncommon things to hear from Bo Wagner’s crowd.

When that crowd sees pieces like “An Atheist Deserts the Flock,” they’re not going to be jolted into seeing their own behavior in a new light. They’re going to see their projections and cheer him for exposing those mean ole atheists. They’re going to parrot his statements about atheists in the same way that after that dumb book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek came out, hordes of Christians began to parrot that exact phrase at people. Christians are monkey-see, monkey-do when it comes to apologetics. At this point they pull this copying act so consistently that it’s quite noticeable when some new apologetics contortion hits their bookstores. The second one falls out of fashion, another is sure to take its place.

And that constant flow of rationalizations just doesn’t lend itself well to satirical humor. Rationalizations serve to prevent any accidental outbursts of self-awareness. Satire jolts people back into self-awareness. The subjects of a satire have to be so out of place that the real target of the satire is distanced enough from the behaviors and thoughts depicted to realize that as ridiculous as the satirical subject looks, that’s how they look. As morally wrong as the subject in the satire is, that is how wrong they are. That burgeoning sense of understanding will be prevented by lack of self-awareness.

So no, the “atheist” in Bo Wagner’s irresponsible hit piece is not so bizarrely out of place that the character will jolt audiences into recognizing how they themselves worship their own creation, that they are hugely narcissistic, that they are incredibly intolerant of dissenting views, that they idolize Creationism, that their opposition to evolutionary biology is ridiculous, and that their dogma is inconsistent and untrustworthy. It ain’t gonna happen. The writer himself does not seem to hold any of those opinions, and I can’t imagine him wanting to put those ideas into his flock’s pretty l’il featherheads.

It’s not like it’d be hard for him to figure out what satire is. It abounds online. The Onion is probably one of the best-known satirical sites, but others are all over the place. Amusingly, sometimes these sites completely fool the people they’re lampooning–and even more legitimate news sites, which of course means I sometimes hang out on those sites just to enjoy the outraged comments.

Satire isn’t an easy thing to write. It requires a high degree of self-awareness and a good command of irony. It’s got to be fairly ridiculous but still obviously be referring to something the audience will understand. And even in an audience that’s not fundagelical, sometimes the humor will go right over people’s heads. In the case of the Daily Currant’s hilarious post, “Study Links Homosexuality to Eating Grits,”, the satire is ridiculing the deep homophobia that often pops up in Southerners–and insinuating that way more of them are gay than they’re letting on. But if you hang around for the comments, you’ll discover that a few people asking about the “study” the post mentions and getting furious at the authors for talking that way. And a couple of years ago I ran across this equally satirical news story about a married Christian couple who–years after their wedding–were still practicing abstinence; a lot of folks on either side of the church door didn’t realize it was satire. But when we figured it out, we were fine. Maybe we even felt kind of silly when we discovered it; I know this particular story marked the beginning of my habit of double-checking any really out-there story about religion.

In addition, satire is generally goes after things that need to change. In the case of the story about grits, the satire is denouncing homophobia. In the second story about the abstinent married couple, the satire concerns the bizarre state of Christian sexuality. The best satire involves a call to action–a thing that readers can do to affect the situation. “Change your mind” is one call to action. “Speak up when you see people being this ridiculous” is another. The call to action is meant to improve the situation, not make it worse.

What exactly is Bo Wagner’s call to action in his post about the fictional atheist “deserting the flock”? What is he saying should change? Would that change be a positive or negative one in his opinion? Would it be positive or negative in reality? Does he even know?

I doubt it.

The big problem is that a lot of religious zealots seem to be totally missing a sense of humor, especially as touching the authoritarian facets of their religion.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of such folks who reacted very poorly to having their religion mocked. The more authoritarian and controlling the religion, the less genially its adherents will respond to having their practices and beliefs treated satirically. And the more such sanctimonious controllers feel their control is being resisted, the harder they clamp down.

Humor is a real threat to people like that. It’s hard to maintain somber, cold-hearted composure in the face of someone who is snickering and trying not to laugh. Mockery is one of the most potent weapons there are against overreach and excessive religiosity. All the stuff that zealots do that they think is oh-so-shockingly-important, their many rituals, their muttered and moaned magic spells prayers, all of it deflates like a leaky balloon if even one person doesn’t act like they take it as seriously as the zealots do (I once read a first-person account of a demon-summoning ritual in 16th-century Rome that got totally wrecked due to loud flatulence). Even if it’s a perfectly respectable ceremony, even if everybody there wants to maintain composure and dignity, such disruptions can destroy the entire ambience. That’s one of the reasons why children are life’s little social equalizers.

If Bo Wagner really thought what he wrote was some kind of funny-haha joke, the problem may be that, like his right-wing brethren, his idea of what’s funny and not funny is stunted. Studies even examine why it is that deeply conservative people (which definitely includes Mr. Wagner) just don’t have much of a sense of humor. Even comedians themselves have theories about why it is that the right wing has a problem with comedy.

A lot of theories abound: that people of that persuasion (being right wing politically and religiously) are more interested in keeping power entrenched than in challenging it, which most good comedy does; that such folks have more of a stake in punishing the downtrodden and rewarding the successful, which would result in “punching down” in comedy rather than “punching up” and which is not only generally not funny but also hugely offensive; that conservative people are a little on the sensitive side about being poked at and don’t understand why it’s happening. I’ve even heard that conservatives don’t take too kindly to the subversive, anti-hierarchical nature of comedy, which sounds like a good theory as well. It may well be that good comedy takes on all topics, including the sacred cows of society, and bristles under censorship of any kind–meaning that tone-trolling conservatives might freak out over humor that uses F-bombs or treats their beliefs with less than total reverence.

The worst hit against good comedy could well be that it accurately and honestly tells the truth about its subjects; we’ve covered many, many ways on this blog in which Christians live in a truth-defying bubble and are either ignorant or in denial about the simplest and most elementary facets of modern life, so their takes on comedy may well come off as sounding like they were written by Martians trying to pass as human. The worst sorts of Christians aren’t interested in finding common ground with anybody outside their bubble–and they believe a lot of things about the rest of us that simply are not true. Comedy is clear-eyed, not clouded.

It’s almost funny, really. Conservative attempts at talk shows, like Faux Noise’s The 1/2 Hour News Hour, end up getting called “slow torture” and put at #7 on lists like “The 11 Most Disappointing Shows of the 2000s”. Conservative Twitter campaigns backfire on a level that could be charitably described as “hilarious.” When they try to run funny political ads, they insult their targets instead. Christian comedians are downright cringeworthy (that’s a link to a video of a Christian comedian talking about how “irrational” atheists are). It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them. They’re trying soooo harrrrd to be funny. You can just hear the poor things wailing in some conference room, Why won’t they laugh? Why? WHY?

Personally, I think it’s because very conservative Christians often lack empathy–and only selectively deploy what little of it they do manage to cling to through indoctrination. As our dear friend Sirius Bizinus puts it, they are pitiless–especially toward those they marginalize and demonize. He refers to a brilliant and heart-wrenching post by someone I hope will become another dear friend, figibloom:

It is very hard to live in this world with so much empathy and compassion flowing through these veins. I see it all. The hurt. The pain. The indifference. The hate. This is probably the true reason I have left God, the Bible, and his followers behind. Somewhere along the way, I couldn’t see the compassion anymore. Oh, there was compassion for lost souls, but not for homosexuals. There was compassion for orphans, but not the child who continually made mistakes and annoyed everyone in the office. I taught in Christian schools for seven years. There is nothing more eye opening than working for Christian schools who really work for CHURCHES. You get to see how Christian leaders really behave. How they really feel about each other. How they really feel about the “Lord’s work.”

What she is describing in her post is the total lack of empathy in so much of Christianity nowadays. And that lack of empathy sprang from the same source that their lack of love sprang from: the total lack of concern for the victims and targets of Christian behavior and speech.

Without empathy, a person making a joke can’t figure out what the target of that joke is going to think of what was said or written. Without empathy, the audience can’t be gauged at all. One of the hardest things a comedian learns is how to work a room–how to identify potential problems, how to spot the people most likely to work with interactive routines, how to point jokes in the most effective ways. But people can’t cultivate a sense of empathy without being able to put themselves into someone else’s shoes–and without caring what that other person is thinking or feeling.

Empathy says, “What you think and feel matters to me. I want to know what you think and feel. I want to positively impact you, and I want to avoid negatively impacting you. Share what you have with me and know that you are safe doing it.”

English: satirical painting about Pre-Raphaelitism
English: satirical painting about Pre-Raphaelitism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I don’t see any of that in Christianity. Hell, empathy is a huge risk for a Christian nowadays, isn’t it? If a Christian opens him- or herself up to the feelings and opinions of a non-Christian, almost certainly that Christian is going to get an earful about hurting, offending, and alienating that non-Christian. Someone who is dead convinced that he or she is doing everything perfectly right and in accordance with a god’s will is not going to want to hear any of that. There is only one script allowed, and that script is the one the Christian is acting out. It cannot be amended without incurring accusations of “compromise” and “condoning sin.” And if we don’t like that, then we’re just going to have to get with the program because the Christian isn’t changing how he or she shows “love.” (Or not, as more and more people are deciding instead!)

So when someone lacking empathy tries to make a joke, it is done in a vacuum. And I don’t see how anybody expects anything to turn out differently than it does.

I want to sum up by mentioning something that actually did strike me as funny–something that I found while researching these posts. I ran across an interview with Bo Wagner in one of his area’s local newspapers. Speaking about the increasing numbers of non-Christians in America, he declared the following as his action plan:

“We need to get busy winning people to Christ and teaching them how a Christian is supposed to live,” Wagner said.

I wonder what he means by that? Because I think the big problem here is that I already can see how he thinks a Christian is supposed to live–and I want no part of it whatsoever. I think that his dishonesty and willful ignorance is repellent, and I would have no desire whatsoever to consider membership in a religion that encourages those traits. No religion makes factual truth claims, no, but I’m pretty chill with religions that at least try to do good and promote good qualities in their members. Bo Wagner’s religion is not only factually untrue, it is harmful on a personal and societal level. If “winning people to Christ” means making them as dishonest and willfully ignorant as he is, then it’s not surprising that more and more people are opting to stay away from what he’s selling. Unfortunately, his answer to that continuing exodus from his faith is to sell what he has harder, instead of examining what about it is making people leave.

We’re going to return to the Handbook next time to start talking about one of the major things new ex-Christians need to know in navigating their post-Christian life and formulating new opinions: what consent is, how to use it, and why it’s so important. Don’t know quite what I mean yet? Then join me on Tuesday.


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