‘Christians have permission to laugh’ means ‘Christians NEED permission to laugh’

‘Christians have permission to laugh’ means ‘Christians NEED permission to laugh’ April 5, 2016

I’m grateful to my fellow Gannett survivor Bob Smietana for introducing me to The Babylon Bee, where Adam Ford displays a knack for Onion-style absurdity. The site is notable because it’s both sharply tailored to the white evangelical subculture and also often funny.

Nobody bats 1.000, but Ford does pretty well, especially with headlines:

• “Man Surprised To Learn He Gave His Life To Christ At NewSpring Church On Sunday

• “Context of Philippians 4:13 Officially Abandoned

• “Preacher Still Doing That Weird Thing With His Hands

• “Man Recommits Life To Christ Just To Put Altar Call Out Of Its Misery

• “Stone-Hearted Man Scrolls Past Jesus Meme Without Sharing It

• “Woman Still Waiting For Co-Workers To Ask About Her Faith

Probably should’ve been “Area Woman …” on that last one, but still. Not bad. And it looks good — Ford has a knack for stock-photo selection as well. Overall, it’s more piquant than what we usually encounter at evangelical humor sites (see, for instance, the sporadically funny LarkNews.com).

The political pieces at The Babylon Bee don’t tend to be as incisive — they lack the intimate familiarity he brings to jokes about the evangelical subculture. But some of those work, too — see, for example, “With No Teams Left In The Sweet 16, John Kasich Still ‘Confident’ He Can Win Office Pool.”

BabylonBee

Smietana’s article demonstrates why evangelicalism and comedy so rarely mix well — they’re not allowed to. The last big chunk of the article is thus dedicated to something like a spiritualized defense of the legitimacy of humor. He enlists Terry Lindvall and Jon Acuff to grant evangelicals permission to laugh at funny jokes. They understand their role in this humorless defense of comedy and gamely play along, saying things like “God invented laughter.” Ugh.

I appreciate the intention there — Smietana is an evangelical native and a good religion reporter, and he recognizes that many evangelical readers need this reassurance. They need to be told that theology permits comedy. But that’s still not right. Good theology shouldn’t permit comedy any more than it should permit art or beauty or learning.

Once humor becomes something that has been granted permission — something that requires permission — it slides into something more like propaganda. The governing question becomes “Is this edifying?” rather than “Is this funny?” And the answers to those questions will wind up being Yes and No.

But that’s not quite right either. “Christian comedy” that strives to be “edifying” will almost certainly fail to be funny, but it will also therefore likely fail to be edifying too.

That word “edifying” is an odd thing. It’s a Bible-word — a word used more by English translations of the Bible than in the English language as a whole, and thus a word shaped more by its use as churchy jargon than by any dictionary denotation. So it’s difficult to employ that word without importing all of those church-jargon connotations. Even so, to the extent that “edifying” actually means anything real, I think Groucho and Richard Pryor and Maria Bamford are more edifying than a thousand earnest “Christian comics” who set out to make “edification” their goal.

This whole outlook — that comedy is suspect unless its accompanied by a permission-granting theological affirmation of levity or a belabored conditional affirmation of mirth in the abstract — pretty much guarantees that the people thereby granted permission to laugh will never have anything to laugh about. That’s where we wind up with the sort of dismal “Christian comedy” that’s so busy earnestly invoking “the Joy of the Lord!” that it forgets to include a punchline.

Smietana also engages in another form of permission-granting when he applies to Ford the cliché that he is “an equal opportunity satirist.” Ugh, again. That over-used phrase is intended to reassure readers that Ford’s comedy is safe for partisan ideologues — as both-sides-do-it “balanced” as a Ron Fournier column. In practice, though, everyone who sets out to be “an equal opportunity satirist” winds up coming across as simply a jerk who doesn’t understand the difference between punching up and punching down. That makes them about as funny as a Ron Fournier column. And about as fresh, original and insightful as the phrase “equal-opportunity satirist.”

I’m new to the site, so I haven’t read everything there, but from what I’ve seen, The Babylon Bee is usually funny, and therefore not “an equal opportunity satirist.”

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