Marvelised Evangelism: How the Babylon Bee Failed Elon Musk

Marvelised Evangelism: How the Babylon Bee Failed Elon Musk January 11, 2022

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When you’re a Christian creative, and the culture hands you a hot mike, what do you say? That’s a question the creators of Christian satire site The Babylon Bee have been asking themselves in the past couple of years. It’s rare for a product conceived by Christians to penetrate mainstream pop culture. But the Bee is so popular that it’s toppled the Onion from its perch as the hottest ticket in the satire market, period—not just Christian satire. This has opened doors its writing team could never have dreamed of. 

One of those dreams come true was a podcast sit-down with tech titan Elon Musk, hosted by CEO Seth Dillon, EIC Kyle Mann and former Creative Director Ethan Nicolle. (Nicolle no longer works for the site). The 2-week-old interview has nearly 2 million views on YouTube. The podcast has hosted secular guests before, but none as big a “get” as Elon. 

Doubtless for this reason, the Bee chose to make public a closing portion of the podcast that’s typically subscriber-exclusive, where they ask the guest “10 Questions.” These range from “What would you do on your first day as President?” to “Have you ever punched someone?” to  “Whiskey or beer?” But they save one question for last: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, right here on this podcast?”

The question is typically pitched in elaborate jest against soft background music, poking fun at the style of “altar-call Christianity” that presses for conversions to meet a quota. Positive or semi-positive responses are greeted with cheers of “Got another one!” and “Chalking that up as a win!” In the podcast’s early days, their mostly Christian guests simply grinned and said “Yes.” But as they landed more secular guests, the moment became more awkward. Some guests play along in the same light spirit, like Dave Rubin saying he once had a great super named Jesus. Others are less impressed. Austin Petersen gives a dubious “Ehhh,” decides he doesn’t want to “unnecessarily anger the Big Guy” and “commit sacrilege for the purpose of committing sacrilege, like that priest who got caught on the altar having sex with the two dominatrixes.” Jonah Goldberg, who’s Jewish, dryly remarks that he’s blown away by their “obvious zeal” to convert him. “I can tell, it’s like you really think you’re saving souls here. I almost saw one of your eyebrows move! It’s just…really, it’s incredible!” One of the hosts seems to wince visibly as the burn settles.

There’s also a glimmer of self-awareness on the podcast with Dinesh D’Souza, who takes the chance to give a slightly longer serious answer about his blend of Protestant and Catholic background influences (this is me, not commenting on the irony of asking Dinesh D’Souza whether he’s accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior—anyhow). After he’s done, one of the hosts says, “Well, we appreciate your ability to turn a dumb question into a serious, smart answer.” That was in June, 2020. A year and a half later, apparently nobody on the team has stopped in earnest to look around the room and say, “No, but seriously though…isn’t this a really dumb question?”

Even gentler awkward moments, like with Bridget Phetasy, should have been a clue.  As they ask Google to cue up “Softly and Tenderly,” Bridget answers “Yes,” and they launch into their typical routine of clapping and whooping. “We need to put it on the tally board,” one of them says. She grins and says, “I get accolades for that?” “No, we do,” they barrel on. “We tell our donors the number of converts.”

They also explicitly “hang a lantern” on the satire with James Lindsay, who’s not exactly known for restraining himself when it comes to trollery. To his unenthused initial “No, not really,” they press, “Come on, man. You’ll make us look really good.” “No,” he says, “‘cos you can’t lie about that.” He then plays along and says, “Yeah, you guys got quotas” when they keep milking the joke. One of them mimes the archetypal cigar-smoking Big Church Exec who wants to “get that atheist guy to turn on our podcast.” None of which lands especially well even by the standards of irreverent comedy, it should be said. But the cringe is orders of magnitude higher when Christians try to do it. 

All of which brings us to the Elon Musk Moment. Normally, we wouldn’t even have seen this part, but…this was Elon Musk. Of course they were going to use all the material. It was a pot full of gold viral clips-in-waiting. So, after 90 minutes spent on wokeness, tech, comedy, and other fun stuff, they hit him with the questions, then, finally, with The Question. They first set it up by noting that they’re “a Christian organization,” a “ministry,” which inspires Musk to troll them a bit over the fact that they’re working on a Sunday. (“You’re going straight to hell for this one!”) Then they make the pitch: “We’re wondering if you could do us a quick solid and just accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”

As the background music drags out, Musk awkwardly but sincerely begins to recall what little he’s retained from his nominal Christian background. Jesus was a great teacher. Love one another. Ummm… Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Or wait, that was Ghandi, but same different. Anyway, if Jesus is still around and saving people… “I wouldn’t stand in his way. So you know, sure, I’ll be saved,” he mumbles. “Why not?”

Cue applause. Cue “We got him! Praise the Lord!”

But Elon isn’t done yet, because it turns out he has a few questions, for real. Like, what’s the deal with Communion? That always weirded him out as a kid. What does it mean to, y’know, eat Jesus? Also, what does it mean that Jesus “multiplied” the loaves and fishes? Like…how, though? He never got it. But hey, he’s in a room full of Christians. Maybe they can help a confused kid out. He does like the water to wine miracle though. That was pretty epic. It’s like “You’re the Savior, man.” The Savior of the party. Right?

For a brief moment, Seth Dillon reads the room and starts to shift gears. But by then, the interview time is nearly gone, and a golden opportunity with it.

In the aftermath, the Bee has come under serious criticism, including video responses by CRC pastor Paul VanderKlay and Southern Baptist minister Justin Peters. Both make the same point in different ways. Peters is full of righteous thunder, landing sizzler after sizzler: “We got him? Praise the Lord?? Praise the Lord for what???” “How much do you have to hate Elon Musk?” “I’ve heard more gospel from Joel Osteen. Joel Osteen would blush in shame at this. I’ve heard more gospel from Deepak Chopra!” VanderKlay makes his points in a more even-keeled, beard-stroking way, but he still conveys firm pastoral correction, his heart clearly going out to poor, cluelessly fumbling Elon.

In the end, both pastors have the same take-home message: Not everything has to be turned into a joke. Indeed, some things positively shouldn’t be. Some things should stay sacred. It’s okay—more than okay, necessary—to keep them that way. Church outsiders don’t necessarily mind that. In fact, they might respect that. They might be curious to know more. As Tom Holland likes to say, “Stay weird!”

But the Babylon Bee, in their combination of hero-worship and self-consciousness, missed this memo. And it led them to fumble their biggest ball yet. They forgot the one thing that gives them the edge over every other podcast on the menu, even Joe Rogan or Lex Fridman: the gospel. In fact, as VanderKlay notes, those long-form interviews with Musk ironically come off vastly more comfortable, authentic, and thoughtful. They come off as organic conversations where both parties came prepared to get to know each other and let the stream flow where it willed, instead of rushing to hit a pre-set collection of comic beats. This is precisely where Christian media should be leading, not lagging behind.

I’ve decided to call the Bee’s failed approach “Marvelised evangelism.” Marvel movies are characterized by a habit of giving an ironic twist to every other beat, every other line. Audiences have been trained to expect that serious, earnest moments won’t last long before somebody punctures them with a joke. A similar phenomenon seems to be at work here. The Bee hosts give the impression that they’re almost afraid of getting too serious for too long with a secular celebrity guest. They’re afraid of appearing over-earnest, of being cringey. But this interview should have showed them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, they should be much more afraid of the opposite pitfall.

Right now, The Babylon Bee has a hot mike. They’ve made some brilliant choices about what to do with it. Hopefully, they will take to heart these critiques of their less-than-brilliant choices. Hopefully, they will pay closer attention to what unchurched celebs are actually looking for. Secular folks may not share our beliefs. They may even think some of those beliefs are downright weird. But they do want to know if we take them seriously. Because if we don’t, then why should they? 

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