Is there room in the church for satire?

WDOOR1984_8_pr20Many years ago, back in the 1970’s, a new magazine appeared on the religious scene. Titled “The Wittenberg Door,” the publisher, Mike Yaconelli (of Youth Specialties fame) promised a different take on the nature of faith, a perspective that was willing to poke fun of the human frailties of the church.

That was all well and good, until a particular issue came out. For the majority of readers it arrived as a dog-eared, poorly typed, photocopy of the magazine. There was an accompanying letter which stated that due to technical difficulties the publishers didn’t have enough fully produced copies for all, and so that the “finished” copies had been reserved for financial supporters of the magazine, and that they hoped that we wouldn’t mind getting this photocopied version instead.

The screams were loud and wide — until the truth came out. There was NO finished copy. Everyone had received the same format. The authors were trying to make a point about classism and the inability of American Christian disciples to humble themselves in the face of adversity. Many quickly saw the joke and laughed loudly. However the use of satire in thinking about the church made many very nervous, because it seemed to trample on sacred things.

Yesterday, in the spirit of April Fools Day, this site published a satirical piece suggesting that God had sent a press release claiming to be leaving the United Methodist Church. While we wish we could take credit for writing this piece it was sent to us by a long-time reader and we decided to share it more widely because we believe that satire offers a valuable commentary on the human condition present in the United Methodist Church. We knew that some would fail to see the humor of the story (in fact, the original author asked to be anonymous because “…our bishop doesn’t have a sense of humor…”), and that some might even be offended. However we also believe it’s important to poke fun at ourselves and the political morass we find ourselves enmeshed in as we think together about the future of the church.

What’s interesting of course is that the suggestion that God might leave the United Methodist Church isn’t original. There are moments when all of the factions of the church imply that God will be absent, that God will remove God’s self, and that God will abandon the church if we are not “faithful” to God’s desires (as interpreted according to each group’s fancy). Yesterday’s piece simply made that suggestion more overt, asking the question of whether our institutional structures would continue on in the face of God’s rejection. In the mind of the author, God’s leaving wouldn’t slow us down a bit.

Artist Ben Nicholson once said, “Satire is fascinating stuff. It’s deadly serious, and when politics begin to break down, there is a drift towards satire, because it’s the only thing that makes any sense.” Satire is one means by which we can examine the ludicrous nature of our human political dealings in our life together as a church. It opens a door that reminds us that without God’s grace and presence the whole enterprise is flawed, that the emperor has no clothes, and that without a willingness to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, we may indeed find ourselves at odds with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s story was not about God at all — it was about us. While we are all seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we also bring our own agendas, beliefs, assumptions, and yes, even our brokenness and sinfulness to the table. Yes, the church is indeed the Body of Christ, but it is also a human institution with all the frailties that come with the human condition. Satire is one means by which the bubble of our own egos is popped and we are confronted with the insanity we bring with us.

If I read the scriptures correctly, I have confidence that God has no intention of abandoning the United Methodist Church. After all, it’s filled with broken, needy people in need of God’s grace, and if the gospel stories tell us anything, that’s when Jesus is most likely to show up.

What I do know is that yesterday’s story hit a nerve. For some it was brilliant. For others it was sacrilege. In either case it was one of the most viewed stories of the year at the United Methodist Reporter, which suggests to me that it got people thinking and talking.

And that is what satire is all about.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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22 Comments on "Is there room in the church for satire?"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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John Smith
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Based on the UMC churches I know I doubt God would be allowed as a member unless his checks were big enough to cover his faults.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Yes!

Wes Andrews
Guest

There is room for clever humor and laughing at ourselves!

Dave Hurst
Guest

The piece was well-written and probably the most balanced article I’ve seen on UMR since CircuitWriter Media took over. This article found something that I thought no longer existed in the UMC: common ground.

Carol
Guest
Is this conversation really about pro and con of satire , or simply calling satire humor. Or is it about a deeper issue? We like to laugh in our community. But mostly straight humor, not satire, and not during the communion service. Perhaps I could see a place for this humor in September, but there is no place for humor at the expense of God or the church during Holy Week. I think that we are to eat breath and sleep the cross until we can hardly bear to stand up straight and fall to our knees in humility. Or… Read more »
Todd
Guest

Sister, take heart. Jesus’ teachings are full of humor, irony and satire. Whether tending towards the ridiculous (a beam in my eye while helping you with the mote in yours) or the shocking irony of a man going down from Jerusalem to avoid the Samaritans winding up being saved by one, Jesus knew how to laugh and expects us to do the same. Just laugh at the right stuff.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Umm, no, but you are focusing on the sperficial. Have you seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”? You may not believe it, but even that has a ‘comic relief” scene. Of course, it’s near the beginning and only a few seconds long, but it’s there. It show’s Jesus prior to beginning his travels hiding an object from his mother and laughing. Now, in the days of the Puritans back when they killed people for being accused of involvement in “the occult,” something like this’d get people put in the stocks at least. But the historical record shows those… Read more »
Rex D. Matthews
Guest
When I was a kid growing up on a farm in southern middle Tennessee, my parents always subscribed to “Together” magazine — the family magazine of the post-WWII Methodist Church and after 1968 of the early UMC. My memory is that each issue of “Together” had a humor column, rather like those in “Reader’s Digest,” but headed with a saying attributed to John Wesley: “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” I’ve never been able to find that saying in any of Mr. Wesley’s authentic writings, but the sentiment still seems somehow profoundly Wesleyan to me — and in my view,… Read more »
Robert Taylor
Guest

Isn’t there a way to do both? Be authentic and simultaneously uphold the dignity and respect of the United Methodist Church as an entity? This kind of tactic would never fair well in the corporate world.

Also, the best way to appear authentic is to be truly authentic. Live it, breathe it, show it. Im afraid to say it but I will out of caring: the church has a h-u-g-e PR problem.

John Smith
Guest

Ahh, the dignity of the UMC where the boards and societies protest sandwiches.

Mark Moore
Guest

The comment that the guys Bishop not having a sense of humor struck me as ironically funny and sad at the same time. A Bishop with a sense of humor would be a pleasant change of pace for most of us.

Mark Moore
Guest
Regarding the posts above I will say this. First, I totally support satire. Is it better to laugh or cry when it comes to the UMC? Personally, I choose to laugh, for various reasons. First, it is more entertaining, and second, it keeps us from taking ourselves and our institutions too seriously. Satire lets off some steam, and cools things down, it entertains by being clever and by sleight of hand. We would do well to meditate on the difference between satire and cynicism. Christians have always been concerned about cynicism since it appears to be the counter opposite of… Read more »
Pat Grauer
Guest
I love satire, and I agree that it can teach us much about ourselves. This is an amazingly well-written piece with equal-opportunity skewering. That’s good. But this article at this time in this forum — uh-uh. This is the kind of exposure that is much better around the family table, than shouted from the streets. We whine that we’re a declining church, but it’s this kind of behavior in public that doesn’t help us. Read this again through the eyes of someone who is looking around for a church, or wondering if church is for you at all. It contains… Read more »
Charles Harrison
Admin

Pat,

Just a clarification: UMR is not an official UMC publication. We are completely independent. We are a 167 year old brand that has always been able to stand apart in voice.

I would just add, that several groups that I participate in, of folks who won’t go to an actual church anymore, said to me yesterday that if they could find a community more like the commentary in wit and wisdom then they might reconsider church again. This is completely anecdotal evidence of some minor evangelistic value.

Richard Hicks
Guest

Pull my finger! See. The creator created pleasure including joy. Thank you.

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