An Orthodox rabbi asks a Reformed rabbi: “One of my congregants says his son wants a Harley for his bar mitzvah. What’s a Harley?” Reformed rabbi to Orthodox rabbi: “A Harley is a motorcycle. What’s a bar mitzvah?”
An important legacy of the Judeo-Christian faith is seeing the virtue of poking fun at our excesses. Think of Punch & Judy, Harvard Lampoon, Mad magazine, The Onion, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. The idea is that religious success can ruin us by making us excessively (and insufferably) righteous. The safeguard is satire. It’s the reason why researchers note that Jews and Christians are less prone to fanatical extremism than Muslims. Islam doesn’t see satire as sacred.
This distinction showed up at a recent EastWest Institute conference in New York City where experts said solving societal problems reduces the risk of religious extremists. By “religious extremists,” they meant Muslims in Britain, Jews in Israel and Christians in the United States. Yet keynote speaker and Harvard University lecturer Jessica Stern made an important distinction: “The problems arising from Christian or Jewish extremism are not threatening to the world in the same way as Muslim extremism is.”1
The conference, titled “Towards a Common Response: New Thinking Against Violent Extremism and Radicalization,” rightly noted that all religious extremism is indefensible. Nor should we ignore crises. But solving problems often emboldens religious extremists (didn’t Kenneth Boulding quip that nothing fails like success?). If all societal problems disappeared tomorrow, every world religion would still demand 100% devotion to its cause alone. The solution is not just solving problems. It’s having a sense of humor. As the Judeo-Christian Scriptures counsel: “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?”2
Religion is a strong brew and drinking deeply can go straight to our head. Excessive righteousness ruins good people. The solution is not moderation but a sense of humor that enjoys irony. There’s a delicious irony, for example, when fallen and finite beings make authoritative statements about a perfect and infinite deity. It can be done, just with a bit of humility. Satire is spread throughout the Scriptures as a check against myopia and mania. The Old Testament prophets spoofed idol-worshipers. Elijah ridiculed the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 and the psalmist described idols as essentially emperors without clothes.3 But satire isn’t “us versus them” polemics against pagans. The Apostle Paul regularly lampooned religious types who were excessively righteous.4
This tradition continues with Stephen Colbert, the poker-faced correspondent from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. A devout Catholic, Colbert’s religious-satire segment “This Week in God” regularly pokes fun at religious wackiness.
“I love my Church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ.”5
The trick with satire is keeping it from corroding into sarcasm. Satire is irony. Sarcasm is insult (the Greek word for sarcasm is “tearing the flesh”). Satire reminds us that those most willing to die for their faith are often more likely to also kill for it. A funny bone fends off fanaticism, which is why Jessica Stern observed that Christian or Jewish extremism is not as threatening as Muslim extremism. All extremism is wrong, but Muslim extremism is more threatening. Why? Check the local listing for the Islamic rendition of “This Week in God” on Al-Jazeerah. Ain’t going to happen.
The late Mike Yaconelli founded one of great satirical magazines in this country in the 1980s, the Wittenberg Door. It was modeled after the work of British satirists G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge (who was the editor at Punch & Judy from 1953-57). Offering serious reviews of contemporary films and literature, the Door also parodied religious eccentricities. Yaconelli recognized that satire is, in his words, “Risky Business.” It can easily slip into sarcasm. Yet if we don’t poke fun at our excesses, we become excessively righteous and overly wise… which is a recipe for ugly extremism.
1 Claudia Parsons, “Religious Extremists in 3 Faiths Share Views: Report,” Reuters, June 13, 2007
2 Ecclesiastes 7:16
3 C.f. Psalm 115 and Isaiah 44.
4 The letters to the Corinthians church, for example, drip with satire – c.f. II Corinthians 11:19.