Where Have All the Good Barbs Gone?
Happy Easter, my friends. Sorry it's been awhile since my last post. I hope to make this blog a weekly thing, but I've been my usual busy self lately, doing so many things that I haven't left much room for sharing about them. I wasn't sure what to write about at first. With so many diverse topics to choose from (and I love free form expression), I was torn between something on the entertainment front or something on the religious front (it being Easter and all). Well, why not a hybrid of the two? After all, that was the subject of my 400-level independent study for my Religion minor … religion and the Bible in pop culture.
So, I get comedy and satire. I devour films and shows that have subtext, and I've been known for my own sharp witticisms (read: bad puns). Religious satire provides the greatest challenge for anybody daring to take it on. The good stuff usually mixes hilarity, absurdity, and sometimes to the point of grotesque to make the faithful (like your humble author) a little uncomfortable as we laugh. In High School, it was my own pastor who introduced me to the off-kilter hilarity of Monty Python's Life of Brian and it remains the high-water mark of Horatian religious satire. Condemned by some as a blasphemy, many others as a heresy, I always got it for what it was: a send-up of dogmatic zealots who fail to get the point of the Message and the purpose of why the Messenger was on earth to begin with. The film's director Terry Jones himself said "[the film] isn't blasphemous because it doesn’t touch on belief at all. It is heretical, because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself."
I felt the same way about Kevin Smith's Dogma, which presaged the Da Vinci Code's assertion that powerful men in history kept the full story of Jesus obscured. Dogma delivered most of its musings on Jesus from Rufus, the 13th Apostle (portrayed by Chris Rock), who was unceremoniously excised from the Bible for being black. While never failing to maintain levity, Rufus says about Jesus things that have been portrayed in more serious depictions: "it bothers Him to see the $#!t that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it ... It's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier... " Indeed. Therein lies where the best (and worst) of religious satire gets under our skin: It challenges not just our notions about the divine, but often times our tightly-held beliefs. Dogma skewers many tenets of Christianity, but it gets away with it elegantly because it ultimately affirms the existence of God and the Divinity of Jesus, the presence of the Angels, and the quest for understanding amongst the most lost of us.
And then there's South Park, curiously classified as Juvenalian according to Wikipedia despite its characters and situations being the most absurd in TV history. Fifteen years into this show's run, I still watch every episode, invariably laughing to the point of tears, yet finding its frequent irreverence toward religion making me needfully uncomfortable. Whether this is indicative that they may be doing something right or are completely misguided I'm still unsure (but I have an idea). This week they once again leveraged to great effect Cartman's anti-Semitism, this time during Passover, and directly addressed the biblical challenges of the ten plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart to point out how we take zealous interpretation to dangerous extremes. South Park's remains an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to religion, yet it has never inspired me to protest, because it wears its intentions on its sleeve.
So, those if are a few good examples of religious satire that can humble the pious, and keep seekers like yours firmly entrenched in faith while searching for Truth among the clamor. So, if those are the good examples when did Hollywood get so bad at it in general? As I stare down the barrel of 40, I'm unsure if I'm becoming Dana Carvey's Grumpy Old Man but I long for the days when my religion was skewered in a way that was witty and not so mean spirited. I now offer three examples of where I see religious satire heading, and lament its descent into plain ol' Christian-bashing from the mouths of angry atheists who are no more willing to live and let live than the faithful souls they complain about.
First, there's Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying. The title is quite apropos, as its true message is nowhere to be found in its trailer and marketing materials, which lured me to rent it in the first place. Not knowing much beyond basic premise -- a world in which people simply didn't have the capacity to lie, until one man figured out how to do it -- 20 minutes into it, I found myself thinking "This is mildly amusing but it's curious how religion is completely absent from the film." Literally one scene before it was introduced and served as the central theme of the rest of the film. By creating this alternate universe, and then presenting the concept of heaven, God, and rules that have been the foundation of western Civilization as a clever ruse invented by the only man with the capacity to tell lies, Gervais asserts that the Divine is a complete fabrication. Furthermore, the followers of such "lies" are mere sheep because they are unable to comprehend that they've been hoodwinked. More than just a finger in the eye of organized religion, it gives a middle-finger to anybody who seeks to understand their place in this world and the purpose of life as ordained by a higher power. The film, which conceitedly thinks it is enlightening, ultimately only celebrates selfishness and life as a soulless id, wandering about this world consuming and not giving back.
Then, there's Bill Maher. I used to enjoy Real Time when it kept to politics, a subject Maher understands well. But in the past few years, Maher has gone from critic to cynic, from debater to crusader, and his target has gone from the political right-wing, to the religious right, and finally to religion as a whole, because he sees them all as the same group. Since Maher's Religulous, he's been on an anti-Christian and anti-religion campaign, falsely fusing Christianity with the Republican party. Refusing to acknowledge the vast amount of good humanity does for one another -- dare I even say acts of liberal kindness -- Maher considers us all to be over-aged children, believing in fairy tales, and duped by a series of evil geniuses who have gotten us to give away our cash to charlatans and to vote conservative. All hyperbole starts with a kernel of truth, but Maher needs to realize that the noisy rabble with whom he takes issue do not represent the whole of the faith. Christianity alone has over a billion followers, no two of whom agree on everything. We’re liberals and conservatives, saints and sinners, and we vacillate from geniuses to the mentally challenged. We're united in the belief that God chose to intervene in humanity in a literal, corporeal manner 2000 years ago and in so doing, showed a different way for humanity to treat its least, and last, and lost.
Finally, there's GCB, short for "Good Christian Bitches" to the uninitiated, which might be better titled as “Desprut Housewahves, Y’all.” Brought to you by ABC, the once family-friendly network owned by Disney, GCB takes a good idea -- exposing the hypocrisy of backstabbing southern moms in a community church -- and paints an absurd caricature with such flat characters as to make viewers think we’re all like that. As is the problem with most of ABC’s comedies now, few people are genuine, and those who may be are painted in such a freakish weirdo light that they lose all ability for the normal viewer to relate. Thus, we descend into a tasteless yuk-yuk fest that mocks the whole of a religion based on every character being detestable and unrelatable. It ceases to be satire and becomes just another mean-spirited insult to the vast majority of us who are trying to do something right in our lives and have our faith be a central part of that, however imperfect we may be.
I’m known for being pretty opinionated when I want to be. I’m also known for being equally quiet, pensive, respectful, and reverent. I was reminded recently that these are the good qualities of a satirist, which I never quite considered myself, though I suppose there is a tremendous amount of social commentary in the songs I write. They merely lack in the humor department. I do believe this much: that God doesn’t so much tell us what to think as he expects us to think, and I've tried to let that come across in my character, my music, and my working life.
Satire was designed to provide a counterpoint to ruling authority. Before the Information Age, channels for retort were more tightly controlled, and the most talented traditionally rose to top of the heap, earning the ability to have their voices and opinions heard by a wider audience. But as we now surf through hundreds of cable networks, thousands of blogs, and a vast network of social media, perhaps we’ve made it so easy to voice our opinions that we’re becoming white noise to each other. It’s the nature of the one controlling the microphone to possess a certain intellectual arrogance. (Not ironically, this is my blog and I know I'm right. ;-) ). But whether we’re a powerful Hollywood entertainer or a talking head on a major news network or just Joe Schmoe with a Facebook account, each of us should be judicious when exercising our free speech. We’re mass communicating. Make every word matter, and maybe we will climb out of this spiral into the inane, and can be witty, thought provoking, daring, even scandalous. But by maintaining decorum and respect for our fellow human, we’ll be more than just another jerk with an opinion, attitude, or axe to grind. Instead we’ll rise to becoming thought leaders in our own right, just as God intended our free-thinking minds to be. And that, multiplied by six billion faithful minds, is a pretty exciting prospect.