Warning: Many of the links contained herein may be considered offensive or blasphemous; click with care. Also, at least one is NSFW.
A few days ago, sex worker/pornographer/awesome gal Furry Girl (for whom I have tremendous respect and who breaks the mold by applying deserved criticism to any religion, not just Christianity) retweeted one of porn star Nina Hartley’s comments at the sex worker conference Desiree Alliance.
The comment made me smile, but not guffaw; I’ve both seen it and heard it before (specifically thinking about Margaret Cho’s reaction to “The Passion of The Christ”: “Oh, Jesus, say your safeword!”). It’s an old joke. But I was surprised by Keltik, who I follow on Twitter, reacting negatively to it (although in retrospect, it seems like maybe the old joke and lack of originality was the problem … nah, I kid, I kid).
Like is often the case when someone seems truly angry or upset at something I reacted glibly to, I wanted to understand, to make sure I wasn’t letting privilege or lack of empathy block me from seeing where he was coming from, so we engaged in the sort of tight, condensed mini-discussions Twitter’s 140-character limit forces you to have, reproduced here for those who don’t want to go through the arduous task of trying to read it there (clicking will take you a larger/clearer version):
I went online then, because I truly was curious- was I wrong in my understanding of religious humor? Had I been watching too much Comedy Central? What was the general consensus regarding religion, humor, and the ideas of offensive mockery or blasphemy? (Not surprisingly, the majority of results were about Islam, Dutch cartoonists, fatwas, South Park, and Salman Rushdie). It was actually quite hard to find a good, honest, in-depth discussion about where the line between funny and offensive was drawn, particularly when I filtered out those that dealt with free speech and/or satire as a form of criticism (both of which I and Keltik seem to be in favor).
This article describes very nicely what I think Keltik was trying to say- that an understandable reason against mockery would be that it stereotypes and promotes bigotry. And I don’t think that’s far off-base with some forms of mockery- Dana Carvey’s The Church Lady on SNL would be a good example of satire based on belittling, pigeonholing, stereotyping, and in many ways fostering hatred against religion with its parody. But saying that Jesus died on the cross because he forgot his safeword- I don’t see in any way how it stereotypes or promotes bigotry, nor a lot of other religious comedy.
I love humor (seriously; my TV is constantly tuned to Comedy Central), and I’ve always actually enjoyed analyzing just what makes something comical, so I tried to take stock of what I liked about religious humor. Sometimes the humor comes from carrying Biblical aspects to an exaggerated conclusion, like Summer Jesus. Sometimes it comes from skeptically “secularizing” Biblical stories (i.e. jokes implying Mary simply got pregnant and claimed it was God as a cover), funny because it’s a clever reinterpretation. Much of the humor I like bears the incongruity factor, like Jesus exaggerating his miracles for the lulz, God hitting on a woman on “Family Guy”, or Jesus singing “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”- it’s funny because it’s blatantly opposite the Biblical narrative; we all know God/Jesus wouldn’t actually do such a thing or be so silly. Sometimes it’s the joy of religious puns. Sometimes it’s in the comparison of Biblical events to our real-life events or viewpoints … whether it’s pointing out that Moses’ lengthy wandering of the desert was just another example of a man too stubborn to ask for directions, or BDSM aficionados notice that both they and Christ have the voluntary torture and punishment bit in common and quipping that Jesus was “the ultimate sub/bottom” or some such. And, of course, there’s always room for kids adorably botching prayer (whose appeal, I think, is basically that it’s hilarious how often kids mess up in emulating adults, in religion or elsewhere). But all in all, I just can’t think of any real instances where I’ve found religious humor that I felt was malicious, mean-spirited, or evil. I’ve found plenty that weren’t particularly funny to me, but that had more to do with timing, delivery, and punchline, rather than subject matter.
As described in the above Twitter conversation, I’m sure it doesn’t help that Bethany, my best friend and Christian extraordinaire, is able to laugh at religious humor, as are the Christian-identified folks on the website she frequents, Jesus Needs New PR. And indeed, along with Matthew Paul Turner and his commenters are other Christian communities and authors who think God has a sense of humor.
But the point of this post isn’t for me to justify what I think ought or ought not be offensive to religious folks, or even to provide evidence of Christians who think differently; the whole reason I engaged Keltik was to try and understand what he found so offensive in Nina Hartley’s statement, and, by extension, what similar statements towards which he might also feel the same. And, after so much rambling (I’m sorry! I’m long-winded, I know!), maybe that’s the heart of the matter: I still don’t know what is okay to say and what isn’t okay to say around Keltik.
Our conversation went on for so many tweets not because I was trying to be obnoxious (I know all too well that when non-religious folks think they’re earnestly engaging in friendly debate, religious folks can feel like they’re being attacked), but because I really wanted to know precisely what constituted mockery/blasphemy for him. I’m sad to say that I still don’t really know. I have vague words: context (but what context makes it okay, and what context makes it offensive?), intention (how does one evaluate the intention of the joker?), respect/disrespect (I still don’t understand what equals respect and what doesn’t). About the only thing that seemed clear was not insulting people, which I agree with, if we are meaning no pejoratives or name-calling. But the vagueness of “respect” still troubles me. I was hoping for some good examples- perhaps a blanket ban on any blasphemous treatment of religion, or even a concrete contrast (“joking about Jesus looking like a hippie is cool, joking about the resurrection is not”, etc.), but nothing, nada. And since it doesn’t seem to be the case that jokes are always mockery, I’m really left in a pickle as to not knowing which ones will be offensive to him and which won’t.
I don’t know; is it too demanding for me to ask what exactly falls under “mockery” and what doesn’t? Is it unfair to make accusations of bigotry without clearly defining what is and what is not bigotry? In other words, am I being unreasonable?
I gladly welcome discussion on this topic- whether it’s your personal views on religious humor, what you find funny, what you find offensive, or on where to draw the line and how to be respectful … you can comment here or on Twitter.