“God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert” by Terry Lindvall— A Look at Religious Satire

god mocks

Lindvall, Terry. “God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert”, NYU Press, 2015.

A Look at Religious Satire

Amos Lassen

Religious satire is a difficult subject that all of us have faced sometime. We never really know how to react when we see or read satire that pokes fun at our sacred cows. Religious satire can be quite dangerous especially when we are not sure who the audience is. In “God Mocks”, Terry Lindvall dares to go into religious satire and gives us a chronicle history of its evolution from the biblical wit and humor of the Hebrew prophets through the Roman Era and the Middle Ages all the way up to the present.  We read the work of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain, and ending with the mediated entertainment of modern wags like Stephen Colbert. (One name I find missing here is Joan Rivers who often joked about her Jewish background and the Holocaust and who always dared to raise eyebrows with her humor).

Lindvall defines satire as moral outrage expressed in laughter and this is a perfect definition. There are, of course, differences in how religious satirists express what they say and their outrage. Those who read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and do not know or realize that it is satire are shocked. Knowing that is softens the blow a bit but it is, to this day, difficult to deal with because it dares to deal with children, something that is quite dear in all societies. Religious satire has quite naturally changed over time and is, in effect, constantly changing. Just think how many times we have laughed at a caricature of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live”. Twenty years ago we would have never seen anything like it on television. Looking back at history we have the coarse and common language of Martin Luther and Sir Thomas More f the late medieval period and it was later refined by Alexander Pope and his classic and classical wit. In modern times we have Monty Python to whom nothing is sacred and there is the irony of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. We see that he who satirizes religion does not even have to belong to one or even believe in anything. All the satirist needs is “an eye and ear for the folly and chicanery of religious poseurs”. 

Lindvall tells us that to follow the satirists is “to encounter the odd and peculiar treasures who are God’s mouthpieces”. This book is a look at the way the satirist uses humor for moral ends. It is basically an overview and an introduction to the many writers of religious satire and it gives a unique look at literature, satire and religion. We see the many comedic ways that we have seen the “lighter side of depravity” and the “sins and foibles of the saints across the ages”. We become aware that satirical discourse has always been vital to the “redemptive (and oft times entertaining) task of prophetic consciousness raising”. Lindvall’s research is amazing. There is so much to be learned here and I see the book as a very special present for the canon of religious literature and cultural studies.

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