Colbert's chaplain on humor vs. mockery

A headline like "Pope charged for not wearing seat belt," almost feels like a piece from The Onion, but sometimes truth is funnier than fiction.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor for America magazine, is a big fan of humor, as displayed in his most recent book, Between Heaven and Mirth. But he also wants journalists to understand the difference between funny and offensive.

Martin's commentary has appeared in outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, FoxNews, and Time magazine, and comedian Stephen Colbert calls him "The Colbert Report chaplain." Before Martin entered the Jesuits in 1988, he graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years. Here, Martin discusses a twist on GetReligion's 5Q+1, focusing on how the mainstream media covers the "funny side" of religion.

(1) What's a journalist's role in covering religion and humor? Are there stories the reporters are missing? Part of the challenge for the journalist is finding the humor in religious organizations without crossing the line to mockery. Frankly, most "funny" stories about religion tend to be vaguely mocking--for example, stories that profess astonishment that a priest or a member of a religious order could start a website, run a business or do something athletic without breaking a leg. (I.e., "Meet a Nun who Surfs!" or "The Monks Who Blog!") They tend to traffic in stereotypes that priests or religious order members are idiots, clueless or have no idea what the "modern world" is like. It gets a little tiresome. The challenge is to find humorous people and funny stories without mocking.

As for stories they are missing, I would say that the great unreported story is the optimism of hope of aging Catholic sisters, who have done remarkable work for the poor in this country. So many of them have great senses of humor and amazing stories to tell about overcoming hardships. Catholic sisters are among the cleverest people I know; and thanks to living through times when they've not always been treated well, have made no money, and are now facing diminishment, they often have very healthy--and bracing--perspectives on life.

(2) How can a journalist covering religion figure out when funny crosses the line into offensive? As I mentioned, any time the journalist finds himself or herself shocked that a priest or a member of a religious order can do something that lay people do on a regular basis--run a corporation, make a joke, cheer at a football game--there will be an element of mockery. I mean, after all, priests and sisters have run (and often founded) universities, hospitals and high schools for decades. Also, even the best journalists occasionally write things that they're not even aware are offensive, like, "Even though Jane is a devout Catholic, she enjoys her work as a science teacher." As if once you become Catholic you check your brain at the door. You see that quite frequently in stories that are trying to be lighthearted.

(3) What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? The reaction to the new English translation of the Mass. I'm very curious how the people in the pews respond to this big change.

(4) If journalists are trying to prioritize, should they even spend much time finding funnier religion stories? Well, I think it's not as much about finding "funny" stories as finding stories that aren't about scandal or sexual abuse or otherwise serious topics. There are a zillion interesting personal interest stories about religious types: stories about enterprising priests, ministers and rabbis who are doing creative things, as well as churches, synagogues and mosques that sponsor interesting programs, but you rarely hear about that. This is a reflection of the diminishing coverage of religion overall. And one reason for that is that the mainstream media has cut back on its religion coverage. Where in the past each paper would have a full-time religion reporter, that job is now farmed out to someone, say, on the "Culture" or "Arts" beat. One reporter said to me, "Well, I covered the Arts and my editor thought that was close enough to religion, so I'm covering that now, too." As a result, there are only a handful of reporters covering religion full time, and they have to cover all religions. So the "funny" stories, which are considered less important, are few and far between.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? In Germany, someone brought a civil case against Pope Benedict XVI for not wearing a seat belt during his recent trip there. I thought that was just hysterical. I mean, the Popemobile goes about three miles an hour. It's not exactly zooming down the Autobahn. When the suit was dismissed Catholic News Agency reported it as follows: “There will be no fine for the Pope,” city spokeswoman Edith Lamersdorf told German news agency Badische Zeitung on Nov. 30. “The charges were quashed.” It sounds like something out of a Monty Python skit, including the woman's name.

Then the Vatican responded as follows, according to CNA:

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., said on Nov. 30 that the charges provoked “curiosity and smiles of amusement” at the Holy See, “beginning with the Pope himself.” He explained the need for Pope Benedict to not be restricted by seat belts during his visits, since he “turns continually to the right and to the left to greet and bless the faithful...Often he gets up and takes in his arms babies to bless, to the joy of the parents and everyone present,” Fr. Lombardi said. “All these gestures presume a certain freedom of movement.” The spokesman was, nevertheless, “grateful for the affectionate concern for the Pope's safety.”

That's funny on so many levels.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media? Today, there are only a handful of people covering religion full time these days, compared with, say, dozens and dozens just ten years ago. As papers shrink their staffs, you have fewer people doing real reporting. Much of the stuff on the web is just aggregating--or bloviating. And so much of the stuff on the web about religion is nasty, nasty, nasty. Overall, that represents a huge loss--especially for local coverage of religion. It also means that the few people who are still doing it full time now exercise a great deal more influence. But overall, it's a great loss for a society that needs to better understand religion and religious people. Illustration by Anita Kunz.

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