So what is this week's "Crossroads" podcast actually about?
Well, on one level it's about the "Christian" humor website called The Babylon Bee. But on a deeper level, it's about what happens when the word "Christian" is turned into an adjective defining a form of popular culture. At that point, all kinds of interesting and even distressing things take place. There are news stories in there, folks.
For example, when you hear someone talking about "Christian" rock 'n' roll, doesn't that (if you are of a certain age) make you think of that famous "Seinfeld" episode that included the riff about the car-radio buttons? Here's a flashback, from an "On Religion" column that I wrote long, long ago:
As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.
Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat.
"I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."
It's all about the world "real." We are not talking about "real" musicians, here. We are talking about "Christian" rock. Thus, when most people hear the phrase "Christian" rock, they probably think of this rather than this (please click these URLs).
I could go on. "Christian" humor, including satire, is not new -- in fact, it's ancient. That's a subject that the media scholar Terry Lindvall and I discussed in my "On Religion" column this week, which focused on the kind if gentle, but biting, inside-baseball humor found in the Bee. Here is a piece of that:
The key is that Ford is a modern man who is filling an ancient role. ...
"The biblical satirist shares in the blame and shame of his defendants. He may be God's prosecutor, but he is also entwined with the people he ridicules," wrote Lindvall in his book "God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert." A skilled satirist, he added, holds up a prophetic mirror that "offers a comic frame in which to look at and to look through the heart; the satirist finds that none are righteous, including himself."
The Bee stings everything from common family life ("Woman Finally Accepts Doctrine Of Total Depravity Now That Daughter Is Two") to lofty academia ("Jesus Was A Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist, Claims Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist Scholar").
However, a headline about President Barack Obama nominating the Canaanite god Moloch to serve on the Supreme Court perfectly illustrates Ford's method, noted Lindvall in an interview. The piece mocks evangelicals who are "totally paranoid" about anything Obama touches, yet also lances the left's ultimate Supreme Court litmus test -- abortion.
Ford, Lindvall added, "is piercing, yet gentle. ... It's more of a poke in the ribs, instead of a poke in the eyes."
Contemporary Christian satire is not new, either. Once upon a time there was a magazine called The Wittenburg Door and, especially in the early days, it had its moments of true insight. However, over time there was a tendency there for writers to center their acidic humor on the foibles of fundamentalists, alone, with all of the jabs coming from moderate to liberal evangelicals who had left all of that stupid stuff behind, if you know what I mean.
The Bee, meanwhile, covers a wide range of subjects, but most of its social-media traction comes from its humor about evangelicals, written by other evangelicals.
In other words, the Bee is "Christian" in the sense that it is a site written by Christians, primarily for Christians, with much of the humor based on a gentle, probing, analysis of the, as I put it in the column, "yins and yangs" of the evangelical niche culture.
But some of this satire, as demonstrated by the Moloch image, has multiple levels. This is where things get complex.
At this point, Bee creator Adam Ford (click here for his own website) is truly exploring territory that mixes Christian doctrine with The Onion. However, check out this recent page at The Onion. Could you run this "story" at The Babylon Bee and get away with it?
This is where I will end, with two crucial questions. First, it is one thing to be funny every now and then. That's easy -- especially when you are doing niche humor for a niche audience.
Consider this classic video for example:
Ah, but could you produce one or more videos a day like this, day after day?
Or how about this online probe-the-megachurches classic? Could the video and script people behind this work for, oh, The Tonight Show or Comedy Central and produce material this good on a regular basis? Yes, bias would be an issue. But at what point does skill and talent win out?
This brings me to the second issue raised, gently, in this podcast: Could Ford take his humor to the next level and truly "go secular," while still viewing the "real" world through his own unique, faith-centered lens?
In other words, will there come a day when "Christian" artists have the courage to make art for everyone, with their worldview soaked into the content? Gosh, I think someone has raised that very issue before.