A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert
In God Mocks, Terry Lindvall offers a survey of religious satire as a literary genre—from the holy taunting of the Hebrew prophets and early Christianity through the grotesque realism of the medieval era to the rogues and village idiots of the modern age. The prose is light-hearted and entertaining, for example the phrase “foolish fops follow fickle fashion” (137), and Lindvall includes sixteen pages of full-color plates featuring art by Sebastian Brandt, Hieronymus Bosch, and others. This book is accessible to a general audience, and scholars of cultural studies, literature, and religions will appreciate the thorough research and witty chronicle.
Lindvall defines satire as “the ridiculing of human vanity, folly, and hypocrisy” (1) and his method of inquiry involves four key elements mapped on two axes: the horizontal axis places ridicule with moral purpose, the vertical axis measures rage to humor. The Quad of Satire, therefore, allows for the mapping of diverse characters across time-and-place from Ezekiel and Elijah to Monty Python and Stephen Colbert. Lindvall proposes an overarching pattern to the humor of satirists, though he does not suggest unifying themes until the concluding chapter. Most of the book is dedicated to the description of satire’s main figures and primary works.
Lindvall designates the Hebrew prophets as God’s prosecutors, an office of divine discontent that does not predict the future, but rather, scoffs at corruption. The purpose of the harsh cursing is not to delight an audience to laughter, but to purge and redeem by comic mortification. He writes that “satire wounds to heal. It mocks to remake and reconcile” (15). Biblical satire is thus a sacred weapon and never gentle. The author shows how a naked Ezekiel bakes barley cakes with human dung and chastises the people of Israel for chasing after well-endowed donkeys. Elijah mocks the worship of Baal by asking if prayers were unanswered because their god was napping or in the latrine. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus scolds the stupidity of his followers and uses ironic wit against the empire and temple priests.
Medieval preachers attracted crowds with parody events such as the Feast of Fools and a masquerade featuring a Lord of Misrule. Jokes abound about drunken priests and horny monks. The best literature of the period is, in fact, satire: Giovanni’s Boccaccio’s Decameron, Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Lindvall gives an account of flatulence, excrement, and obscene romps before examining the savage insults of reformers such as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Lindvall then recalls the scholarly quarrels and prickly poetry of such literary giants as John Dryden, Robert Burns, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson and then shows how Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote de la Mancha as a spoof of chivalric romance in the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition. British humorists such as Daniel Defoe and Oscar Wilde caricatured and exposed the shams of social courtesies. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche replace the belly laugh with a sneer. American irreverence is represented by Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, the Onion, and Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
Lindvall adds that “satire’s central reason for existence is to bring about positive change through humor and wit” (267). Satire is a loyal critic that speaks truth-to-power and offends. It is often lewd and vulgar. It is necessary and useful—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—but it can be misunderstood, unrecognized, or cause unintended consequences. Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil’s Dictionary, is quoted as saying “the American reading public hardly knows that there ever was a distinctive kind of writing known, technically, as satire” (208). Lindvall puts it more bluntly: “stupid people just don’t get satire” (275). Satire serves as a comic mirror, wherein we may feel relief from the ills that plague society while simultaneously laughing at ourselves and our participation in the foolishness. The playfully absurd revives the lost sense of righteousness and renews the world. In his survey of religious satire, Lindvall makes a fine and insightful contribution to the history of letters.
Patrick Horn is a public scholar.
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