Religious Humor in Evangelical Christian and Mormon Culture

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Elisha McIntyre
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350005488.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What makes something funny to evangelicals and Mormons? This is the core concern of Religious Humor in Evangelical Christian and Mormon Culture. Through detailed analyses of stand-up performances, movies, web series, cartoons, and other instances of comedy, the bookoffers an important perspective on an understudied aspect of contemporary American Christianity. Using accessible language that preserves the lighthearted spirit—and even the humor—of its subject, the book situates evangelical and Mormon joking into robust theoretical frameworks. The book grapples with complex issues, such as: How can an evangelical comedian joke about God without being blasphemous? How can a Mormon comedian joke about sex without being deemed “inappropriate” or “dirty”? How do Mormons and evangelicals use humor to critique their communities without being mean or cruel? Overall, the book offers valuable insights into the relationship between religion and humor. It explains why religious humor works for its intended audience.

The book’s central claim is that “religious humor” forms a significant aspect of contemporary evangelical and Mormon life. Despite popular misperceptions, evangelicals and Mormons laugh at jokes—and they even laugh at themselves. The book contends that “religious humor,” unlike humor about religion (e.g., “a nun and a rabbi walk into a bar…”), has specific characteristics and boundaries that make it uniquely appealing to evangelical and Mormon audiences. According to the book’s definition, religious humor is humor that “has a religious intention, or is in some way influenced (in either its creation or appreciation) by an individual’s religious beliefs. Religious humor is used in religious ways, that is, as an expression of one’s religious identity … or as part of religious practice” (2). In other words, this book suggests that religious humor reflects the teller’s and audience’s religious beliefs or religious identity. Religious humor occurs when members of a religious community joke with one another about their beliefs, their leadership, their cultural assumptions, their community’s taboos, or other “appropriate” topics. For example, one of the book’s most compelling sections details the ways evangelical comedians joke about sex. This section (103-14ff) shows how an evangelical comedian will take great pains to avoid telling “dirty” jokes, but will tell sex jokes that reinforce conservative assumptions about sexuality. Sex is a taboo topic for evangelicals, but they can consider a sex joke to be funny if it is framed within the right worldview, told in the right context, and told using the right language.

Despite containing much to commend, this book left several unresolved issues for me as a scholar of conservative Protestant visual and material culture. One of the most puzzling aspects of this book was its decision to treat evangelical and Mormon humor in the same volume. While these communities certainly share many cultural, theological, political, and historical connections, they are far from identical in practice. The book justifies conjoining them by stating that these communities hold shared anxieties about “mainstream” popular culture’s influence, shared right-wing perspectives on American politics, and shared concerns about “family values” in entertainment (17). The book also suggests that the creators of evangelical and Mormon humor use similar tactics to ensure their jokes will be perceived as funny. Had this volume offered more consideration of the material contexts of reception for religious humor, I suspect it would not have treated evangelicals and Mormons together.

In short, the book focuses on the intentions of those who produce religious humor. As a result, it elides significant differences in how real members of these communities actually engage specific forms of media. The book examines a wide range of sources under its rubric of “religious humor,” including Mormon cartoons from a subversive/intellectual magazine, evangelical stand-up comedy performances, funny Christian YouTube videos, feature-length Hollywood movies, low-budget student sketch comedy shows at Brigham Young University, and more. While these might belong together from the perspective of the creators’ intentions and conservative Christians’ general dispositions toward “mainstream” popular culture, each of these media operate very differently for their audiences and belong to very different historical trajectories. Watching a clip of an evangelical comedian on YouTube alone in one’s bedroom on a Saturday night is an altogether different experience than watching a Mormon stand-up comedy show at a theater in Provo with friends from church. I suspect that religious audiences laugh for different reasons in different contexts, their chuckles being shaped by different material circumstances, social subtleties, and historical forces. This book is largely silent on such issues of materiality, audience, and reception. While reading this book, I often found myself wondering why its bibliography omitted so much of the outstanding recent scholarship about religion and media reception in America, such as Kathryn Lofton’s work on Oprah and the KardashiansJason Bivins’s analysis of evangelical horroror Isaac Weiner’s study of religious sounds in the public sphere. 

By focusing so much on the intentions of those who create religious humor, the book also creates another unresolved issue for me as a reader: it relies heavily on an imagined audience for all this comedy. The book explains why a hypothetical evangelical or Mormon might find a joke funny or unfunny, but it contains very little information about people who actually enjoy this material and how they engage it. The book purports to examine “what an evangelical or Mormon and their family might watch for fun” (2). However, it does not include sustained ethnographic data, interviews with viewers/audiences, or prolonged analysis of social media comments sections that might offer information about how audiences receive this material. The reader is left wondering what evangelical or Mormon families really do watch for fun, where and how and to what extent they engage this comedy, and why they consume or ignore it. 

Overall, this book offers an important contribution to the study of religion and humor. It suggests that laughter is a major aspect of contemporary evangelical and Mormon religious life. It demonstrates some of the ways religious humor works, and suggests several points of entry for further explorations of this valuable body of material.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew T. Coates is Instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elisha McIntyre is Lecturer in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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