When the Babylon Bee launched in March of last year, I was elated. Finally, a Christian satire publication to rival The Onion. The early articles produced were spot-on hilarious, but they were produced so quickly and regularly that I wondered how long the Bee could keep it up.
The underlying question I had was this: what happens when the Bee runs out of the obvious targets? The nature of satire, after all, is to push to the very edge of good taste. It often uses hyperbole and sarcasm to illuminate dark corners where nuggets of truth can only be found outside of normal discourse.
While satire certainly has a place, it’s very nature puts it dangerously close to real offense and poor judgment. And, since the purpose of Christian satire is to illuminate truth, the Babylon Bee has always run the risk of doing as much harm as good. This hazard is only heightened once the low-hanging fruit has been picked and one must step higher on the ladder and reach farther into the tree.
More than a year after its launch, my fears are proving justified. While the Bee is still producing some fresh new content – and some of it is good – they’ve also over-picked some areas while reaching too high and too far for others. The result of these miscues is mockery, misunderstanding, and division in the Christian family.
But before I get into that, I’d like to share a few of my favorites. This is, in my opinion, Christian satire at its best.
Satire Done Right
Joyce Meyer Pulls Fire Alarm To Distract Audience From 1 Timothy 2: a humorous article in which popular female pastor, Joyce Meyer, accidentally tells her audience to turn to I Timothy 2, which says in verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Meyer then distracts the audience and pulls a fire alarm while they’re not looking. This is a great example of satire illuminating a truth of Scripture. Joyce Meyer is a female pastor. I Timothy 2:12 disqualifies her from preaching over men. Therefore, she is obviously never going to preach from that passage.
Sweating John MacArthur Awakens From Nightmare In Which He’s Unsure About Something: I am a big MacArthur fan and was a member of his church for several years, and I found this hysterical. If you listen to MacArthur for a long time (like I have) you will note that he very rarely says “I think” about anything. I believe even MacArthur would be able to laugh at himself on this one.
DC Talk Issues Formal Apology For ‘Nu Thang’: one of my personal Bee favorites. The article pokes fun at the “Nu Thang” album released by DC Talk back in 1990. Now, I personally got stuck in 90’s music, so I still love Nu Thang; but it’s all 90’s and had absolutely no ability to transcend that decade. What made this Bee article truly golden was DC Talk member, Kevin Max – who is seen in tears at a fictitious press event in the article – joining in on the Facebook comments when the Bee published this article. He joked around with fans and poked fun at himself and the Nu Thang album. Good stuff, that.
These are all good things.
But along the way, the Babylon Bee has had an increasing number of bad misses, especially as they have reached into the minefield of politics.
Satire Done Wrong
If satire done right illuminates a truth, satire done wrong perpetuates falsehood or unfair stereotypes.
One of the best examples of satire done wrong is in the article The Bee Explains: What Is The Alt-Right? This article was published on June 14 of this year, presumably in response to the official condemnation of the movement handed down by the Southern Baptist Convention on the same day. Its premise is pretty clear: the Alt Right movement is a bunch of racists that are not Christian.
Far from highlighting a truth or exercising a real knowledge of the issue, the Bee simply inserted clichéd, negative cultural stereotypes and then mocked those. In the section titled “Notable Supporters” they list:
“…people who want to re-live the good ol’ days of the Third Reich; your Facebook friend’s drunken uncle—the one with the huge sideburns—who lives in rural Alabama, makes his own whiskey in the tub, and thinks the Holocaust was a hoax…”
The rest of the article was much of the same. There are so many things wrong with this. Where to begin?
First, the Bee makes no distinction whatsoever between nationalism, racism, white supremacy, and cultural pride, all of which have many unique facets. Rather than making any attempt to clarify, the Bee simply lumps everything together and passes it off as the intellectual offspring of some stupid countrified redneck from Alabama. Why? Because everyone knows that the stupid southern redneck from Alabama is…well…stupid. “You can’t fix stupid” as they say in the South, and since we all grew up believing in this stereotype, it’s easier (and lazy, too) to simply believe the stereotype rather than confront the real issue.
Second, while I don’t consider myself an expert on Nazi Germany, I have read Mein Kampf, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Bonhoeffer. These books are enough to realize that the nationalism present in Hitler’s Nazi party is vastly different than the nationalism of the Alt-Right in America, with the exception of extreme cases like Richard Spencer.
For one thing, German nationalism was strictly German: German food, German music, German beer, German art, etc. American nationalism is largely centered around the Judeo-Christian value system, and in uniquely American ideals such as e pluribus unum and “In God We Trust”.
Definitionally, e pluribus unum means “out of many, one”. Out of many people groups came one America. In other words, American style nationalism often manifests itself wholly apart from race. It is the heavily Progressive mainstream media which focuses and over-emphasizes those elements of nationalism which are “white”.
“In God We Trust” focuses on our submission to a higher moral authority. Within this ideological framework there is certainly a focus of “Make America Great Again” and “Buy American” etc. But it is distinguishable from German nationalism (specifically that of the Nazi party) in that it is not specifically focused on race. An American nationalist (or, member of the Alt Right as defined by the mainstream media) will fight just as hard for the rights of an American who emigrated legally from Mexico as they would a white farmer from Iowa. They will also fight just as hard against a white European who is here illegally as they will against an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
This is where the Babylon Bee erroneously lumps it all in together as if it were a monolith.
The Bonhoeffer biography, in particular, illustrates the struggle of what it means to be both nationalistic and Christian. In fact, I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself would perhaps be considered by today’s pop cultural standard as a member of the Alt Right. Yet the Bee article intentionally leaves it’s “Notable Alt-Right Christians” section blank. This, of course, drew immense praise from many readers who pronounced “you can’t be a Christian and be a bigoted racist.” As if that were the issue.
Third, the article ignores that there are degrees of things. As the Bonhoeffer example points out, both Hitler and Bonhoeffer were very proud Germans. Read Bonhoeffer, it’s evident throughout. Yet Bonhoeffer gave his life trying to save Germany from the brand of nationalism peddled by Hitler, who sought to eliminate those of non-Aryan descent from the face of the earth.
So what is the Alt Right? The scope of that question is too broad for this article. I am not issuing a statement of support for the Alt Right, nor am I attempting to define what it is. I am merely trying to point out that to brand all nationalism in America as “white nationalism”, link it to Nazism, label it as Alt Right, and then summarily dismiss it as bigoted racism is unfair and simply untrue.
Those Christians condemning the Alt Right out-of-hand, while certainly motivated by a desire to honor God by ending racism, have themselves now painted a stereotype with so broad a stroke as to perpetuate a falsehood. That strategy has always caused more harm than good. In this regard, Bonhoeffer’s biography yields yet another nugget of wisdom:
The depth of these horrors had not been known or imagined, and it was almost too much for the war-fatigued British public to absorb. Their hatred of the Germans was confirmed and reconfirmed afresh with every nauseating detail. The public reeled at the very evilness of the evil. At the beginning of the war, it was possible to separate the Nazis from the Germans and recognize that not all Germans were Nazis. As the clash between the two nations wore on, and as more and more English fathers and sons and brothers died, distinguishing the difference became more difficult. Eventually the difference vanished altogether. Realizing the need to fuel the British war effort, Prime Minister Winston Churchill fused the Germans and the Nazis into a single hated enemy, the better to defeat it swiftly and end the unrelenting nightmare. When Germans working to defeat Hitler and the Nazis contacted Churchill and the British government, hoping for assistance to defeat their common enemy from the inside— hoping to tell the world that some Germans trapped inside the Reich felt much as they did— they were rebuffed. No one was interested in their overtures. It was too late. They couldn’t participate in such evils and, when it was convenient, try to settle for a separate peace. For the purposes of the war effort, Churchill maintained the fiction that there were no good Germans. It would even be said that the only good German— if one needed to use the phrase— was a dead German. That lack of nuance was also part of the hellishness of war.
-Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (p. 2). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
This, of course, is the problem perpetuated by the Bee in this and other similar articles. In seeking to use satire to illuminate a truth, they have instead lumped together an entire group and dismissed it as evil without really understanding it. And, just as Churchill rebuffed Bonhoeffer and many other Germans, so many Christians stand in judgment of the salvation of anyone who is considered Alt-Right.
Satire Crafting A Narrative
The other significant issue facing the Babylon Bee’s dwindling subject material is that of creating false narratives through repetition. This is where the low-hanging fruit comes back into play.
When the Bee started first publishing, their first five to ten articles poking fun at worship leaders and worship bands were hilarious. But as the year progressed, the Bee continued to produce more and more articles poking fun at the way the youth pastor dressed or the way the worship band plays. There are currently around 60 different articles devoted to making fun of worship bands. Isn’t this a little overkill? Where does the Bee go from here?
But the real issue is the false narrative, i.e. by repeating something so often that it becomes truth to the audience.
For example, the Bee has now published 24 separate articles relating to Calvinism. Nearly all of them can be subdivided into three groups: (1) Calvinists and beer, (2) Calvinists and beards, and (3) Arrogant Calvinists. The problem should be obvious.
In beating the drum about Calvinists, they reduced Calvinism into a caricature rather than a biblical doctrine. This is essentially no different than when the Bee refers to the Alt Right in terms of Uncle Moron in backwoods Alabama. It’s much less obvious because it’s not a single article that paints the false narrative, rather it’s the repetition of the same false caricatures over and over and over to unsuspecting readers.
This is exactly what advertising and propaganda machines do to create converts. Disclaimer: I’m not accusing the Babylon Bee of a nefarious plot to brainwash people. Yet, it’s the natural outcome of beating a dead horse. And that is a byproduct of running short on good material.
There’s only so many times you can make fun of youth pastors, worship bands, and Calvinists. While many of these are humorous and harmless, the combined total begin to form a narrative that may not be true.
The Result of Bad Satire Is Christian Division
As I said at the beginning, I am not against Christian satire. I think it has a definite place. But when it exchanges stereotypes for scholarship, and when it crafts a false narrative through sheer repetition, then the end result is always going to be division.
Group A laughs while Group B is offended and upset that they have been misrepresented or marginalized unfairly. Arguments (often heated) ensue and division is created. One only needs to browse the comments section of the Bee’s Facebook posts to see this very clearly at work.
Is this really God-honoring?
The Future of Christian Satire
The Babylon Bee has made attempts to defend itself, of course. Chiefly with an article titled Report: Satire Is Great, As Long As It Never Targets Any Of My Own Beliefs. But this defense is a red herring. It is also dangerously close to saying that truth is relative, because it eliminates the possibility that someone could actually be offended for legitimate reasons. If the Babylon Bee flat out misrepresents someone and it can be objectively proven, they can’t very well dismiss the criticism by saying “oh, you’re just upset because this time I came after you.” Although that argument is frequently used by secular satirists.
Truth is the objective standard by which everything must be measured, including satire. If the purpose of the Babylon Bee is simply to poke fun at different evangelical groups, then it has become divisive and it is time for the Bee to go into hibernation. But if the purpose is to illuminate truth through satire, then the Bee needs to be more careful in exercising good scholarship so as not to create offenses, misunderstandings, and divisions in the church.