The following is the editorial introduction to the most recent issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (42.3, September 2013), written by co-editor, Kelly Baker. We offer this here in order to give readers of the blog a sense of what is coming out in the Bulletin. For the Table of Contents of this issue, see our earlier entry.
“When is a Laugh Just a Laugh? Never.”
By Kelly J. Baker
Making the rounds on the Internet is a YouTube video that presents a Christian remix of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” focusing not on bargain finds at Goodwill and “popping tags” but instead on three white guys preparing for Christian worship. They rely on the popular song while shifting lyrics to describe their Bibles and testimonies, their pastor, and the side hugs they offer to their female counterparts. They also dance badly in the parking lot of their church. I can hardly tell whether the creators are earnest in their Christian faith or if they are parodying a particular version of white evangelical Christianity. I think they are earnest, but lyrics like “Is this Revelation? Feelin’ flyer than the rapture” make me wonder if the humor is intentional or just accidental. I find this video remarkably funny. Others might find it an apt representation of their faith; my husband found it remarkably disturbing. Humor, of course, is subjective. While I find Dodgeball or Talladega Nights hilarious, friends and colleagues might not. (They will likely question my taste in movies.) When humor implicates religion, subjectivity still comes into play, but so do questions of authenticity, blasphemy, critique, and authority.
For this special issue, the authors describe and theorize the relationships between religion and humor in South Park, Woody Allen’s writings, Marc Maron’s stand-up routines, and “parody” religions like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (“May his appendages touch us all!”). What do we learn about religions when we examine the jokes, satire, and parody made about them? How does humor function to critique, bolster, or even deride religious movements and adherents? What makes “religion” funny? Who laughs? Who doesn’t? What does this laughter tell us about the social worlds we inhabit? Is there ever “equal opportunity” humor? Or does the ability to laugh at religions or religious people already mark the space in our worlds? How does humor create and recreate the “taken for grantedness” of our worlds?
David Feltmate, Auburn University, explores the critique of South Park by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. These Catholics take offense at the representation of Catholicism by Trey Parker and Matt Stone that relies on bleeding statues of Mary and renderings of pedophile priests. Does humor function to make something profane or does it aid in sacralization? Jenny Caplan, Rollins College, explores the Jewish humor of Woody Allen, in spite of his avowed atheism. Caplan catalogs Allen’s satire of American Judaism within his short fiction to demonstrate that there is something distinctly Jewish about his humor. Jerry C. Jaffe, Lake Erie College, considers Marc Maron’s stand-up routine on the Creation Museum, in which Maron attacks the “ignorance” on display. Satire becomes the primary vehicle to attack the museum, so humor serves primarily as a vehicle of critique and censure. Joseph Laycock, Piedmount Virginia Community College, assesses the function of popular parody religions as a forced comparison to established religions. Parody religions can help show where the boundaries of religion as a category lie and challenge the privilege of established religions. Douglas Cowan, University of Waterloo, offers a response that suggests maybe what we should examine when we look at religion and humor is the taken-for-grantedness of what is funny. Ken Derry, University of Toronto Mississauga, relies upon the articles of this issue to discuss how humor can be used to discuss and analyze religion. Humor is often predicated on common experiences of a culture, so maybe we should pay attention to how humor bolsters positions of the dominant in every joke told and every chuckling response. When I laugh at something, including religions, I affirm my position. We should pay attention to what these positions say about us and our places in the larger world. A laugh is never innocuous, and we should never take that for granted.
In other news, this is my last issue as editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, as I will be stepping down to associate editor. As some of you may already know, I am taking a year off to figure out whether I want to continue my scholarship or if I want to walk away from academic life entirely. This decision will not be an easy one, and I require the time and space to process what this might mean for me. All of this to say, I did not want the Bulletin to suffer during my hiatus. Many thanks to Craig Martin, Janet Joyce, and Phil Tite for my time with the journal.