THE BLOG

In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo: Why Satire Matters

01/07/2015 01:48 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2015
  • Robert F. Darden Professor of Journalism and New Media at Baylor University and founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.
PATRICK HERTZOG via Getty Images

For 20 years, I was the senior editor of the world's oldest, largest and pretty much only religious humor and satire magazine, The Wittenburg Door. The magazine, alas, ceased publication in 2007 after a 40-year run. When I heard of the senseless murder of 12 people in the offices of the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo, my response was grief and rage and, I'll admit, hate. Hatred of the killers who, apparently, espouse a particularly virulent strain of religious radicalism.

The second thing I thought of was the importance of satire. Especially now.

Like Charlie Hebdo, The Wittenburg Door never really prospered financially. Religious or political satire magazines have a unique business model. We evaluate success by the number of subscriptions cancelled with each issue. Many of those cancellation letters began, "Dear Editors. I've stuck with you for the past 10 years, but with this current issue, you've have gone too far, you idiots. Cancel my subscription immediately." Sometimes it didn't take 10 years for us to hit a subscriber's sacred cow. Sometimes they'd cancel after the first issue.

And if we got a lot cancellations with a certain kind of story, then we'd make sure we had several more articles just like it in subsequent issues. We went through as many financial advisors and bookkeepers as Spinal Tap went through drummers.

The motto of the magazine -- which was named after the famed door in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his theses (it wasn't until the third issue that someone noticed that the typesetter had spelled it wrong) -- was: "To use humor and satire to hold a mirror before the evangelical church." In a world with Pat Robertson, venal televangelists, and religious leaders in bed with ambitious, unscrupulous politicians, The Wittenburg Door was often the only religious magazine that sought to hold these people accountable. Everybody else needed the advertising venue and was afraid to say, "Yo! People! The emperor is buck nekkid!" Nobody ever wanted to advertise with us, for some reason.

You can be pretty fearless when you have nothing to lose. For the last 12 years of the magazine's life, it was owned and operated by the Trinity Foundation of Dallas, Texas, a non-profit ministry devoted to helping the homeless. They didn't even own the building where the magazine was housed. Our exposés meant that the Trinity Foundation was sued a number of times, which thrilled our publisher, Ole Anthony. Lawsuits meant legal discovery... and no televangelists wanted our pro bono lawyers going through their financial records. Plus, not owning anything meant that, even if we lost the lawsuit, there were no assets to seize. So most suits were quietly dropped. They'd only been meant to scare or silence us.

That's why the brutal, barbaric murders by fanatics at Charlie Hebdo magazine are so disturbing on so many levels. Charlie Hebdo had been fire-bombed once before, following the publication of an editorial cartoon said to depict the Prophet Muhammad. The magazine's editor, who was killed in the assault, already had 24-hour police protection. Four cartoonists were killed. As I write this, several more people were injured, some critically, so the death toll could climb higher still.

According to reports, witnesses said the masked gunmen opened fire during the editorial meeting, screaming that they had now "avenged the Prophet Muhammad!"

Leaders of every civilized nation on the planet, regardless of that nation's prevailing religious traditions, should swiftly, vigorously, and angrily condemn this cowardly attack. It is an assault on the freedom of speech and the core tenets of democracy. The demarcation line between civilization and bloody chaos blurs dangerously when something like this happens.

This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.

While we were proud of our exposés in The Wittenburg Door, where we made the most difference, I believe, was when we got people laughing at the pompous priests and pastors and politicians and para-church leaders who used Christianity to make a buck. Martin Luther, a fairly dour fellow himself, once said that what Satan hates most is to be laughed at. It's hard to take the pious pronouncements of a televangelist seriously if you're laughing at him.

But here's the key: It takes a mature religion to handle laughter. The Jews have had an extraordinarily grim history, but one of their greatest survival mechanisms is the ability to laugh both at their circumstances and at themselves.

Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain. Your targets must be the proud and the powerful. If you make fun of people less fortunate than you, even if it is for legitimate satiric effect, then it is not satire. It is bullying. Being a bully is never funny.

Satire, like folk music and freedom songs, works best when it is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

If Charlie Hebdo were to close because of this senseless, horrific massacre, then we're all lessened by its loss. The magazine stands for a lot more than just a few thousand subscribers and a few uncomfortable French politicians. It stands for the ability of humanity to transcend its darkest impulses.

If you are a believer and you believe that the God Who created the universe loves you, then I believe that you can probably conceive of a God who can handle humor, laughter, teasing, and -- yes -- satire. That's the description of a Big God. A little God gets easily offended by the chattering of minuscule bipeds on a backwater planet at the edge of an insignificant solar system in the quiet suburbs of a very, very big universe.

The ability to understand and appreciate satire, religious or political, is one of the defining, distinctive qualities of an actualized, fully functioning human being, one who is big enough to occasionally laugh at himself or herself, and one who knows that occasionally his or her sacred cow is going to get gored.

Anne Lamott calls laughter "carbonated holiness." There is such a thing as holy laughter, thank goodness.

There is such a thing as grace, too. God loves us. As my mentor Mike Yaconelli once wrote, "The grace of God is dangerous. It's lavish, excessive, outrageous, and scandalous. God's grace is ridiculously inclusive. Apparently God doesn't care who He loves. He is not very careful about the people He calls His friends or the people He calls His Church." Mike Yaconelli's God is a Big God.

If God loves us, we should love ourselves and we should love other people. Period. Full stop. People who kill and maim others do not love other people. They are placing themselves above God, choosing who will live and who will die. I'm not a scholar of comparative religions, but I'm pretty sure putting yourself above God is not found in the holy texts of any religion. If I could speak French, I would subscribe to Charlie Hebdo today. I may do it anyway. Right now, after the events in Paris, I could use a good laugh.

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Robert Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).