On Writing: Religion and satire

In 14th-century England, some towns celebrated the summer feast of Corpus Christi with plays dramatizing stories from the Bible. One such play, the York Crucifixion, has Christ suffering humiliation at the hands of a medieval Three Stooges, a group of bumbling Roman soldiers whose comical incompetence only increases Christ’s suffering.


The anonymous playwright—known only as the “York Realist”—was almost certainly a priest, but the play’s slapstick representation of the crucifixion would no doubt strike modern audiences as sacrilegious.

Medieval audiences don’t seem to have had any problem seeing sacred subjects treated comically. I suspect that for them faith provided an understanding of the cosmos that was comprehensive and all-embracing and which explained all human behavior, our sometimes outrageous sense of humor as well as our capacity for acting like morons, even in the face of the divine.

Modern faith is, sad to say, a lesser thing. We’ve sequestered it behind doors labeled “morality” and “spirituality” and “dogma.” Having lost touch with the beauty and mystery of everyday life, religion has become so limited and defensive that it can’t laugh at itself any more. It can’t reflect on its many shortcomings with openness and humor, as if it’s afraid that in doing so it will lose credibility. (Indeed, it’s his humor and openness, as much as anything else, that make Pope Francis such a transformational leader.)

The tragedy at Charlie Hebdo raises these issues because it’s not just Muslim extremists who consider Charlie Hebdo evil; I’ve heard otherwise rational people say so, too. So I think it needs to be heartily asserted:

Charlie Hebdo is not evil.

However irreverent and offensive the satire, the staff writers and cartoonists were not hurting people. They were making fun of people, and they were murdered for it. The notion that their satire is evil is what motivated religious extremists to kill them.

But it’s not just the defensiveness of modern religion that makes such satire offensive. In part that’s the job of satire, to offend. When it rubs up against our own beliefs, we can easily forget how satire works. Satirical cartoons of Mohammed or of Christ aren’t meant to satirize those revered religious figures (what good would that be?); rather, such images lampoon those who misuse their respective religions to justify behaviors that are hypocritical and irreligious.

And don’t we all know Muslims and Christians like that? And Jews and Buddhists, too? And atheists and environmentalists and conservatives and liberals—you get the drift: anyone who puts ideology and doctrine above all else.

I know people like that. Sometimes I just want to haul off and slap them.

But I can’t slap them, because that’s against the law. And that’s why we have satire.

Satire uses ridicule to punish bad behavior that isn’t actually criminal. It’s not against the law to be a jerk. (If it were, we’d all be behind bars. As Hamlet says, use every man after his dessert, and who shall escape whipping?)

But for bad behavior that’s not against the law, we have a punishment that’s not against the law: ridicule. Satire is the punishment commensurate with the crime. Whenever we take ourselves and our ideas too seriously, we probably need a good satirical slap in the face.

Are you being hypocritical and showing off your religious piety? Get thee to the satirist. Are you a member of an exclusively same-sex clergy who decries the evils of same-sex marriage? Go see your local satirist. Are you a glad-handing corporate yes-man instead of a real shepherd to your flock? To the satirist, go.

And are you a little too fond of quoting Shakespeare or whipping out your knowledge of Medieval literature? Go, quickly. Please.

The relationship between satire and religion is hinted at in the last novel by our greatest American satirist, Mark Twain. “The Mysterious Stranger” tells a story about a group of boys in late fifteenth-century Austria who meet a stranger named Satan, who claims to be the devil’s nephew. It’s a bleak novel, uncharacteristic of the Twain we all know, but one passage reminds us of the satirist and humorist in Twain: Satan is afraid of laughter.

Whether this Satan is who he says or is really the devil himself, he has supernatural powers and exercises complete control throughout the story, but he has no control over laughter, which literally scares the hell out of him. The story’s black ending suggests that Satan’s wiliest ploy is to sink us so deep inside our individual psyches that we’re unable to laugh together about ourselves, beyond reach of the laughter that would save us from being damned.

Satire isn’t the enemy of religion; it’s one of its greatest allies. It’s the most religious of literary genres, because it’s the most hopeful. Unlike straight comedy, which assumes that human beings are irremediably laughable, satire aims at those foibles we can actually remedy. In making fun of our hypocrisies and pieties, our presumptions and prejudices and pretensions, satire assumes that we can change. We can stop being jerks. We can be better people. We can maybe even be better children of God, if only we can laugh at how stupid we sometimes look.


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