The tragic events of the past week have brought a most surprising subject front and center onto the world stage: comedy. In particular, comedy's impudent little sister "satire" has been much discussed, critiqued, displayed and marched for.
The awful massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has made us especially aware of the power humorous criticism can have. You could say, bottom line, the world was turned upside down as assassins brutally annihilated their arch nemesis - twelve cartoonists. That is almost a parody of itself.
On the other hand, of course, it's important to remember cultural differences here: in Islam, while, actually, much fun is poked at just about every other element of its culture and especially its most dangerous and humorless elements -- see the fascinating Laughter in the face of danger: the state of satire in the Muslim world -- a line is drawn at satirizing the Prophet Mohammed.
In the non-Islamic West, as surviving Charlie Hebdo staffers (and all who are Charlie Hebdo) decry, freedom of speech trumps everything, and the point of satire is to ridicule anything and everything corrupt (even if the lampooning that results is beyond objectionable). Something right now is lost in translation, and it will be interesting to see how the conversation continues to play out. And, hopefully, with humor!
What the present conversations also spur me to add, especially as some may be saying the problem is we all need to get a tougher skin and better sense of humor, the good news for those of us who embrace the Bible is…our sacred text is FULL opportunities to do just that, because it is full of satire!
There is lots of fun sharply (and, like the kind in Charlie Hebdo, grotesquely) poked at Israel's and Christianity's enemies. A personal favorite is the Book of Revelation’s Whore of Babylon (Rev. 17:3ff) who original readers would have recognized as a satire of Roma, the Goddess of The Eternal City (and hated Roman Empire). Roma is commonly portrayed either sitting atop a mighty warhorse or Rome’s seven hills, drinking wine from the cup of Victory. In the Bible, however, she's hideously atop a 7-headed beast that is the Devil, -- evil incarnate -- and she's sipping on the “lady juices” that result from many acts of copulation with seduced political partners. Yccch!
There are also plenty of sharp barbs self-poked at the Israelite (and Christian) people themselves. In fact, I would argue that the whole of the Bible is a satire! When you think about it, the Good Book tells the story of the Israelites and Christians, two small, oft beat-up, ridiculed, and scrappy groups of lowly people who somehow, with God's help, make it through. Compare that to the grand, glorious spectacle of effortless victory over the cosmos that you’d think a proper sacred story would proclaim (and we often try to make the Bible say because it sure sounds better!). It’s as if time and again the Bible lampoons our misguided and too-lofty notions about how the dance with God is supposed to go by depicting, chapter after chapter, how messy it all usually was. And is. (Much more about all of this to be written later....)
I'd like to here lift up one particular Biblical satire that seems to speak to the Charlie Hebdo situation.
I’m talking about the small but mighty (and mightily absurd) story often titled Elisha and the She-Bears. I know that sounds like the name of a singing group (like Josie and the Pussycats); however, the story of 2 Kings 2:23-26 is bizarrely revolting:
Elsewhere in 2 Kings Elisha is the most beloved of prophets. He heals the sick and miraculously produces food for the hungry, among other amazingly compassionate deeds. Some scholars say the gospels portray Jesus as “The New Elisha,” a title Jesus' followers would have happily embraced.
So why in the world is Elisha presented in 2 Kings 2:23-26 as a trigger-tempered, violent meanie who kills children over comparatively lame hair?
Literalists trying to make sense of this thing explain what we have here is a most cautionary tale about the dangers of criticizing God’s prophet (even and maybe especially when that prophet’s tresses are inadequate). Some will say this story shows just how aligned Elisha is to God, for in God’s name Elisha can bless (which he does in the story just previous) and curse (as he does here) with swift and utter effectiveness.
I know some find this story so offensive it’s caused them to angrily reject scripture, and the faith it promotes, altogether.
However, as Dr. David Marcus so compellingly suggests in his wonderful book, From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1995), this brief but pungent story could be…is…a satire written to ridicule over-the-top self-importance and judgmentalism some prophet or prophets had begun to exhibit sometime far after the stories of "nice Elisha" had come into circulation. “The satire… represent(s) a criticism of the abuse of prophetic power by a [prophet] who invoked an atrociously severe curse for a seemingly mild offense.” (Marcus, pp 64-5). Plopped into the middle of the other much-beloved stories of nice Elisha makes the point about present prophetic perversion even more pungent.
Mocking in an overly-offensive manner the ridiculous petulance and absolutism that had overtaken Israel’s prophets sounds like what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were doing and saying in their grotesque depictions of Islam’s greatest Prophet, Mohammed .
Chances are you, and just about everyone else who reads the Bible, never knew our sacred scripture contains some…a LOT of satire intended to make us laugh at our opponents but mostly at our deluded selves and leaders.
It seems to me before we go judging the humorlessness of another’s religion (which is certainly easy to do these days), we should acknowledge the assumptions of humorlessness we have about our own.
And then put on our Comic Lenses to enjoy…and be laughingly stung - by some nasty and nasty funny barbs.
Not only will that laughter make all the difference, but a lot more of the Bible will finally make sense.