The Wittenburg Door (WD) has been poking fun at Christendom’s quirks since 1971, and they’re still going strong. Well, they’re still going. They describe themselves as “The World’s Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine,” a rather pompous claim for such a sophomoric bunch. Nevertheless, they’ve blazed a trail into the once hallowed halls of evangelicalism, leaving sacred cows toppled and toplofty televangelists deflated. Robert Darden is Associate Professor of Journalism at Baylor University and Senior Editor of the Wittenburg Door, a position he’s held since 1988. After subjecting him to a barrage of bad jokes and discount party gags, Robert relented and answered some questions for the ever-uncouth outfit at Decompose.
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MIKE: Has The Wittenburg Door been officially banned anywhere that you know of?
ROBERT: We’ve been banned in a number of seminaries through the years, although at a few — even until this day — we’re available by asking the librarian privately. Sort of like Playboy.
Probably our biggest “banning” came when about seven years ago we were effectively banned from all Christian bookstores by a single complaint. This was the famed “Gospel According to Beavis and Butthead” issue (the first of the “Gospel According to …” articles/books, BTW, save for “The Gospel According to Peanuts.”) and it was fairly innocuous. Turns out the boys talk a lot about the difference between religion and false religion … fairly accurately, I might add.
Anyway, a single customer in Virginia complained to the bookstore owner, who contacted the SOLE magazine distributor for all Christian bookstores, Spring Arbor. Spring Arbor promptly banned us and no amount of pleading by some of the best-known conservative evangelicals and publishers in this country have ever turned their hardened hearts. You can get us in Borders, but not the Family Bookstores.
MIKE: The magazine was first published way back in 1971. Other than kegs of formaldehyde and extensive plastic surgery, to what do you attribute its tenure and longevity?
ROBERT: The Wittenburg Door has never been a best-seller, we’ve never been fashionable, we’ve never done any advertising, and we’ve accepted precious little advertising (we generally discourage publishers from buying ads with us) — therefore, it has to be a God thing. We’ve had some lovely financial “angels” through the years who — alas — have asked that they not be recognized and who have given generously to The Door. Generally speaking, we’ve survived because:
1. We’re cheap to produce. Everybody’s a volunteer but me, and I’m on an extraordinarily generous stipend (never, never bite the hand that feeds you, boys and girls).
2. We fill a market niche — thinking Christians with a sense of humor — a small niche, to be sure, but a niche.
MIKE: The Door’s subtitled “The World’s Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine.” “Religious satire” seems like an oxymoron. Why is that?
ROBERT: Christians worldwide are known for their lack of humor and joy. In some cultures, the word Christian means “someone stern, with no sense of humor.” Some say that the 11 a.m. Sunday hour is the most segregated hour in America. That’s true — but it is also the most DOUR hour in America each week. Why? It’s a complete misreading of scripture, one begun by the Puritans, and continued today by a host of fundamentalist religious leaders, authors, talk show hosts, and pastors. It’s not in their interest for people to have the joy that passes all understanding in their lives. It’s in their interest to keep people frightened of imaginary bogey-men and contrived issues so they’ll give more money. “Religious satire” is NOT an oxymoron. “The modern American version of Christianity” is an oxymoron. True Christianity deals in the JOY of the life we have from the resurrected Christ.
MIKE: Do the folks at WD dislike televangelists?
ROBERT: We dislike what they do to people. The Door is published by the Trinity Foundation, a group that ministers to the homeless in Dallas. Many of the people who come to Trinity are homeless because they’ve given all their money to predatory televangelists. Studies have shown that they all prey on the same pool of 7-9 million people, mostly poor, minority women. This is despicable. Do we dislike them? I can’t speak for the other folks at Trinity, but I would have liked to gone and had a root beer or two with the late Dr. Gene Scott.
MIKE: The Door pokes fun at a lot of things that are held sacred. Are any subjects out of bounds for you guys? I mean, at what point does humor –“ primarily religious satire — cross the line, become inappropriate, even blasphemous?
ROBERT: A lot of things are out of bounds to us. Each article is vetted by a board of independent readers just to insure that it is not blasphemous. We don’t do Jesus on the cross jokes. We don’t mess with the Holy Spirit much. We don’t do a lot of humor regarding other faith traditions, in part because we don’t know much about them and don’t know where that line is. Blasphemy is like racism or sexism — only the person who is offended gets to determine whether it is or is not. Not the writer/speaker. Hard to say. We’re about 95% freelance written, so I see a cafeteria of options every day. For me personally, I’m particularly interested in the intersection between church and state, when a single group or party co-ops a religion and claims to have God’s blessing on whatever it is that they want to do politically.
MIKE: Is Ned Flanders — and caricatures like him — good for Christendom?
ROBERT: Ned is neither good nor bad. If he is an accurate reflection of American Christianity, then he should serve as a cautionary example to all of us. I think Lisa is the “best” Christian on the show.
MIKE: Over the years, The Door has spotlighted a unique assemblage of Christian paraphernalia, ads and novelties. Based on your extensive research, what items stand out as superior Jesus junk and would be first inducted into the Truth is Stranger than Fiction Hall of Fame?
ROBERT: Oh, goodness. I couldn’t possibly answer that one. Each week I’m stunned and appalled by yet more pieces of tasteless religious trash. All of these things seek to use Jesus to make a buck. There is no depth to which “Christian” marketers and retailers will not sink. Shame on us for not boycotting these items — and the stores that sell them. It’s getting harder and harder to be an honest, hard-working Christian satirist these days when people are working overtime to create stuff that’s worse than we ever could dream up.
MIKE: Tell me about your new book and what prompted you to write it.
ROBERT: My latest book, Reluctant Prophets and Clueless Disciples: Understanding the Bible by Reading Its Stories (Abingdon), came about because of my classes at Baylor University. In recent years, I’ve been preaching the “gospel” of story more and more. I began to realize the importance of story-telling as perhaps the crucial element of education. You may or may not remember what facts or figures a professor (or preacher) said or wrote on a board 20 years ago, but somehow you tend to remember their stories. I know I do. So I began investigating the concept of “story” on a deeper level and discovered, among other things, that the Bible is more than half story and parables.
Meanwhile, I’d been in discussion with the folks at Abingdon about a book and they encouraged me to follow through — looking at the Bible not from a theological or historical standpoint (thank God!), but from the story-teller’s point of view. What are the storytellers trying to tell us by what they included or left out? By their choice of point of view? By their choices in narration.
Second, Abingdon wanted something that was fresh enough, edgy enough that would appeal to someone who had never read the Bible while growing up and make them want to read the real thing, as well as intriguing enough to help people who’d read it so much that some of the most familiar stories were like white noise to see these stories through fresh eyes. I know — tall order. Fortunately, they said I could go about it using humor, which is the great leveler.
In the end, I had a ball. The book is doing so well that they’ve asked me to write another — one with the working title of Holy Foolishness: The Redemptive Power of Humor. And hey! I KNOW from foolishness . . .
MIKE: What plans do you have for The Wittenburg Door? Anything your readers can look forward to in the near future?
ROBERT: More of the same hijinks, hilarity, jaw-slapping, thigh-dropping combination of religious humor and satire that our literally dozens of friends worldwide have come to expect and demand. Also we’ll probably get more into this whole “content provider” thingee for various of the new media. Or so I’m told.
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Terrific stuff, Robert! For a group that selected Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Theologian of the Year and interviewed Satan, you guys ain’t all that bad. And folks, if you haven’t already, check out the WD online site which contains a massive archive of insightful interviews and semi-articulate commentary.Thanks again Robert!