Christian Satirist Tired of Fast Food Faith
Becky Garrison is fed up with pop-culture Christianity. She contends that humor enables her to trek on through the circus of sycophantic religion that is so prevelant today.
Becky invites us all to laugh at some of the Christian lifestyles and traditions she observed on her travels from the US to the Holy Land in her most recent book, Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ (Zondervan, 2010).
I caught up with Becky and asked her to share a little bit about herself and her perspective on Christian faith and culture.
So what’s the life of a full-time satirist like anyway?
Since the demise of The Wittenburg Door at the end of 2006, I’ve been moving away from jokey type humor. Let’s face it, how many times can one pen goofy bits like “top signs you aren’t going to be ordained” or “The Bible According to [Insert name of the latest politician or pastor who got caught with his pants down]” before one goes on autopilot and starts to dial it in?
I still conduct interviews both for a podcast I did for Jesus Died For This? and interested media outlets, as well as writing non-satirical pieces as requested. Recently, I’ve been exploring the role of the writer as storyteller and different ways one can use technology (e.g., print, web, podcast, You Tube) to convey stories.
I talk about this transition in a bit more detail in an Iconocast podcast that I did with co-hosts Mark and Sarah.
Also, like every other creative, I’m still reeling post-financial crisis regarding how to proceed in the rapidly changing publishing world. I’ve been chatting with a range of creative types including Nicholas Fielder, Ed Cyzewski, Joan Ball, Caleb Seeling, and Spencer Burke, as well as exploring via workshops how we can all communicate theological change without becoming a crass marketing machine.
Currently, I’m embarking on a long-term listening tour where I’m trying to explore other ways of communicating about my work without falling into the Christian branding BS that I deconstruct in Jesus Died For This?. In 2008, Andrew Jones declared the Christian carnival over and it’s crystal clear that author/speaker model is no longer sustainable especially given this current financial climate.
I reflect in a video I did with Travis Reed for Alter Video Magazine how it breaks my heart when Christian leaders won’t say what’s on their heart out of fear for losing street cred and book sales. Once the focus shifts to crafting a message that’s memorable and marketable, a writer may be rich (see Joel Osteen) but in the process, they lost whatever original voice they had that drew people to them in the first place.
In addition to talking up the themes I raise in Jesus Died for This?, I’m connecting with Episcopal folks about my book Starting from Zero with O$ (Seabury Books, 2010), researching another book for Church Publishing and some other projects. Also, I’m gleaning ideas regarding where the global spirit is heading moving forward so my work can accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground.
Why did you write this book? What is different about your critique of Christianity in today’s society?
I explore this over at Religion Dispatches for those looking for more detail on this topic. In a nutshell, over the past few years, I’ve had a rather unique window into what religion scholar Phyllis Tickle terms the Great Emergence, a period of massive societal upheaval impacting technology, science, politics, religion, and the global culture at large. So decided to chronicle my travels to help others navigate this sea change so that we all don’t become seasick, spiritually speaking.
The unique lens I take to all my work is that I have a satirical world view – humor became my saving grace that helped me to survive as my nuclear family slowly deteriorated and then detonated. I view life as a tragic comedy but in the end, I see the glass as half-filled with hope instead of half-empty dripped in despair.
What have you learned most from emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Andrew Jones, etc.?
I chose Andrew Jones and Jonny Baker as the two expert guides during those times in the book when I’m exploring new forms of church. In reading their blogs and then traveling with them to places like Greenbelt and Slot, I’ve observed how they both have a global perspective that far transcends the commercialized US evangelical/emergent model that dominates the discussion here in the States.
Jonny and Andrew like most of the practitioners I meet don’t pimp themselves on the unbiblically branded author/speaker circuit claiming to be experts. Instead, they look for more horizontal approaches that enable all to have a voice in this ongoing global conversation. Take for example, Proost UK, an artists collective co-founded by Jonny Baker, Jon Birch and Aad Vermeyden that highlights the works of a range of artistic communities instead of elevating a few misisonal males as religious rock stars.
In your book, you say N.T. Wright should be “savored and sipped.” Can you explain? Why should the church listen to this preeminent New Testament scholar?
When I was at Soularize 2007 listening to N.T. Wright deliver some lectures, I found it amusing how this bevy of bloggers had their eyes glued to their laptop screens and their fingers going so fast that they seemed to be on autopilot. They were so busy trying to blog about what NT Wright was saying that they didn’t seem to have any time to contemplate his message and how they could apply his teachings to their ministries. I’m a writer, so I get the need to record what’s happening. But when I get too narrowly focused on note taking, I tend miss the larger story that’s happening around me.
In NT. Wright, the church has an international treasure. Like C.S.. Lewis, he’s one of those rare academics who can write both for the academy and the person in the pew. Unlike most Christian author/speakers, he doesn’t dial it in by continuing to repackage the same idea ad infinitum (or until people catch wind of this ungodly game and quit buying their product). While one will find the threads of Anglican theology woven through his work, each book either presents new ideas or revised spins on his earlier works.
Check out Wright’s ongoing debates with fellow theologian Marcus Borg for an excellent example of how two scholars with an Anglican backgrounds can engage in rigorous scholarly debates without resorting to the mean spiritedness that all too often dominates today’s blog battles. Even when Wright takes on taking on the far more crankier John Piper in his book Justification, he rises above this Reformed rancor and presents the most compelling refutation of Piper that I’ve seen to date.
You shared a few personal things about your dad in this book. What would you say to others who have been let down by spiritual leaders?
I tell bits of my story and will continue to share as appropriate so that others can realize they are not alone when they find themselves emerging from faith fights feeling more bloodied than biblical. I had done a lot of recovery work relating to growing up as an adult child of an alcoholic but Jesus Died for This? marked the first time I really explored the dark side of my father’s ministry as an Episcopal priest and sociology professor.
In the beginning, his charismatic personality drew others to him as he championed for civil rights in the Deep South circa 1950s. His ministry with young adults dovetailed with his sociological research exploring why students were drawn to fringe groups like the Jesus People or Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Unfortunately, his narcissism natures coupled with his alcoholism created a cult of personality that ran roughshod over the Gospel. Armed with this self-awareness, I can see a pattern in my life where I’ve been drawn to helping narcissistic geniuses who are filled with potential and promise.
I share in my book how I need to learn to walk away when their talk of “community” sounds more self-centered than Christlike. My hope is that others will learn to do likewise and like me discover find healthier spiritual places to play.
What signs of the “Risen Christ” do you believe are most evident today? What encourages you to press on in Christ through the church?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt connected to the divine whenever I’m exploring nature albeit hiking, fly-fishing, sailing, or kayaking. However, it wasn’t until I actually set foot on Irish soil I found my spiritual home in Celtic Christianity. Towards the end of the book, I describe how I went out west and finally connected with Kurt Neilson, my pilgrim guide for my ongoing pilgrimage and his partner in Celtic crime Karen Ward. In the Pacific Northwest, I discovered the same thin line imagery that connects this world to the next that I encountered in Ireland.
As I continue my travels, I keep meeting other souls from around the world, many of whom might not call themselves Christian for a host of very legitimate reasons. But we can still meet in this thin space as we all seek to make some kind of a spiritual connection outside of ourselves.
As I document throughout the book, once one steps away from Americana Branded™ Christianity, one can find ample signs that the spirit is alive and kicking.
“So I’d encourage folks to stop consuming fast food faith and embark on their own pilgrimage to see where the spirit might be speaking to them.”
What’s next for Becky Garrison? Any upcoming projects? What’s on your mind?
I share some of my reflections regarding possible future projects on Religion Dispatches. Jesus Died for This? marks the end of my critique of the US evangelicalism/emergent scene. I’ve said all I care to say about a form of a historical Christianity that keeps chasing after the next new shiny theological toy. All signs indicate that publishers latest quests to rebrand emergent as organic, missional, outlaw preacher, holy hipster and the like are repelling far more folks than they’re attracting.
Over the past few years I’ve been writing for more secular markets such as Killing the Buddha, The Revealer, Religion Dispatches and On Faith. These ventures broaden my perspective considerably as I continue to explore ways to critique Christian Reconstructionism and other bastardizations of the faith without resorting to the Nazi-name calling between religious progressives and conservatives that has come to define faith-based politics.
And speaking from my own faith tradition, how can the teachings of Christ offer hope in a world dominated by religious leaders spouting forth a fear based rhetoric? Along those lines, I’m interested in connecting with this growing number of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as we seek out ways to create spaces where religious progressives and humanists can come together to explore what we have in common with our shared humanity.
Becky Garrison is a Contributing Editor for Sojourners. Her books include The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church. Her additional writing credits include work for The Wittenburg Door, Geez, Killing the Buddha, and Religion Dispatches, as well as various other odd and sundry publications.
Learn more about Becky @ www.beckygarrison.com