Of all the things you'd expect to fall out a window, a foreskin might not immediately come to mind. Yet there it was, young Tristram Shandy's unceremonious circumcision landing with a slap against the cold ground outside his family's house. Young Tristram had only been trying to relieve himself in the absence of a chamber pot, but when the window fell it did the job that no doctor had done before.
It might surprise you to know that this scene, which comes from the book named for its protagonist, was written by an Anglican clergyman, Laurence Sterne. Then again, it might not—it's quite a famous book, and it wouldn't be the first time a religious leader had allowed himself to make bawdy jokes. But the joke of Tristram Shandy goes beyond accidental bodily separations and coalesces into a broader, more thorough satire that seeks to ridicule the solemn and the self-important—to puncture basic notions of human dignity. Ridicule of the sort that brings us Shandy's foreskin isn't just meant to bring levity to the story—it is the story itself.
Mockery has a long and rich history in the Christian faith, and Terry Lindvall, C.S. Lewis Professor of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College, chronicles the most important moments and characters in his latest book, God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire From the Hebrew Prophets to Steven Colbert. As Lindvall observes, some of the earliest recorded instances of mockery show up in the Old Testament, when the prophets try to goad God's people into moral righteousness by holding a mirror up to their bad behavior. The prophet Isaiah devotes a paragraph to describing how humans construct their own idols: "Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human." The prophet Hosea is instructed by God to marry a promiscuous woman named Gomer to illustrate how God loves even those who are unfaithful to him. Thousands of years later, Jesus tells his followers that it is easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. God mocks, all right—and it is we who are the butt of the joke.
Godly laughter is a complex thing, and one can see why it would have terrified some early Christians, or at least have seemed unbecoming.
While the book does not make a cohesive argument about why satire is a fundamentally valuable religious tool, God Mocks argues convincingly that satire and Christianity share a fundamental worldview. "Both satire and Christianity believe strongly in the fallen nature of man," Lindvall writes. But the similarities don't stop there—the satirist would quickly retire if fallenness was the end of the story. In some ways, satire operates out of the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Satirists may not be offering their son for the sins of the world, but they hone their craft out of a sense of love for the world. Otherwise, why bother to change it? On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of satire that exist as an end in itself, an act of righteous raillery. Satirists may act out of love of the world, but they can also be scoffers with no real deeper motive.
Throughout Western history, the most well-regarded satire, from the prophet Elijah to Jonathan Swift to Stephen Colbert, has come from religious people whose purpose has been the reform of a society that has drifted too far from God. In A Modest Proposal—a famous satirical essay published in 1729—Swift's "Projector" suggests that the poor of Ireland ought to sell their children as food for the wealthy. Elijah asked adherents of the god Baal why their god had skipped a crucial confrontation: "What's wrong? Is he on vacation? Is he taking a nap or out relieving himself?"
And Stephen Colbert has built a persona—and a career—playing a pompous blowhard whose knee-jerk patriotism sidesteps truth in favor of "truthiness." Such men are beloved for their ability to tell the truth by speaking its opposite. One of the reasons so many people mourned the end of Colbert's "character" is that it meant the loss of the sharp insight his satire made possible. "[I]n his sly execution of the conceit, Colbert is pushing [celebrities] toward something more real than if he'd played it straight," Joel Lovell wrote in a Colbert profile in GQ—"difficult questions of ego and fame." As Lindvall points out, Colbert played a time-tested role—that of the holy fool—to show that God "chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise." He is the nation's favorite Sunday school teacher, but he's nothing like Mr. Rogers. How does that happen?
Satire is an ideal vehicle to express an agenda of spiritual reform, and when it is done well it always implicates the person who is speaking. Part of the power of Tristram Shandy, once the reader can get beyond the fact that it really is a book about nothing, is that Sterne knows he belongs to a society that indulges in endless navel-gazing and absurd digressions. He doesn't place himself outside the text, which is part of its great success and one of the reasons it was praised by the likes of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. (It was just chosen to be Slate Academy's book of the year, proving once again that good religious satire is timeless.)
All satire exists in the gap between what ought to be and what is, and therefore remains a powerful skewer against the shortcomings of an all-too-human church. "The hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel to touch them year after year without some mitigating influence, some kindly veil to draw over them," Mark Twain wrote in a 1905 New York Times essay. It's the opposite of what Flannery O'Connor talked about when she said "you have to make your vision apparent by shock; to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures." Satirists, to be effective, must implicate themselves in their work; novelists have no such imperative. O'Connor wanted to get her point across; the satirist, according to Jonathan Swift, creates a "glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own."
If satire and Christianity are both rooted in the belief that humankind has fallen from grace, we can see why they make excellent bedfellows. It was during a church dispute that Laurence Sterne first tried his hand at satire; when the resulting pamphlet was a success, he gave up his pulpit and devoted himself to writing Tristram Shandy. What Lindvall never gets around to dissecting—and what I would have liked to see more of—is the meaning of God's own tendency to mock. When religious leaders engage in satire now, they are carrying God's mantle straight out of Proverbs 2, where we read that “God mocks proud mockers.” In Psalm 2, the “kings of the earth” set themselves against God, but God isn’t having it: “He who sits in heaven laughs; the LORD has them in derision.” Things don’t get much better from there.
God's laughter, it turns out, is not the gentle, good-natured chuckle of a friend. It is the laugh of someone who knows the whole story; someone who knows that in the end, everyone will be held to account and justice will prevail. God's laugh is simultaneously comforting in its assurance of equanimity and also terrifying—because surely I am not perfect? Mark Twain said that it wasn't the things he didn't understand in the Bible that bothered him—it was the things he did understand. That makes sense for the satirist, who often sees with clearer eyes than the rest of us. God is the one satirist Lindvall never quite gets around to analyzing, and the book suffers for it.
Lindvall places mockers and rabble-rousers on a "Quad of Satire." Its horizontal axis plots ridicule vs. moral purpose, while its vertical axis plots the slide between humor and rage. It's a useful tool for understanding the different tactics and aims of satirists through the ages: Someone like Voltaire, who relied heavily on a picaresque trope in Candide, would fall closer to the "ridicule" end of the spectrum, while Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard would end up almost all the way on the "moral purpose" side. Geoffrey Chaucer would rank high in humor, as would Monty Python; the Biblical Paul would be a little further down toward "rage." The Quad of Satire demonstrates graphically that satire is as varied as the people who employ it, and religious satire can come as a wailing and gnashing of teeth, or as uproarious laughter. God uses humor, and humorists use God.
Godly laughter is a complex thing, and one can see why it would have terrified some early Christians, or at least have seemed unbecoming. Satirists act as alchemists when they take up the worst of what society produces and refine it into something good. The ultimate act of laughter in the Bible comes from the book of First Corinthians, when God mocks death: "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
Tristram Shandy rails against learning without wisdom. Proverbs 4:7 offers the same warning: "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding." God Mocks doesn’t offer a comprehensive theory of why satire is theologically valuable; instead, Lindvall's piecemeal approach to historical satire leaves the reader wondering what unites these characters, other than sharp words and a sense of humor.
But there is one thing we can all agree on: Tristram should have waited for the chamber pot.