Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Short Review: 'God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire' by Terry Lindvall

I've always enjoyed satire, and especially nowadays I find myself watching a lot of political satire, trying to somehow make sense of this world. And in the middle of watching The Daily Show I realised that God Mocks was still patiently waiting on my Kindle bookshelf for me. So naturally I rushed to my Kindle and started reading Lindvall's fascinating history of religious satire, which spans from the Old Testament to Stephen Colbert, another favourite of mine. Thanks to NYU Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 13/11/2015
Publisher: NYU Press

In God Mocks, Terry Lindvall ventures into the muddy and dangerous realm of religious satire, chronicling its evolution from the biblical wit and humor of the Hebrew prophets through the Roman Era and the Middle Ages all the way up to the present. He takes the reader on a journey through the work of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain, and ending with the mediated entertainment of modern wags like Stephen Colbert.  
Lindvall finds that there is a method to the madness of these mockers: true satire, he argues, is at its heart moral outrage expressed in laughter. But there are remarkable differences in how these religious satirists express their outrage.The changing costumes of religious satirists fit their times. The earthy coarse language of Martin Luther and Sir Thomas More during the carnival spirit of the late medieval period was refined with the enlightened wit of Alexander Pope. The sacrilege of Monty Python does not translate well to the ironic voices of Soren Kierkegaard. The religious satirist does not even need to be part of the community of faith. All he needs is an eye and ear for the folly and chicanery of religious poseurs.  
To follow the paths of the satirist, writes Lindvall, is to encounter the odd and peculiar treasures who are God’s mouthpieces. In God Mocks, he offers an engaging look at their religious use of humor toward moral ends.
I have always considered myself Christian, partially because I grew up within Christianity but also because much of it rings true with me. But for me religion and faith are nothing without continuous questioning and self-examination, and I think satire is one of the key ways to do so. As such, it is not surprising that the Bible itself also engages in satire, something that I only truly became aware of while reading God Mocks. The Old Testament is full of prophets who low-key satirise their kings, ridiculing them to make them see their faults and flaws. God, according to Lindvall, is king at this kind of satire, hence the title of his book. And after reading God Mocks I could see exactly what he meant.

What I truly enjoyed was how Lindvall emphasises that the key aspect of satire is that the satirist cares. It is why I believe political satire has been thriving lately, on TV, in printing and on social media. People are starting to care more and more about politics again, recognising their role in it, satirising the political system to effect a change. Whether it's the British bemoaning Brexit, aware that their future is irrevocably tied to it, or Americans trumping Trump on Twitter, knowing his political ignorance affects their lives deeply, all of those who satirise care. Occasionally Lindvall himself seems to lose track of this, however, discussing the satire of non-believers. I see both the benefits and negatives of this, but Lindvall does try to find a balance between the two.

Lindvall is clearly interested in his own topic, which sounds like a given but is actually quite rare. I have read a lot of text books that not only bored me to death but also seemed to have bored the authors to distraction. So reading God Mocks was interesting and often entertaining. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to write about humour and not become aware of just how unfunny writing about humour really is. That is why explaining a joke makes everyone feel sad, it ruins the magic and leaves everyone a little bit disillusioned. However, Limdvall does his best and his wit often saves God Mocks from potentially becoming too dry. I especially enjoyed his last chapter on "modern day" religious satire, starting with Monty Python's Life of Brian, touching on The Onion and praising Colbert. Lindvall clearly researched his book well and writes with an ease that makes his subject seem far from drear. Nonetheless, this is probably not a book for everyone. Coming up to almost 400 pages, a prior interest in both religion and satire is pretty much a must.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Well-researched and cleverly written, God Mocks is a great look at religious satire, both old and new. Lindvall manages to make the topic consistently interesting, moving easily through history from one key period to another, tracing satire and religion side by side.

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