The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka LDS Church, or Mormon church) has experienced its share of opposition and criticism over the years, from the Extermination Order issued by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1838, to the character assassinations of LDS leaders, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, to the portrayal of Mormons in films, such as September Dawn and The God Makers. Much of the criticism that has been levied against the LDS Church and its leaders has aimed at certain elements of the Church’s past, such as polygamy, the Church’s treatment of women and African Americans, and the origin of the Church’s sacred texts.
This two-part blog post will examine various forms of critical satire that have been posted in LDS-themed digital communities. The first post will examine the background of satire and its use as a form of critique more broadly, the second post will focus specifically on the use of critical satire in the context of LDS-themed digital communities. While the more fact-based, serious-toned criticism has had an impact on the way Mormonism is perceived, both by LDS members and non-members alike, the humorous, light-hearted, comical forms of criticism have also had an impact. This post will reveal and analyze some of these satirical forms of criticism and explain their significance in the broader context of Mormon culture.
Part I – The Use of Satire as a Form of Critique
The incongruity theory of humor states that people find things funny when there is “… an intellectual recognition of an absurd incongruity between conflicting ideas…”, or, “an incongruity between expectation and reality” (Bardon, 2005). This theory was espoused by the 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who believed that humans find pleasure in attempting to “reconcile an absurd conjunction of ideas” (Bardon). So, for example, when people laugh at those Geico commercials, in which a witty gecko speaks with an Australian accent, or a caveman laments his inability to cope with modern society, they are laughing because there is an incongruity between how geckos and cavemen are understood to behave and how they actually are behaving in the commercials.
A couple of years ago, while watching a YouTube clip of the late stand-up comedian, George Carlin, delivering a monologue on God and religion, a few questions came to mind. The part of the monologue that particularly interested me went as follows:
Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time… [Pause] But He loves you! [Audience erupts in laughter].
He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow, just can’t handle money… (Carlin, You are All Diseased).
Carlin presents the audience with several incongruities here: an invisible man watching over them, an entity that is willing to send them to a fiery, tortuous place to suffer forever also having love for them, an omniscient, omnipotent entity that, in spite of these qualities, has trouble managing finances, etc.
I have included only a brief snippet from Carlin’s monologue on religion, but he points out many more incongruities as he continues—occasionally pausing to accommodate the outbursts of laughter from a packed house at the Beacon Theater in New York.
To many people—those in the audience, for example—, the juxtaposition of these incongruent, seemingly mutually-exclusive elements is funny, but what does the laughter from these people actually mean? Does it mean that they suddenly agree with Carlin that religion is “bullshit”? Does it mean that the incongruity has been resolved by a sudden—if temporary—disavowal of hell? Or of God’s love? Or of God, altogether? Or are these people simply laughing at the incongruity itself, or at the specific way in which Carlin pointed out the incongruity? Did Carlin even believe in what he was saying, or was he just saying it for a laugh? Perhaps both? All of these questions led me to wonder about the power of humor and, more specifically, about the potential of humor as a tool for social transformations.
In Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy, Manhattan, there is a scene in which the main character, Ike (played by Allen), and a few of his friends, including Jerry and Helen, are gathered together at a black tie event in New York City. Ike mentions that he read in the paper that the Nazis are going to be holding a demonstration in New Jersey, and he suggests that they “get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to’em.” The next four lines of conversation go as follows:
Jerry: [Responding to Ike] There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op-ed page of the Times. It was devastating.
Ike: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point down there.
Helen: [Interrupting] Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.
Ike: But true physical force is always better with Nazis, uh… because it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots on.
Here, a very brief exchange pits humor against physical violence as the better method for accomplishing a social objective—namely, quashing a planned Nazi rally. Ike believes that physical violence is necessary, while Jerry and Helen seem to believe that humor would be much more effective in de-legitimizing the demonstration.
Humor has long been used as a weapon against rulers, religious figures, and institutions. As far back as the 5th century BC, the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, was satirizing traditional conceptions of religion in his plays. In the 16th century, reformers, such as Martin Luther, and their followers used woodcuts, copper engravings, and the printing press to create and disseminate cartoons (like the one pictured to the left)
that challenged the legitimacy of the Catholic Church and its leaders. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cartoonists, columnists, and authors used religion as a source for much of their satire. In Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain, for example, the following passage can be found in the first chapter:
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.
People who read and think about this passage can probably see the incongruity that Twain hints at here: we exist in a world of the living, where the issues and concerns that arise affect those who are alive here and now. What import should the words of a man who has been dead for thousands of years have in the world of today, with its own unique problems and perspectives and ways of doing things? Here, Twain uses humor to make the point that Moses—and probably the entire bible, as well—have little practical use in a world that is always living—always in flux. Twain adds to the incongruity by using a young boy, who is expected to be an obedient, faithful, unquestioning Christian, to make this point. The fact that the novel, Huckleberry Finn was considered to be controversial—even to the point where it was banned in many places in the United States for (among other things) its irreverence towards religion—is itself a testament to the power of satire.
Sometimes, humor, by itself, is enough to launch a successful challenge against dominant regimes and authority structures; other times, it serves as a tool that is used in conjunction with protests and larger social movements. Images, stories, and objects are often appropriated in humorous ways by those actively working for change, as well as by those who simply wish to point out societal and institutional incongruities that upset or confuse them. For example, the image of George W. Bush (below) is an amalgamation of an image of Bush and an image of Hitler. The image is, of course, an incongruity because Hitler and Bush are two different people; the creator of this image understands that nobody who sees the image actually believes that Bush is Hitler, but by creating an incongruity—by making Bush appear to look like Hitler (but not too much like Hitler)—the creator of the image invokes the concepts associated with Hitler (evil, oppression, war, fascism, etc.) and imposes them on the character of Bush. The incongruity that is experienced by initially seeing Bush appear to look like Hitler is resolved when one understands that the image’s creator is suggesting that we also take Bush to be an evil, oppressive, warmonger.
One of the primary reasons humor can be an effective means of challenging authority is that it causes its intended targets to appear bad, weak, and/or foolish. By exposing the weaknesses, flaws, and incongruities of people and institutions, humor is able to raise questions and instigate discourse that openly challenge the legitimacy of those people and institutions. Sometimes, the knowledge of the incongruities that have been exposed becomes so widespread that the target of the humor is forced to change, or make concessions, or, in some other way, address the situation. For this reason, many political and religious leaders—as well as institutions—have prohibited (and continue to prohibit) the use of any form of satire that could place them in a negative light, or in an awkward, or potentially compromising situation.
The Nazi regime was very aware of the power of humor to threaten its legitimacy. Under the rule of Hitler, “…jokes were taken so seriously as a threat that telling anti-Nazi or ‘defeatist’ jokes was a capital crime” (Greenstein & Holland). Joseph Müller, a German Catholic priest who was openly critical of the Nazis, was executed by guillotine in 1944 for repeatedly telling the following joke:
“A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant one final wish, ‘Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side. That way I can die like Jesus, between two thieves’.”
The Soviet regime also took any political humor aimed against it very seriously. During Stalin’s reign, Article 58 of the criminal code—which dealt with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda—made the telling of any jokes critical of the regime punishable by anywhere from 10 years in a prison camp to execution (Zlobin). Soviet leaders were so afraid of humor that “there was even a joke about the regime’s fear of jokes.” It went as follows, “The Soviets held a secret contest for the best joke. First prize was twenty-five years in jail, second was twenty years, and third was fifteen. For jokes about Lenin, the grand prize was execution” (Zlobin, 223).
Religious leaders are also aware of critical humor’s ability to challenge their authority. Mormon leaders have often repeated the phrase, “Don’t speak ill of your Church leaders”, or, “Don’t speak ill of the Lord’s anointed.” Dallin H. Oaks, one of the LDS Church’s, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, has even gone so far as to say, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord” (“The Mormons” PBS Documentary). The late Harold B. Lee, who served as the President and Prophet of the LDS Church, once said to the members of the Church:
“…those who criticize the leaders of this Church are showing signs of a spiritual sickness which, unless curbed, will bring about eventually spiritual death. I want to bear my testimony as well that those who in public seek by their criticism to belittle our leaders or bring them into disrepute, will bring upon themselves more hurt than upon those whom they sing to malign.”
In an article entitled, “A Serious Look at Humor” from the August 1974 edition of New Era, an LDS Church publication, LDS author, Peter B. Rawlins, wrote about how those with a “warped” sense of humor could lose their place in the Kingdom of God:
“To avoid using humor as a dangerous weapon, we must be compassionately considerate of all that is frail, and humbly mindful of all that is sublime. Would it not be better to ‘lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees’ than to humiliate and disgrace one of our neighbors? When humor is such a powerful tool in building subtle bonds of brotherhood, in cheering those who suffer, and in teaching profound and memorable lessons, why should it be used to belittle and discourage? Those who profess belief in Christ should shape their humor in the light of Christ’s teachings. Being rejected from His kingdom because of a warped sense of humor would not be funny.”
In the second part of this two-part post, I will examine a number of examples of satire within a Mormon context, more specifically, I will examine how certain elements of Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine are being reappropriated in humorous ways in LDS-themed digital communities by those who seek to challenge and critique mainstream Mormonism.