You Got to Be Kidding! The Cultural Arsonist’s Satirical Reading of the Bible, Dr. Joe Wenke (2012)
I love satire. Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain are among my favorite authors. I used to read Punch religiously (Miles Kington’s “Let’s Parlez Franglais” was always good for a giggle). South Park is on heavy rotation on my internet, and I cherish films like Dogma and M.A.S.H.
When it comes to analyses of God, the Bible and all things religious, you can’t beat Julian Barnes’ History of the World in 10½ Chapters or Jack Miles’ God: A Biography. Barnes’ chapter on Noah’s Ark is the funniest thing I’ve ever read, even funnier than Eric Kraft (and that’s saying something), and Miles’ analysis of God as a character, with a character arc, made me see the Old Testament in a new light.
So, I had high expectations for Dr. Wenke’s book.
Wenke, raised in a strict Catholic family, writes as an insider who has abandoned his religious heritage to consider the messages behind the book on which that heritage is based. His goal, as stated in the afterword, is to “expose the absurdity of the Bible.” He examines the Old and New Testaments, zeroing in on whatever strikes him as ridiculous, contradictory, inconsistent or just plain silly, using humor and profanity to skewer familiar and not so familiar Bible stories. Through Wenke’s eyes, the OT message is pitiless, violent, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ. For a short section of the NT, a kinder, gentler Supreme Being is in charge. Then Paul comes along, and yanks us back into a pitiless, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ world.
There’s no denying that this book has funny moments. Wenke’s questions result from reading literally, something he’s clearly implying is an inappropriate approach to Bible study. For instance, in Job, “the sons of God come to present themselves to the Lord.” Wenke wonders, “Who were these sons of God? Where did they come from? … I also want to know who their mother is.” At other places, he riffs on logical implications: we know very little about the Baby Jesus, so he asks what the infant’s first words might have been. “Did he say mama or dada, and if it was dada, whom was he referring to?” The humor and the brief chapters make this a fast read – good for the beach, but not for a long plane ride.
But overall, this book wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. It’s fairly easy to score points off religious texts, but then the underlying meanings and importance of the text are ignored in a mad dash to get to the next funny bit. Wenke skims over issues that deserve greater thought. In his chapter on Job, for instance, Wenke notes the existential issues raised by the story of this much ill-treated man: “why human beings suffer, why bad things happen to good people and why there’s evil in the world.” Then he drops it and moves on. I realize Wenke’s purpose is not to be deeply philosophical, yet I wanted to know his assessment of Job’s sufferings, of Paul’s conversion from “persecutor to proselytizer,” and of the frequent mass killings (of animals and plants, as well as people) in the OT, which Wenke covers extensively. If such a text should not be read literally, then what’s its purpose?
I suspect, and I’d bet Wenke feels the same, the purpose of reading the Bible is not to search for every inconsistency (of which there are bound to be plenty, given the number of authors, the time span over which it was composed, the translation issues, and the arguments about which books even to include), but rather to get us talking about the ideas behind the stories.
Which leads to this book’s other problem: it is only preaching to the choir. Those who agree with Wenke will read this and laugh. Those he hopes to challenge won’t read it, just as they most likely will never read his articles in the Huffington Post. Conversing across the great divide will happen only when each side starts writing for a readership on the other side. I’m certain that putting “Cultural Arsonist” and “Satirical Reading” into the title (and sprinkling lots of Anglo-Saxon epithets throughout) pretty much guarantees that the chasm is never bridged.
I received a free copy of this book for an independent, fair, and honest review.
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Fantastic review, Lizzie, full of insights into, for example, what does or doesn’t work and being certain who your audience will be.
Thanks, Calmgrove. It’s difficult for me to assess something like this fairly. It does what it promises (mostly), but the promise is what I object to. Setting up a straw man re religious texts is too easy, and I didn’t even broach the topic of the Bible’s literary value.
From what you said earlier, this was clearly — to use a religious metaphor — preaching to the converted.
And even Dawkins attested to both the OT’s and NT’s literary values.
Ah, if even Dawkins says it, it must be true.