Interview: Becky Garrison, Satirist

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 18, 2008

Becky Garrison is a religious satirist whose 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. She’s Senior Contributing Writer for The Wittenburg Door and contributes regularly to The Ooze and God’s Politics blog. Also, she’ll be featured in Soularize in a Box 2007 and The Ordinary Radicals documentary. When she’s not smashing religious idols to smithereens, she can be found kayaking, crewing on a historic schooner or fly-fishing. While she frequents a number of emergent and alt. w. communities (with a sprinkling of traditional church added for that occasional bells and smells sensation), it is on the water where she truly worships.

How did you become a satirist? What drew you to satire?

Every since my upside down birth, I’ve always seen life from a unique perspective. A quick romp through my dysfunctional family tree reveals that I seem to have been destined to be a satirist from the get-go. I’m a direct descendent from three Pilgrims (John Howland, Priscilla Mullins and John Alden), who set forth for the new world in search of religious freedom only to morph into theological tyrants. Also, I’m the 10th and 11th great-granddaughter of the Rev. Roger Williams, the first American pioneer of religious tolerance, who incidentally was chased out of Rhode Island by my more Puritanical relatives thus setting up a dysfunctional family dynamic that whenever someone in my family gets too uppity they’re given the boot. If Gramps were alive today, he’d be railing both against religious fundamentalist and their secular counterparts who try to impose their mighty meta-narratives upon the huddled masses. Given he wrote books like The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience (1644), he’d be the perfect Wittenburg Door writer.

Add to it the fact that my late father was an Episcopal priest/college professor who got chased out of his small-town South Carolina church by the KKK circa 1961 because he dared suggest that the town abide by Brown v. the Board of Ed. While I’m a pre-natal Episcopalian (you do the science and the ecclesiology and it sort of makes sense), I’ve spent my whole life hanging around the fringes of the institutional church. Yes, my late grandfather, a noted child psychologist, was spot on in his assessment that my late parents’ ‘60s era activist dreams fueled by a toxic combo of alcohol and drugs with the likes of Timothy Leary and hordes of impressionable college students presented poor models for proper parenting. Still, amidst this psychedelic haze, I learned the catechism of the Episcopal Church, along with the irreverent political humor of Laugh-In and Monty Python the song stylings of Tom Lehrer and the English translations of the German lyrics found on the record “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a Dirty Old Man.” How many nine year olds can claim they not only knew all the words to “Plastic Jesus” but could interpret the meaning being this irreverent message?

Given this admitted bizarre family history, no wonder I became a religious satirist. It’s in my genes.

Satire seems to be a lost art…Why do you think that is?

Let me quote the dude who got me into whole wild and whacky world of serving God through my writing, Door Senior Editor Robert Darden. “Mike Yaconelli was the most dangerous man I’ve ever known. He honestly sought to live according to the Gospel. It meant he didn’t care who he ticked off. It meant he didn’t care what you said about him. It meant he didn’t mind looking like a doofus. It meant he would tell you what needed to be said to your face. Brrrrrrr … now that’s dangerous.”

How many satirists do you see pimping themselves out as author/pastor/speakers? Yeah, I note on my website the subjects I can talk about cause there are places like Greenbelt UK and Soularize that have the spiritual stamina to invite a satirist into their midst. But if you’re cutting the Christian cheese, planning a conference so you can strut your progressive poses or faithlessly floundering locked up in your ivory tower, you don’t want some smart ass pantsing you, revealing once and for all that the emperor is indeed buck neekid!

For a more in-depth analysis into the not so subtle art of satire, I’m going to defer to Phyllis Tickle. She wrote the forward to The New Atheists Crusaders and their Unholy Grail and is the smartest person I know, bar none.

How do you respond to those Christians that see satire as something destructive…something with which no good Christian should stain themselves?

When we are living in trying times like these, we need both mystics and satirists - the mystics connect us to the divine to give us hope despite our current despair, while the satirists play the role of the court jester to keep us grounded. To quote Jimmy Buffett, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” I’ve had more than my share of dark nights of the soul. But satire keeps me spiritually sane.

Just as there have always been corrupt institutions and churches, there have a few of us crazy enough to take on the ungodly giants. We satirists exist to deconstruct everything and anyone that tries to keep people away from the love of God. Whenever men try to erect God in their own image, I’m right behind them kicking down their prized creations. And right after I’ve smashed these fallen idols to smithereens, for a few brief moments, a calm comes over me. I can see very tiny bits of God shining through the cracks. These fragmentary yet all too fleeting glimpses of the divine keep me from cracking up.

Since your book Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church came out a couple years ago, the Christian political atmosphere has shifted. It would appear that the grip of the religious right has loosened and a new generation of Christian progressives has emerged. Does this shift give you hope…or is there still need for concern?

Well for starters, the Religious Right may seem to be DOA but they will rise from the dead when you least expect it. Sort of like zombies. For example, while the Moral Majority went the way of the dodo around the time the televangelist scandals hit in the late ‘80s, these fundy fanatics reemerged as the Christian Coalition blasting their way all over the Beltway form 1994 till 2006. These guys are too well funded with an extensive grassroots networking for me to ever think we’ll be rid of them. They’re like Christian kudzu.

Back in 2006, I sounded the alarm that if we’re not careful, we’re going to see the rise of a Progressive Left that’s every bit as odious, obnoxious and obstinate as the Religious Right. The title of this book reminds us that whenever we put partisan politics over following the teachings of Christ, the church takes a beating. Since then, we’ve seen the formation of organizations like Cross Left designed explicitly to organize the Christian Left, progressive Christian leaders choosing to endorse specific candidates on sites such as Faithful Democrats, and other spiritually swarmy moves.

Here’s where it gets a bit sneaky. Some holy hipsters claim they’re speaking only as a private citizen cause after all, their endorsement isn’t on their church or organization’s website. Looks to me like they might be joining forces with Dr. Dobson who also insisted that his political endorsement “comes as a private citizen and does not represent the views of his ministry.” This political doublespeak brings to mind Bubba’s claims that “I did not have sex with that woman.” While technically he did not perform a procreative act, he sure as heck was downright dirty. In the same token, just because you post your endorsement in a manner that doesn’t violate IRS rulings, that doesn’t mean it’s kosher. As I reported on the God’s Politics blog, once you are seen as a published author/pastor/spokesman of any religious enterprise, your words carry weight when uttered in any public forum, be it book or blog. Deal with it.

While “change” and “hope” have become the latest buzz words in the 2008 election, the challenges is how Christians can be prophetic agents of social change without becoming some candidate’s biblical buttboy. Check out Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change Tour and Shane Claiborne, Chris Haw & Friends Jesus for President if you want to see the real deal in action.

You’ve got your fingers on a lot of the latest “movements” within the church. Where do you see faith in the US headed? We’ve got mainstream evangelicals branding and repackaging every movement for its own use. Mainline denominations have set up special task forces to incorporate emerging ideas in a last-ditch effort to keep their young from falling away. And then you have Emergent Village moving away from building relationships into creating a publishing/speaking empire. Where is all of this headed?

Here again, I’ll defer to Phyllis Tickle cause she’s the expert when it comes to taking our country’s spiritual temperature. When I interviewed her for Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church and The Wittenburg Door, she made these astute observations. “Bishop Mark Dwyer has noted, about every 500 years, the Church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale. During the last Reformation 500 years ago, Protestantism took over hegemony. But Roman Catholicism did not die. It just had to drop back and reconfigure. Each time a rummage sale has happened, whatever was in place simply gets cracked into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and reconfigures. I think Diana Butler Bass is absolutely right-on when she says that Progressive Christianity is that part of the established institutions presently in place that’s going to remain in the center, or circle around, the emerging church.”

In my conversations with other forward thinkers like Spencer Burke, Diana Butler Bass and Brian McLaren, it’s clear there’ a global spirit abound that infuses religion, politics and culture at large, transcending organizations and individuals. When I attended Trinity Institute’s annual theological conference, I was particular struck by James H. Cone’s appeal to his fellow academics to do theology that moves out of the academy and impacts the person in the pew. That’s where I want to be where the religious rubber hits the real road cause that’s one heck of a religious rollercoaster ride. I feel blessed to just be there so I capture satirical and spiritual snapshots of what I observe as this transformation unfolds before my eyes.

But the moment you try and market and brand this movement replete with publishing deals, self-appointed spokesmen and generative gatherings, you’ve jumped the shark and the spirit has moved on. For example, I reported on Holy Hip Hop back in 2004 (props to my friend Jahneen Otis for overseeing the first setting of the Episcopal Eucharist hip-hop style). One thing I learned in doing my research was that by the time Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, these urban pioneers were experimenting with what later became identified as hip-hop. A very similar dynamic seems to be happening with emergent churchTM but this global spirit is definitely alive and kicking.

What movements or groups today bring warmth to your satirical heart? Where are the signs of hope?

I would encourage everyone to check out The Ordinary Radicals when this documentary opens in September. Jamie Moffett, director and co-founder of The Simple Way profiles some amazing ordinary radicals, who are demonstrating that another world is possible if we really put the words of the risen Christ into practice. Over at Anglimergent, I’ve been witnessing ontological proof that the Episcopal Church is indeed rising from the ashes. (If anyone thinks the emergent church is THE church of the 21st century cause the mainline church is a thing of the past, do your historical homework or else I’ll be forced to sic N.T. Wright on you He’ll surprise you with hope that’s for sure. Andrew Jones and Jonny Baker’s blogs guide me to where the spirit is moving throughout the world, while Jon Birch’s cartoons enable me to laugh at my own foibles.

If these groups succeed, will you be out of a job?

No way. No how. It’s human nature of people to seek power like moths to a flame. So, someone has to be armed with a fire extinguisher to put out the fires. And as long as there are gatherings like Greenbelt UK and Soularize, I’ll always have a place to play.

Your hands are all ready covered in the blood of sacred cows; you’ve tackled Church and State, atheism, and the emerging church. What’s next?

Thanks to my buddy Kurt Nielson, author of Urban Iona, I’ve been starting to view travel and life in general through a pilgrim’s eyes. Who knows where the spirit will take me next? But I’m really learning to appreciate the ride no matter how scary and bumpy the road might be at times. So, check out The Ooze, the Wittenburg Door and God’s Politics blog for my latest adventures in idol smashing. Major updates like upcoming books and all that jazz will be posted on my website,

Editor’s Note: If you think you have the satirical spirit needed to contribute to The Wittenburg Door, check out the writer’s guidelines at and send your submissions to Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy these pictures from the odd travels of Becky Garrison.

for further reading . . .