- God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert by Terry Lindvall
An ambitious study of a long and rich comic tradition, Terry Lindvall's God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert is an informative, yet problematic, introduction to religious satire in Western culture. Lindvall begins his broad survey by discussing the Jewish and Greco-Roman satire of the ancient world, and his first two chapters are "Circumcised Satirists" and "Caesar Salad Satirists." From there, he covers many forms and genres of English, American, and continental satire on spiritual matters, grouping satirists by nationality and geographic region. The idea of the satirist as prophet is a theme Lindvall introduces and develops in God Mocks, a title that intimates the divine origins of satire; he recognizes the foundations of contemporary satire in the moral joking of the Hebrew prophets, who practiced the "restorative art of exposing folly and sin and summoning one's audience to be corrected and cleansed" (18). Sensitive to changes in satiric tone and style, he notes the shifting aims of the satirist, who at different points in history has alternately privileged moral instruction or entertainment. Tracking this genre's evolution, Lindvall posits that each age has its own particular vice to which satirists respond, but observes continuities within this tradition, namely the extent to which religious satire was directed at Church corruption.
Laughter, a crucial by-product of satire, is a central issue in God Mocks. Lindvall touches on a number of important theories of laughter (e.g. Hobbes, Freud, etc.) and acknowledges the transhistorical importance of satirical laughter within a community of believers; he cites historically specific debates about comedy's place in Christianity, referencing Augustine's skepticism about laughter and Isaac Barrow's sermon on the uses and abuses of humour. God Mocks raises—and tries to answer-perennial questions about the nature of satire: Should it target individuals or general social ills? How does it differ from mockery? Should it deploy shame? Also, does it actually work? Lindvall presents various definitions of "true satire," his own and others, including a twentieth-century editor of Punch, who avers that "the business of a humorous or satirical magazine must be to ridicule the age in which we live, and particularly those set in authority over us" (253). Lindvall excels in showing links between satiric themes and works across time, connecting Monty Python's Life of Brian with the "Rabelaisian spirit of carnival" (256) and discussing the enduring image of satire as a "glass" or mirror of vice and folly in several chapters. He regularly references other scholarship on western humour and, perhaps most helpfully, brings up important concepts and terms as various writers and their works are considered. For instance, in his chapter on medieval satire, Lindvall explains the comic celebration of the Feast of Fools (festa stultorum) and describes the "art of flyting," which he pithily describes as "a sort of medieval jousting with insults" (66). [End Page 331]
Lindvall positions the major authors of each chapter on a "quad of satire," the quadrants being humour, rage, ridicule, and moral purpose. Though some academics might balk at the imprecision of this evaluative exercise, readers new to this material will undoubtedly find these graphs helpful. Indeed, throughout God Mocks Lindvall does a fine job of distinguishing between the satiric modes of different historical periods, citing, for example, the emphasis on purposeful critique in Reformation satire, while noting its continuities with Medieval satire, namely its coarseness. His precis of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel in Chapter Four, "Medieval Jesters and Roosters," is an excellent introduction to this sprawling, bawdy masterpiece. Clearly comfortable in the early modern period, Lindvall engages with the humanist satire of Thomas More and Erasmus and the scatological writings of Luther, who, like Swift after him, equated sin with shit. God Mocks generally complies with accepted meta-narratives about historical periods (e.g. the wildness of the Restoration), although...