Every time a Unitarian Universalist congregation posts UU jokes on their website, in their newsletters, or Orders of Service, your Growth Strategist does a face-palm and whimpers a little bit. I find these jokes to be self-deprecating, and not in an ironic way, but in a stale and tiresome way. It sends the message that we as a UU People don’t take ourselves seriously, that we don’t believe we matter, that we have low self-confidence or worse, distain for ourselves. We use this kind of humor to poke fun at ourselves before someone else can.
And others do. We can count on Garrison Keillor in his weekly Prairie Home Companion show to regularly gird an embarrassing stereotype of tradition. Many of the characters in The Simpsons are negatively neutral to openly hostile toward Unitarian Universalism. Stephen Colbert pokes us on The Colbert Report, which admittedly is my favorite of the three. Somehow I find it more digestible coming from these social commentaries because it’s clearly satirical.
There is a difference between having a sense of humor and going out of your way to make fun of yourself. And then there is satire… Satire uses sarcasm and irony to effect political or social change, or to prevent it. It’s a literary court jester.
The Onion is one of the most read American satirical rags. Sometimes it’s so close to reality, I have to check to see if it’s The Onion. And sometimes an article from a news source is so outlandish, I have to check to see if it’s The Onion.
And now we have a Unitarian Universalist version called The Beacon. Stefan Jonasson suggested we might call it The Bunion (Beacon + Onion.) The writer(s) of The Beacon are anonymous. Usually I like my social commentary with names attached. However, I’ve found the inaugural addition to be open-spirited, spiritually mature, and nuanced. I suspect the writer(s) are missional leaders with institutionalist hearts. In other words, I am certain that the authors are prophetic court jesters who love our faith tradition very much. I want to hear what they have to say even if it makes me squirm a bit.
Please do read The Beacon from cover to cover. Share it with other UU leaders. (Notice I am not suggesting you post this on your website for seekers to find when looking for clear markers of our faith and your community.) Please do talk with other UUs about the messages within the humor. Do you see yourself and/or your congregation in there? Is the Beacon nudging you to consider change? What rubs you in a raw way? There’s wisdom there, too.
Good satire pokes us gently through a cheeky caricature and invites a fresh perspective. The caricature allows us to hold the commentary at arms’ length as we digest and accept and then embrace it as an invitation to healthy change and growth.
Today I give thanks to the Court Jesters.
Growth Strategist Rev. Tandi Rogers likes knock-knock jokes very much, especially ones about planets and bugs, but can’t actually tell a joke to save her life. She leaves that to her 5 year old. He’s in charge of telling. She’s in charge of laughing.
Thanks for making us aware of this, Tandi. “Bitter the jest when satire comes too near truth and leaves a sharp sting behind it” Publius Cornelius Tacitus
Tandi, “…can’t tell a joke to save her life.” Now that was funny.
I agree about UU jokes! They reveal our deep insecurities and are often way too painful to be funny. And yet, I do think humor is important! Just not in a way that continually wonders if we have anything to say or any reason to exist…..So thanks for raising this issue. I keep meaning to check this out, so appreciating the reminder.
I did a little Googling with a view toward defending my beloved Simpsons (I know that’s far from the point of this but I can’t help it, I love my Simpsons) and I noticed that the Simpsons Wiki article on “Religion in The Simpsons” contains the following: “Many of the characters in the show are negatively neutral to openly hostile toward Unitarianism.”
I only mention it because I would tend to disagree.
First of all, the only examples the article gives are Homer asking if he needs to “wail on a few Unitarians” to be Catholic and a joke about “Unitarian Ice cream”: “…Reverend Lovejoy offering the Simpson kids a bowl of Unitarian ice cream at a church social function. When Lisa remarks that the bowl is empty, Reverend Lovejoy indicates that that is the point.” I also found a message board thread on a popular Simpsons fan site where some folks posted a few more:
[Rod and Todd Flanders are playing a game called “Bible Blasters” where you shoot bibles at people to convert them to Christianity]
Todd: “Aw! I missed him!”
Rod: “Nah, you just winged him. You made him a Unitarian.”
[Jessica Lovejoy has just stolen the collection plate money and framed Bart]
Helen Lovejoy: “Everyone turn around and look at this!”
Grampa Simpson: “What is it?! A Unitarian?!”
Homer: “If Unitarianism is the one true religion, I’ll eat my hat!”
I don’t know about other UU references in modern day Simpsons (I don’t remember too many from Golden Age Simpsons), but Reverend Lovejoy and the Flanders family have always been characters that have been used to satirize conservative Christianity and the attitudes of conservative Christians and pretty much the entire point of Homer (and Grampa, albeit in a different way) is being satirically wrong and dumb about almost everything. Even then, most of those jokes seem pretty lovingly done to me and only one of them was written when The Simpsons was one of the greatest satires ever (the Grampa joke).
I guess my point here is that up until season 9 and especially seasons 5-8, The Simpsons was one of the greatest television comedies ever written and I hope their Unitarian jokes don’t spoil them for too many UUs because they have a lot to teach us, especially about young people.