Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/01/22

The book world is abuzz! That’s because Kyle Mann and Joel Berry, respectively (and often disrespectively) the editor-in-chief and managing editor of perhaps the internet’s most influential and Twitter-banned humor site The Babylon Bee, have put a 2022 spin on the 1678 Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World, To That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan.
The Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress: An Allegorical Tale (releasing June 7th) tells the story of Ryan Fleming, a young agnostic reeling from his brother’s death who makes good on his promise to his dying brother that he visit a church at least once. Things take a turn when, shortly after his arrival at a slick megachurch, a shoddily installed video projector falls on his head—sending him through a wormhole into another world where the numbed populace seems oblivious to the destruction all around.

I spoke with Joel Berry about the book, the growing popularity of The Babylon Bee and the destruction taking placed all around this world.

JWK: First of all, I’m a big fan of The Babylon Bee. Getting right to your book though, the first thing I thought of when I saw the title The Pilgrim’s Progress was that last November marked the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. That’s a pretty significant anniversary yet there was next to nothing in the media about it. I think we’re supposed to be ashamed of it. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Joel Berry: That is a shame that that date (wasn’t) more celebrated in our culture.

JWK: Right, a 400th anniversary doesn’t come around every day. Anyway, I digress. Your book’s synopsis sounds really interesting to me: Ryan Fleming is a young agnostic reeling from his brother’s death. Though he is deeply angry with God, he makes good on a promise he made to his brother in the final moments of his life: to visit a church at least once. But shortly after his arrival, the slick megachurch’s shoddily installed video projector falls on his head—sending Ryan through a wormhole into another world.

It sorta reminds me of the start of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Is the opening sort of an homage to Mark Twain?

JB: It’s a little bit more like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The central conceit of the book – and, obviously, this is fantasy – is that every time you fall asleep you are skirted off to live life as another version of yourself in another universe. It’s kind of a multiverse-hopping adventure and…(with things like) Rick and Morty and Doctor Strange, multiverses are kind of a big part of our pop culture right now.  So, we kind of use those mechanics and that premise to tell an updated version of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

What’s cool about it is I think it’s a bit of an answer to a lot of the stories that we’re seeing coming out of Hollywood and elsewhere in the sense that, especially with the idea of multiverses, they are used often times to kind of tell a nihilist/existentialist story with the theme being that everything’s kind of meaningless because there are infinite universes and every choice has already been made by someone else so what’s the point? It’s all empty. It’s all pointless. So any meaning that you’re gonna find in life you kinda have to make for yourself. That’s the big theme that we’re seeing in a lot of our fiction these days.

So, we kinda reverse that to where you have this hero that starts off as a nihilist. He’s an unbeliever. He doesn’t believe in God – or, if God does exist, he’s deeply angry with God – and he kind of goes on this journey through the multiverse to find the meaning of life and, ultimately, that meaning is found in a relationship and reconciliation (with) our Creator, our God. We kind of enjoyed using that to tell a very different story than you normally see these days. 

JWK: Is this a comedy.? I mean I associate you guys with humor but this sounds like a fairly serious work?

JB: It’s a serious book but it is also very entertaining. There’s a lot of classic kind of Babylon Bee sprinkled in it but there are also some pretty heavy things in there too. I think some of the folks that have read through the manuscripts were actually surprised by how dark it gets at times. That’s important, I think, to tell a good story. I think a lot of Christian fiction tends to shy away from showing us the ugly and dark side of life. We wanted to really show that…to kind of contrast with that hope that he finds in his journey.

A lot of the humor comes from the narrator. The book is narrated by kind of an angelic character, a celestial being (assigned) by God to write this story down. He doesn’t quite understand humans and doesn’t understand human behavior. He’s kind of bemused by humans so a lot of the humor is his observations and, sometimes, confusion with the decisions that the characters in the story are making. There (are) footnotes sprinkled throughout where he’ll make a funny observation. That’s where you’ll get a lot of that kind of classic Bee satire – through the voice of that narrator.

JWK: As you’re talking I’m picking up a theme about how a person’s life really matter that sorta reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life.

JB: There is a bit of that there, I think. It’s a classic hero’s journey and It’s a Wonderful Life has (George Bailey) getting to this low point of despair and feeling like nothing does matter – and then actually being able to see how it does. So, yeah, I think that’s an apt comparison.

JWK: Could this be a movie?

JB: It would be a very hard movie to make in the sense that…it would be an expensive movie because so many weird and bizarre things happen. You’re kind of playing within the realities and you’d need all these creatures. It would be fun to see as a movie but it would definitely be difficult to make.

JWK: There’s always animation.

JB: That’s true. Animation would be a great avenue for this. We’ll see. The way these things typically go is it all kinda depends on how well the story is received and how many copies the book sells. I guess we’ll find out. There might be, I guess, divided reactions to it from the normal Bee audience because it is kind of a departure from our typical daily political satire that you see on the site. It does have some heavier (and) darker elements sprinkled in with the humor. So, I hope it’s well received. I’m really proud of it and Kyle’s really proud of it – but we’ll see.

JWK: Speaking of the site – and movies – have you ever thought of charting a course similar to the heyday of The National Lampoon which used the magazine brand to launch a series of successful movies?

JB: Actually, there are a couple of project along those lines we’re working on this year as a matter of fact. Movies are different animal. There are a lot more hurdles to overcome in the process of getting a movie out there. So, we’ll see but that’s definitely one of our ambitions over the next couple of years to get some movies and TV shows out there.

JWK: I see your videos on YouTube. So, how about a weekly TV show? It seems to me that SNL could definitely use some competition – like The Weekly Bee or something.

JB: That’s another thing we’ve thought about as well – SNL and late night shows. We’ve seen the success of shows like Gutfeld! that have really thrived because, for conservatives and right-leaning Christians, there’s really nowhere to go on late night TV anymore because they’re the butt of the joke all the time, relentlessly. I think there’s a wide-open field for us if we were to do a comedy show, either weekly or nightly. I think that would be huge opportunity for us for sure.

JWK: I totally agree. Beyond internally, are there any talks going on with anybody about that?

JB: We are talking about it. (It’s) another thing we’re kinda trying to develop and maybe see what comes to fruition this year.

JWK: I think you have a very clever and funny site. I love your slogan “Fake News You Can Trust.” You also promote the phrase “Your trusted source for Christian news satire.” While I like and respect that there’s some comedy coming from that perspective, I have to wonder whether actually labeling yourself that way doesn’t tend to limit your audience. I mean the other shows don’t actually promote themselves as “Your place for Left-Wing Democrat-Marxist comedy” even if that basically is the perspective many of them are coming from. Is there a disadvantage to actually labeling yourself as “Christian comedy”?

JB: Possibly. I think there might be. I think what we’ve found as our audience has grown is that usually people become fans because they are laughing at the jokes and they might only find out some time down the line after they’ve been paying attention to us for a while that “Omigosh! These guys are Christians!” I’ve gotten that feedback a lot – like “Oh, wow! We didn’t know this was a Christian site! You guys are Christians!” That’s been kind of an interesting dynamic that’s played out – especially for a group of guys that started out pretty much exclusively doing Christian jokes and church jokes.

I think, you know, in some sense we’re gonna be naturally limited as Christians as to the kind of comedy that we’re gonna put out. We get people interested in working with us (and) making certain things with us that we just can’t engage in because, as much as we like to poke fun at sacred cows on all sides, there are some areas in which we as Christians – even as comedians – are going to remain reverent. We’re always trying to kinda make sure that even when we’re putting something out that’s edgy or, you know, a little savage, we want to make sure we’re not doing so in a way that is mocking our Savior or unbiblical to things like that.

JWK: I mean sure you come at issues from a Christian perspective – and sometimes that comes through pretty clearly – but a lot of it works just as a satire and comedy. As Christians, there are obviously some places you won’t go but the adherents of what I would call the Woke religion also have their lines that they won’t cross regarding other topics. In a way, that’s kinda similar. How do feel about that? Wokism is kind of like a religion of it’s own, isn’t it?

JB: It is. You’re absolutely right when you’re talking about sacred cows and things that the Woke religion will not touch. That’s been a big part of The Babylon Bee’s success. Those sacred cows that those folks refuse to mock, they’re wide open for us to mock. That’s been huge for us.

JWK: Until you guys came along, Christians – with some justification – had a reputation for kinda having a stick up our rear ends, particularly when it came to comedy. Why do you think it’s important for Christians to have a sense of humor and to engage in the comedic arena?

JB: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, it’s so important. I think you’re right (about) that reputation Christians have had in the past. You know, you have the Church Lady from SNL, you have Ned Flanders from The Simpsons – kind of these naive, judgemental, humorless people. I think that’s been fairly well-earned in the past but I think that, as Christians, humor is extremely important. For one, because God created it. God created us to laugh. I think humor is a very powerful way of communicating truth in what essentially is a post-truth culture now.

I think that we’ve kind of gone past the time where people are people are willing to sit down and read a long think piece or a well-researched book or engage in a thoughtful debate. Our attention spans are so short. They’re too short for those things but humor – a little zinger, a little one-two punch of a joke – has kind of a way of cutting through all that noise and sometimes getting people to lighten up, maybe even acknowledge a truth or even entertain the other side or a whole other worldview because they’ve been made to think a little bit. They’ve been caught off guard by that humor.

So. going forward as Christians, as conservatives and anyone who loves and cares about the truth, I think humor is going to be one of our most important tools in our toolkit to communicate to the culture.

JWK: On the subject of communicating to the culture, The Babylon Bee was suspended from Twitter for a bit of humor the powers that be there objected to. What’s the story now? Are you still off?

JB: Yeah, we’re still off. Obviously, Mr. Elon Musk is making some changes and we hold out hope that he might bring us back but, you know, we’ve been surprised. The overflow of support has been phenomenal. People are still finding their way to our site without Twitter. They’re still sharing our articles. Our traffic really hasn’t suffered. So, we’ve been very blessed. God’s been taking care of us through it all. Whatever happens, I’m proud of (Babylon Bee CEO) Seth Dillon for the stand that he took. He says “You know, we’re not deleting the tweet.We’re not going to admit to having engaged in hate speech.” We’re just a bunch of jokers but, at some point, you have to be willing to stand up for the truth. Thankfully, that’s paid off for us.

JWK: If The Babylon Bee bought Twitter what would the rules be?

JB: You can only post jokes about AOC. That’s all you can do.

JWK: Before Elon Musk came along, the liberal line was that while the government, of course, can’t censor speech, Twitter – being a private company – can. So, there went the Hunter Biden laptop story. But Musk came along with his bid and threatened to upend the company’s censorship policies. The next thing you know, the Department of Homeland Security was talking about setting up a so-called Disinformation Governance Board. What did you make of that?

JB: I’ve learned to laugh at this stuff because a Disinformation Governance Board is kind of a joke that writes itself. I mean it’s so hilariously sinister sounding. You know, like something out of George Orwell. The woman they picked to lead this board is kind of a cartoon character herself. It (did) seem to be a bit of a response to what Elon is doing which tells me that, up until Elon made his moves, I think Twitter was really doing the bidding of some of these special interests and the US government. I think Twitter was acting as a de facto censorship arm of the government – kind of being used by them to launder their silencing of political opposition.

JWK: What did you do before getting into writing Christian comedy?

JB: I was in supply chain logistics and sales to ten years.

JWK: That’s fun!

JB: Yeah, right! (I was) not really a writer. I did enjoy writing but never really did it professionally. You know, it got to a point where I was so miserable (that) I was looking for something more. I felt like I knew that I was made for something different.

So, I took some time and started to develop those skills. I kinda took a year and started writing different blogs for different websites, writing op-eds for different sites and that kind of led to writing part-time for The Bee – an occasional headline or article here and there. You know, one thing led to another and I just kinda continued to do more and more and more until they were like “You’re kind of doing this full-time now. We should probably make it formal.” So, they went ahead and hired me in and it’s been the best thing ever, the best job I could ever imagine having.

JWK: I recently came up with what I think is a pretty good Babylon Bee-type headline. Can I share it with you?

JB: For sure.

JWK: The Biden Administration’s response to a shortage of baby formula: More abortions!

JB: That’s a seed of a good idea there. I like the idea of you have this pro-choice/pro-abortion administration, juxtaposing it with this formula shortage.

We (did one). You want to hear it?

JWK: Yeah, sure.

JB: Starving American Babies Disguise Selves As Ukraine Babies In Hopes Of Getting $40 Billion in Federal Aid.

JWK: That’s funny. It seems to me that it’s getting kinda hard to out satire the actual headlines. Where do you see things going?

JB: You’re exactly right. It is hard to write things more ridiculous than we have in the news. We’re kind of progressing down this cultural slippery slope so fast. It’s hard to say what’s next. I kind of take things one day at a time – looking at the news one day, one week at a time. We’ll just see how long we can hang on here. I’m sure the culture will give us more than enough material for quite a long time. I’m not too worried.
In conclusion…Here’s something you won’t find on SNL:


Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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