In the annals of serious subjects, religious faith has consistently brought out both the best and worst in humankind. For many who reject the existence of God, or are undecided, organized religion can represent an oppressive, often deathly serious clash of ideologies as far removed from the concept of humor as it gets.
"Faith needs to lighten up," said Simon Jenkins, editor of the U.K.-based Christian website ShipofFools.com. "I mean, the Bible's quite a funny book-well, in places."
Jenkins launched the original print version of Ship of Fools: The magazine of Christian unrest on April Fools' Day, 1977. He named as a major inspiration The Wittenburg Door, a satirical Christian magazine run in the 1970s by the late Mike Yaconelli, owner of El Cajon's Youth Specialties ministry. (Reportedly, those responsible for the publication's first issues interpreted the unintentional misspelling of "Wittenberg" in the magazine's title as a sign from God that they should rely on humor and satire to get their message across.)
Reincarnated as both magazine and website in 1998, the donation-funded Ship of Fools seeks both interdenominational-Christian and non-Christian visitors. Although initially aimed at the British market, it's now hugely popular as religious sites go, with 60 percent of its traffic originating from the United States.
"We benefited from a growth in irony," Jenkins said, noting that both U.K. and U.S. cultures have "tilted towards not taking ourselves so seriously." He added that two principal aims are to promote conversation about individual beliefs "without anathematizing each other" and to address perceived wrongs with Christian traditions.
For example, Jenkins accused some churches of embracing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (which, over the week preceding Easter, became the eighth-highest-grossing film in history) because it "appeals to them to focus on the sufferings of Jesus and to hold those sufferings up before the world in glorious Technicolor." Yet, he maintained, these same entities, "in the evangelical constituencies, especially," are usually the first to protest against violence-filled, "Tarantino-type" films.
The website recently assisted an 11th Commandment project, which targeted ""the missing generation' of under-40s" and was sponsored by U.K. Methodists. The project included distribution in British pubs of 250,000 beer mats soliciting new commandments for addition to the original 10.
Out of 2,000 entries, many submitted via cell phone text messaging, five winners were announced on April 8. The top three suggested "Thou shalt nots": worship false pop idols ("Celebrities are the golden calves of today," the 21-year-old author opined); kill in the name of any god; confuse text with love.
Erin Etheredge, Ship of Fools' Florida-based message board administrator, acknowledged that she's run across people who expect a bait-and-switch from the site, which they accuse of disguising a crusading agenda under a somewhat hip veneer. But she has more frequently encountered "self-righteously outraged" (usually American) Christians who blast the online humor as no laughing matter.
Nearly 6,000 people are registered on the site's message boards, where serious debate occurs on a board called Purgatory. "Idle creativity and tangents" happen in Heaven, while serious insult-slinging is confined to-where else?-Hell.
Etheredge said especially contentious debates on such issues as cross-cultural bashing ("all Americans are right-wing Nazis; all British people are left-wing socialists") and homosexuality might provoke "one or two threads in Hell... generating some heat."
Another popular department: Mystery Worship, featuring the observations of about 1,000 volunteers who write reviews of churches around the world, based on their personal responses to a 20-point questionnaire (sample query: "Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?").
Jenkins noted the premiere this week of a new, "quite colourful and critical report" of San Diego's St. Charles Catholic church. (Mystery Worshipper ChemicalGrl's overview details "one very strange incident. During communion, a girl of around 10 or 11 years old received communion in the hand, but just walked off with the host. It looked like she was going to put it in her pocket. The eucharistic minister followed her and told her to consume the host. The girl's father also got out of line and ordered her to eat it.")
Jenkins said he especially enjoys the site's Gadgets for God, which features kitsch product write-ups, like that of the U.S.-manufactured Talking Tombstone (Cost: $4,995, "batteries included"): "A recorded announcement is triggered by invisible beam, so that every time a visitor comes near the grave a metallic voice declares from the headstone... "Hi! I was Jane Smith. I died at 10:15 a.m., Thursday, November 25th, 1994. Thanks for coming to see me. Have a nice day.'"
He described another of his favorite sections, Born Twice, as a "who-looks-like-who-Ariel Sharon looks like Leslie Nielsen and that kind of thing."Jenkins reiterated that the site's "serious, underlying purpose" is to stir people up and make them "think a second time about their faith. But on top of that is a huge amount of just fun. We like making people laugh."