Just for Fun? Satire Sites for Amusement and Insight

Ron looked and looked but could find no distinctively Reformed humor sites on the Web; he wonders what this says about us, You can reach him at ron.rienstra@calvin.edu.

The best humor always has a bit of truth in it. Think of the "wise fool"—a literary character used frequently by Shakespeare. The fool helps us to laugh, especially at ourselves; but more importantly, he helps us to see with new eyes. Even when slightly painful, good satire can help us gain insight into ways we might change for the better. Even in our worship.

Consider the classic joke about the cows in the corn. A churchgoer visiting an unfamiliar congregation reports to his wife the distinction between praise choruses and hymns: Praise chorus: Oh, Martha, Martha, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the cows, cows, COWS are in the corn! Hymn: Yea, those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight/broke free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed./Then goaded by minions of darkness and night/they all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.

You might wince because this joke has already been e-mailed to you three times this week. But you might also wince because it hits close to home. Indeed, some praise choruses are simplistic to the point of being insipid. Just as some hymns are tediously verbose.

If, by the way, you have never put your eyes or ears on this particular joke, check out www.angelfire.com/music3/lfm/lfm_humor.htm. Besides the classic joke, this site also has freshly composed "cows in the corn" song texts set to favorite contemporary praise choruses ("I Could Sing of Your Love Forever") and hymn tunes ("A Mighty Portress Is Our God").

The Internet, not surprisingly, is a wonderful source for just this sort of subversive humor. Christian satire magazines have found new life on the web. One of the oldest and best is The Door (www.thedoornhisazinc.com). Both the print and online version of the magazine are filled with interviews, cartoons, editorials, and fictional news items intended to "deflate pompous individuals, movements and institutions from any religious persuasion that take themselves too seriously." The site notes that the basis for this mission comes from the scriptural injunction to mock idolatry the way Elijah did on Mount Carmel. ("Take your idol and put it under your buttocks," according to the Jewish midrash on this passage.) The satire here is pointed, but never cruel, and clearly done with an affectionate spirit. However, some items are, as my grandmother might say, a bit spotten—over the top.

Another humor site with a fine pedigree is http://ship-of-foots.com. Subtitled "The magazine of Christian unrest," Ship of Fools is based in London and has a decidedly Anglican bent. This site boasts a number of extremely funny sections, including "Gadgets for God"—a collection that lampoons religious kitsch objects, including Testamints ("the mint with a message").

But the most interesting feature of this site is the "Mystery Worshiper"—a project that carries out spot checks on church services. Volunteers visit churches incognito in Britain, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. The goal is to "review worship services and give people an idea of what goes on in a wide variety of churches—and also to give the churches themselves a shot in the arm by showing them how they look to outsiders."

What really intrigues me are the questions each Mystery Worshiper is required to answer when visiting a church. What you look for largely determines what you'll find. So the standard questions touch upon issues of hospitality and atmosphere (Did anyone welcome you personally? What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost? How full was the building?). But there are also thoughtful questions about the worship itself (What were the exact opening words of the service? What musical instruments were played? In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?).

I wondered what other questions I might ask if I were sending out a team of "Mystery Worshipers." I'd want to know something about how the service structured time. I might be curious about the level of congregational participation and how one could gauge it. I might ask about whether the worship had a discernable dialogic structure. What would you want to know? And how might that help you and your church worship better?

One last question: I might ask a Mystery Worshiper if she knew the one about the cows in the corn.

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 67 © March 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.