The Religion of a Satirical Generation

Stewart and Colbert exploded the absurd in our political discourse so that a satirical generation can take the future of our country seriously. If we were to explode the absurd in religion, would the same kind of sincerity emerge from our irony?
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In a great post on the Rally to Restore Sanity, Alexandra Petri described it as the Woodstock of the "I generation."

Millennials are Generation I, for whom life exists so we can put as many things as possible in quotes. And this "rally" is the closest millennials will ever get to a love-in. It's a "like-in."

I like this. I mean, officially. I "like" it on Facebook, where my "feelings" and "opinions" go to become real.

I was at the rally. And it was something hard to articulate. It was the right thing at the right time for a people who have never been offered the right thing at the right time. It was the first dose of Adderall to a generation with severe ADHD.

We gathered in costume carrying signs that read "legalize gay marijuana" and "God hates figs." We crammed into a crowd tight enough to give Mr. Rogers fits of misanthropic rage. And then we sang together and we laughed together and we got goosebumps together. It was an exercise in what philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the "irrational nature of our rationality."

And this, I think, is the point. We as a generation look around us and are horrified that no one else seems to notice how absurd everything is. Whether its Glen Beck's glasses or the Ragin' Cajin's head, or the inflammatory things that come out of them, we can't get on board with that, and our only recourse is apathetic snickering.

That is, until someone calls us together to inject a little conscious absurdity into the unconscious absurdity that usually dominates Washington. And then, our hunger for sincere discourse emerges in an almost literally ground-breaking swell of enthusiasm.

As a "master of divinity," my reflections on our generation's penchant for ironic apathy led me to thinking about our religious engagement -- our apathetic snickering in the back of the church. Is there hope for the same kind of movement in our religion as the Rally represented for our politics? Can the I Generation be incited to sing the Doxology with as much sincerity as we sang "America the Beautiful" with Tony Bennett on Saturday?

My first impulse is to say, obviously not. Religion is widely held to be the source of the ridiculous in our political discourse. It is with religion that conservative millennialists paint their apocalyptic caricatures of our future. It is with religion that even our more enlightened politicians pander to us to avoid making difficult ethical arguments. And it is in the name of religion that despotic autocrats justify their evil.

On the other side of the argument, religion is touted as an inescapable and wholesome reality from which our moral bedrock and communal identity have been formed. It is said to be that upon which our laws and constituting documents depend, and in whose purview those documents should remain. It is claimed as the primary source of order and decency in our society.

We are presented with the options "religion as the only good" or "religion as evil." But this dichotomy is false. It is a conflation of the good and bad aspects of human nature with the expression of that nature in a particular human activity. In fact, people do both great and terrible things in the name of religion, just as they do in the name of conservatism or liberalism, or in the name of love, or in the name of fear. Xenophobia and generosity do not belong to religion, they belong to humanity.

Stewart and Colbert exploded the absurd in our political discourse so that a satirical generation can take the future of our country seriously. It is unclear what exactly that will look like going forward, but in the moment, it felt like a quarter-million people smiling broadly in the October sun.

If we were to explode the absurd in religion, if we exposed the fallacy of our reductive handling of systems of understanding the deep questions of life, would the same kind of sincerity emerge from our irony?

If Generation I came to our houses of worship carrying satirical signs that read "God hates figs," and we laughed at clips of the simplistic and divisive rhetoric that makes us ashamed to call ourselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists or whatever, and if we sang familiar songs together and listened past the demonization of the other, what would happen? If we exposed all the things that make our religious discourse absurd -- all the squawking about other peoples' sins, all the fighting about which language to use to describe the ineffable, all the simple-minded conflation of poetry and prose, and the universalizing of the particular -- I suspect that there would be enough sincere goodwill floating in the wake of our laughter to give us goosebumps again, and to help us take seriously the future of our religious traditions.

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