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  This is your captain speaking


In Sept/Oct 2000, The Wittenburg Door – then known only as the Door – America's original Christian satire magazine (and favourite read of Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton and other televangelists), ran an interview with our editor, Simon Jenkins. The interview, conducted by Door contributing editor Becky Garrison over a civilised breakfast in a New York café, ranged over satire, Jesus and humour and the story of Ship of Fools.

DOOR: Briefly explain your religious upbringing.

JENKINS: I used to be a nice liberal Presbyterian boy until I got saved at 16 in an old-fashioned revival meeting. It was quite a show: the evangelist wept for lost souls during his sermon, a former witch gave her testimony and cursed Satan, and the organist played a syrupy sweet "Just As I Am" over and over until people went forward out of sheer weariness. I went forward, too. It makes me laugh now, to think I made that big step of faith surrounded by such hucksterish religion, but there was something real there, despite the pantomime. I went on to study theology and I'm currently somewhere between Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

DOOR: Who are your comedic influences?

JENKINS: The Marx Brothers, because they created comedy with its own insane rules. And Buster Keaton. There's something about the comedy around the time of the silent movies era which gets to me, and its partly that they depended so much on sight gags. Seeing hundreds of knives and forks falling out of the sleeve of Harpo's coat still makes me laugh, even though I've seen it so many times. Another big influence, of course, was Monty Python, and again a lot of the punchlines are visual, like John Cleese's silly walk. I love all that nonverbal stuff.

DOOR: How do you define satire?

JENKINS: Ship of Fools doesn't do much satire, actually, but because our humor is critical of church leaders and church life, people think of us as satirical. Real satire has a lot of cruelty in it, I think, whether it's the satire of Hogarth and Swift in the 18th century, which was fuelled by moral indignation at the evils happening at the time, or the TV satire of today, which doesn't seem to come from a moral center, but from a love of pulling things down. Our humor tends to be less cruel and more playful than satire, although I think there's room for sharpening ourselves up.

DOOR: How do you interpret Jesus's use of humor in his ministry?

JENKINS: Jesus's two main sources of jokes seemed to be centered around booze and camels.

DOOR: Huh?

JENKINS: Well, he had a nice line in camel jokes. "Ever hear the one about the camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle?" he asked. "Or the camel that fell in someone's drink without them even noticing?" And I've always thought the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus produced something over 1,000 bottles of wine, is very funny – and it gets even funnier when earnest Bible commentators insist that what he produced was non-alcoholic fruit juice. Clearly, this was stuff that would make people laugh and fall over.

DOOR: And what about stronger types of humor, such as satire?

Jesus used satire, just as the Old Testament prophets used it. Some of the cruellest words of the Bible were spoken by Jesus in attacking the Pharisees. And St Paul could be quick with colorful language, too. He used the "skubala" word, which is Greek for "shit". He said that he counted all things as skubala compared with the greatness of knowing Christ. And he told the Jewish Christians who wanted everyone to be circumcised to go one step further and "castrate themselves". Of course, modern Bible translators can't cope with language that is so spicy, so they cover it up with nice words. It's as though the Bible in its raw form is too scandalous for the church.

DOOR: Why do you feel that Christianity and humor have always had an uneasy relationship?

JENKINS: I think there are lots of reasons, but one of the most striking is the sheer power of laughter, which is deadly dangerous for people in authority. Hitler and Stalin hated and banned laughter, because they feared its power to cut them down to size, and the same has been true for Popes and bishops, elders and deacons, and all the other Christian primadonnas who take themselves more seriously than God.

Someone sent a story into Ship of Fools about a bishop who went to a children's Sunday school party at a church in Uruguay. He insisted on arriving in his full robes and with his pointy hat on his head. As he walked into the room, surrounded by party balloons and streamers, a little child cried out: "Oh! Are there going to be clowns as well?"

The humor of that is like a weapon. It destroyed in an instant the dignity of this man who thought he was dressing for power, but found he had dressed like an idiot. When people like this have been able to censor humor, they haven't hesitated to do it.

DOOR: Well, we wouldn't call a seminary a hotbed for budding humorists.

JENKINS: Theological students are like men with bald heads and suede shoes – they're not to be trusted.

DOOR: How would you assess the role of laughter in the church today?

JENKINS: The best kind of laughter in church is the unintentional kind, where you end up trying your damnedest not to laugh in the back pew. There are some charismatic worship songs which were written by people whose brains lacked a sexual innuendo detector. There's one notorious song which starts, "Jesus, take me as I am, I can come no other way..." It's one of those songs you really do sing with a smile on your face – but for the wrong reasons.

As for churches which use humor intentionally, what they're doing often falls flat on its face. A lot of evangelical-type worship that I've seen in the UK is actually entertainment, rather than worship. The minister begins the service like a warm-up man, with a couple of lame jokes, and the audience is coached to laugh or applaud or do the actions to brain-dead songs at the right moments. There's a lot of childish humor around in churches, and childish faith to go with it.

DOOR: Tell us the history of Ship of Fools magazine.

JENKINS: When I left theology college in 1977, I thought, wouldn't it be nice to produce a Christian magazine that I'd actually enjoy reading? So a group of us started to publish this print magazine and used it to attack the herds of sacred cows of the time: born-again celebs, the cult-like following of C.S. Lewis, the Papal souvenir trade. Six years later, I started my first real job in publishing, and the magazine had to go – it sank, Titanic-like, beneath the waves on April Fool's Day 1983.

The same team of us raised as a webzine 15 years later to the day, in 1998. We like being on the Internet a lot better than we liked being a print magazine. There's so much more you can do on the Net.

DOOR: What's the purpose of the Ship?

JENKINS: Our subtitle is "the magazine of Christian unrest". We think Christians should be restless about the state of the church today, and stirring up unrest in the wider world as well. We want to ask: isn't there a better way to do Christianity than this?

DOOR: What do you mean by CHRISTIAN unrest?

JENKINS: We're inclusive. The people involved in Ship of Fools come from a lot of different Christian traditions – from churches which have joyfully anathematized each other. I like the mixture we have. I can only think it's a good thing to have the born-agains rubbing shoulders with the Quakers, and Baptists asking Roman Catholics what they really believe, all without snarling at each other. It's very creative.

In the past, people who thought differently to official church doctrine were called "heretics" or "heterodox" – words that literally means "someone who has chosen to think differently". What Ship of Fools is about is holy heterodoxy – a boatload of people who have different ways of looking at this difficult faith of ours, but who are still followers of Jesus Christ.

DOOR: By Christian UNREST, does that mean you go out and kick some major hinney?

Hinney? Is that something to do with Benny Hinn? We have lots of targets, but one of the major problems which attracts our attention in what I'd call Christianity Lite. There's a lot of it about. C.S. Lewis liked to call it "Christianity with water".

DOOR: What kind of person tends to enjoy sailing with you?

JENKINS: People who like their religion disorganized, people who feel alienated from the church, people who are on the fringes of faith and who are on their way in or their way out. We've also had some good conversations with atheists and pagans. My favorite was the person who signed on with us and said, "I'm still an atheist, thank God."

DOOR: Now, on to the specific features of the site, explain your Mystery Worshipper project.

JENKINS: Okay, the Mystery Worshipper is the biggest project we run. We have a team of volunteers around the world who go into church services disguised as a regular worshipper, but who actually sit in the back pew making notes and reporting on the service for us. They have a 20-point questionnaire which asks all the questions you really want to know, such as "how hard was the pew?", "how hot was the coffee?", "how long was the sermon?", "which moment was like being in heaven?" and "did anyone talk to you after the service when you were hanging around looking lost?"

The only clue they leave behind is a calling card, dropped into the collection plate, which says, "you have been blessed by a visit from the Mystery Worshipper". The reports are then posted on our website. At the moment, we have about 300 reporters signed up to the project.

DOOR: What's the purpose of this project?

JENKINS: We want to help churches see what they look like to someone who comes to them as a stranger. It's like holding up a mirror to churches and saying, "Is this how you expected to look? Are you happy looking like this?" But it's also a tongue-in-cheek sort of project – we're not pretending to be doing this very scientifically. If the communion wafers are soggy, or the pastor's jokes aren't funny, we'll say so. We're offering snapshots of how church really is experienced around the world today.

DOOR: What's the criteria for an object to be declared a Gadget for God?

JENKINS: Well, first it must be a real item. And secondly, it must have the "I can't believe it" factor. Some items that have made our Gadgets list include the 110ft tall Jesus the Hot Air Balloon, the Talking Tombstone and – my favorite – the WWJD? boxer shorts. We searched the Net a long time for those boxers, because we just knew they had to be out there somewhere. And you know, the best thing about them, the thing which makes them truly a Christian product, is that they have a false fly. It means that if the Christian teenager is tempted beyond endurance, access is denied in any case.

DOOR: Care to elaborate on some of the site's other features?

JENKINS: Well, we have Loose Canons, a feature about the crazy side of church history. And Signs & Blunders, which chronicles those Freudian moments when things go badly wrong in church. And a whole load of features where people can take part – such as our weekly Snap Vote, where we recently asked if everyone thought it was about time that the Pope retired.

DOOR: We understand your site is also interactive.

JENKINS: Yes, a major feature of the site is our discussion board, Shiptalk, which has taken on a life of its own and become a virtual community, complete with discussion, arguments, jokes, people traveling to meet each other, and a handful of people falling in love with each other. In fact, a good number of our British shipmates get together regularly for "crew meets", which usually take place in English pubs over a large number of pints of beer. This is the really unexpected thing. When we started, we thought we were just launching a magazine – but we've found that we actually launched a community, too.

DOOR: Do you have a favorite depiction of an Anglican clergyman in a movie or TV show?

JENKINS: Hmm. I did love Rowan Atkinson's stuttering priest in "Four Weddings and a Funeral". And as for other religious figures, my favorite nun is Robbie Coltrane in the British film, "Nuns on the Run", and my favorite Jesus is the one in South Park.

DOOR: Which film made you laugh more, "The Life of Brian" or "The Last Temptation of Christ" and why?

JENKINS: I laughed at the whole of "The Life of Brian", except for the crucifixion. It was just too close to the real thing to be funny for me, and I can't feel very critical of Christians who find it offensive.

DOOR: Well, what about "The Last Temptation of Christ"?

JENKINS: I like what Scorcese is doing in that film. I reckon he's doing what theology ought to be doing, which is asking the really creative questions about God. Scorcese is exploring the humanity of Jesus. I love that scene where the raising of Lazarus is shown from inside Lazarus's tomb and Jesus shrinks back in horror when the hand of the dead man reaches out and grabs him! You never see that kind of thing in the evangelical or Catholic versions of the life of Christ. This is Jesus as a real human being – just like he's supposed to be, according to the creeds.

All the fuss that Christians made about Jesus and sex in the film is boring and predictable. Questions such as "did Jesus ever fantasize?" or "did Jesus get an erection?" are legitimate questions to ask. I mean, did you know that there's a whole learned discussion among art historians about how the erection of Jesus is shown in Christian art?

DOOR: Um, let's not go there. What do you see as the future for Ship of Fools?

JENKINS: We don't have a shortage of ideas... just a shortage of money. You can't charge people for reading a Net magazine in the way that you can charge for a printed magazine, and that's a real problem for us. So our big plan is to get everyone who visits our site to reach out and touch their computer monitor for an online blessing, and then to send us the entire content of their wallets...
 
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