Interview with Dr Joe Wenke

Joe WenkeWhile I was working on my review of his book, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Joe Wenke (pictured right) a few questions about it, including what he was trying to achieve and how he felt about the stories he was satirising. So here, as a sort of bonus track, are my questions and his answers.

Was there a particular thing that inspired you to write the book?

As I explain in “The Genesis of You Got to Be Kidding!” a piece that I originally wrote for the Huffington Post but which is now included as an afterword to the book, the way I got the idea for writing the book is kind of strange. I woke up one morning, and the first thing I thought of was that I would read the Bible and when I found something funny, I would write about it. I had never had that thought before, and I don’t know why I woke up thinking the Bible was funny, although it is hilarious.

I went over to my kitchen table, sat down at my laptop and downloaded an electronic version of the Bible. I read it until I got to the Adam and Eve story, and then I wrote the first sketch of the book. Over the next several weeks I read the Bible and wrote more than 70 satirical sketches. I wrote them really fast like a bunch of emails, hardly changing a word.

In retrospect it’s obvious that the book was in me for a long time and was ready to come out. At about the same time, I also started changing a lot of things about myself. Basically, I started doing the opposite. I switched from having short hair to long hair, from tucking my shirt in to wearing it out. I went from never wearing jeans to wearing them all of the time. I went from wearing boy’s shirts to girl’s shirts. Stuff like that.

Your biography says you were brought up in a large Catholic family. How did that affect you, growing up? When did you reject that upbringing? Do you think that motivated you to write this book?

I began questioning my upbringing at a pretty early age, like right around the time I hit puberty. The Catholic Church taught that everything I was feeling sexually was a sin. Even a sexual thought that I liked was a sin punishable by eternal damnation. That was crazy, but it had been inculcated in me, and it took a while for me to work through it all. It was very painful, but I did. So, yes, my religious upbringing was clearly a major motivation in my writing You Got to Be Kidding as well as my follow-up book, Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church, which will be coming out in a few weeks. In fact, as soon as I finished You Got to Be Kidding, I wrote Papal Bull, and that went really fast too.

The book generally comes across with an air of detached amusement, but some parts, like the story of Abraham and Isaac, seem far more outraged. Is that a fair reflection of your views?

Forbidden FruitYes, you’re absolutely right about the tone. I am very detached about vast portions of the Bible. So much of it is so absurd—the Adam and Eve story with the talking snake, the idea that God flooded the planet and that the fish all drowned in the flood, the idea that Noah collected all of the animal species, including insects,  from across the entire planet and fit them all on a boat—what can you say about that stuff? It’s amazing that people believe it literally. But there are elements of the Bible that are both absurd and deeply offensive. The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of them. As I mention in the book, it provides a justification for a teleological suspension of the ethical, as Kierkegaard put it. In other words, if you have a higher purpose, it’s OK to do bad things—like kill your own son or exterminate people you define as subhuman or demonize people you believe exist in a state that’s contrary to nature—like gay and transgender people.

How well did you know the Bible before you started on this project? Do you think that helped or hindered you in producing your satirical version?

I knew the Bible pretty well, particularly the New Testament and a lot of the classic stories of the Old Testament, but when I went back and reread it, I discovered so much that I hadn’t realized was there. Like the fact that the Adam and Eve story is actually a very comic blame game with God blaming Adam, Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the talking snake for the whole fruit-eating fiasco. I also didn’t know that the townspeople of Sodom showed up at Lot’s house wanting to gangbang the two male angels. That’s right. The people of Sodom wanted to sodomize the angels. That’s funny, but what’s even funnier and more amazing is that Lot tells the mob they can’t touch the angels, but they can have his two virgin daughters instead. Remember, he’s the good guy that God wants to save. I don’t know how you top that. If God is really the author of the Bible, I give him a lot of credit. He really grooves on Theater of the Absurd.

You seem to have a lot of time for Jesus. Do you subscribe to the “good man, misunderstood” theory, or was that just a convenient humorous device?

JesusI make it clear in the book that there’s no reason to believe anything in the gospels. They were written by advocates decades after the events they purport to describe. I go into greater detail about this in Papal Bull. There are also numerous scenes that have no possible source. For example, who was the source of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert? Was that Jesus or Satan? How do we know that Judas felt bad about betraying Jesus and tried to return the thirty pieces of silver? He obviously wasn’t the source of that story since he went out and hanged himself. Who was the source—the bad guys?

I view Jesus as a literary character. As a character, a lot of the things he did were cool. It’s cool to heal the sick or do magic tricks like turning water into wine. I also empathize with his having been betrayed.

Of course, the Gospel writers make sure that Jesus talks a lot about hell, which I think is a little inconsistent with his character. It strikes me as religious propaganda stuck in the mouth of Jesus. So from a literary standpoint, the hell material doesn’t work so well, but as propaganda, it’s been really effective. In fact, hell is probably the most popular religious idea of all time. People just love the idea of God sending all of the people they hate to hell.

In contrast, I don’t think you have much time for St Paul. Do you think it’s fair to lay Christianity’s faults at his feet, or was he just a man of his time who happened to play a major role in founding a new religion?

I have no time for the Apostle Paul. It’s almost as if there are two versions of Christianity—the Jesus version of peace, love and hanging out with the lowlifes, and the Paul version, which is all about rules and punishment. Paul’s the archetypal convert turned religious fanatic. He’s the true standard bearer of institutional religion—the purpose of which is to control your mind, your genitals and your wallet. He’s also anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-gay and pro-slavery. So what’s there to like about him?

You’ve done a great job of pointing out the ridiculous nature of much of the Bible, and many liberals would agree with your points but still insist that they believe in and worship God. Do you see liberal theologians as allies or appeasers?

Old BibleI have a hard time understanding how educated, intelligent people believe in an anthropomorphic God or believe that Jesus was sent by God, the Father, on a suicide mission so that he, God, the Father, would feel better about all of the bad things that the human beings he created have done. None of that makes any sense. Also, what’s up with people wanting to worship somebody? How does that fit in with democratic ideals?

I also have a major issue with pro-LGBTQ theologians who argue that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. They get into debates about how different passages are translated when there is no getting around the fact that Leviticus says homosexuals should be executed and Paul includes homosexuality in the list of sins that merit eternal damnation.

Why would anybody think that there would be acceptance of homosexuality in Biblical times? Really—homosexuality accepted a couple of thousand years ago in a largely illiterate desert culture! How ridiculous!

My main issue is that people use the Bible to justify their own bigotry and hatred toward LGBTQ people. They say the Bible condemns homosexuality and that the Bible is the inspired word of the Creator of the Universe. It’s obviously absurd to believe that God is the author of the Bible, but if we pretend for a second that it’s true, that would just mean that God is a bigot. If God is a bigot does that make it right? No, it just makes God a bad God.

We all need to stand up against Bible-based bigotry and expose it for what it is—a hypocritical excuse for haters to pass off bigotry as moral righteousness.

Images courtesy of Joe Wenke, Mattox, creactions and ba1969, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

19 responses to “Interview with Dr Joe Wenke”

  1. Neil Rickert says :

    This might be one of the best posts ever at your blog. It is by far the best of any blog post I have read this week.

  2. Sabio Lantz says :

    Fantastic interview — thanx for sharing!

  3. pgaikin says :

    Just put the book on my Amazon wish list.

  4. Karin says :

    Where in the gospels does Jesus talk about hell?

    Isn’t the whole point of Liberal Christians that they don’t ” believe that Jesus was sent by God, the Father, on a suicide mission so that he, God, the Father, would feel better about all of the bad things that the human beings he created have done. ”

    The Liberal Christians I know interpret things rather differently. Have you read any Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, John Selby Spong or Walter Wink?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I was going to leave this alone, as it’s not really my point of view that you’re arguing against, but Jesus most certainly does talk about hell. Most obviously, the parable of Lazarus and Dives, and “the blazing furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” are both pretty clear, and require a large dose of special pleading to claim that Jesus doesn’t talk about hell.

      Liberal belief is interesting in all sorts of ways, and I’m working on several posts taking different angles on the question of how to approach it.

      • Karin says :

        Luke does have the rich man (Latin “dives”) say, “I am in agony in these flames”, in Luke 16:24, but otherwise Hades was simply the place of the dead for the Greeks and not always involivng punishment or torture.
        1st century Palestine was part of the Greek-speaking world and influenced by Greek culture.

        The point of the parable appears to be to show the reversal of fortunes of the rich man and the poor beggar in death and so to serve as a warning to the rich to treat the poor with more compassion rather than to comment on the after life, but you are right that Luke has Jesus describing a place in the afterlife where there are flames. I don’t think the story appears in the earliest gospel, Mark, so we must wonder where the material for this parable came from. I’d also be interested to know how much Jesus, a landless peasant who spoke Aramaic and came from the rural, northern backwater of Nazareth, would have known about Greek culture. I’m sure it was prevalent in Jerusalem among the wealthier people, but I don’t know how far it pervaded Jewish society as a whole.

        Which “blazing furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” do you refer to? Do you perhaps mean Gehenna, the burning rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem?

        The concept of hell as a place people went to after death was a medieval invention along with purgatory, and not biblical. The first helped to control people out of fear of eternal torment and telling people that paying the church sums of money and going on pilgrimage to certain places would ensure them less time in purgatory was just a way for the church to make money.

        I’m not sure why you refer to ‘liberal belief’ or what you mean by it.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I think you’re in danger of begging the question here. You’re starting from a statement that Jesus doesn’t mention hell, and then going to some lengths to examine why certain passages might look as if he does, and where those elements came from. Again, this isn’t my position that you’re arguing against, but I don’t find that especially convincing.

        The wailing and gnashing of teeth appears in the parable of the weeds, about what will happen to the weeds (i.e. the bad people) in the end:

        As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth

        Maybe you can explain this away somehow, just as you appear to have explanations about Gehenna, but however you look at it, this idea of a burning torment after death crops up quite a lot in the gospels. The parable of the weeds looks remarkably like a reference to hell to me, and it’s certainly enough to reject the claim that hell was a medieval invention.

        I can’t believe that you don’t know what I mean by liberal belief, especially as this exchange came out of comments about liberal believers. Maybe you don’t recognise it as such, but disbelief in hell and your textual analysis approach to scripture both put you well to the liberal end of the spectrum by any meaningful standard.

      • Karin says :

        Apologies, I see it may have been me who started to refer to Liberal Christians, in an earlier post. In my last post I wanted to check what you meant by ‘liberal’ as it does mean different things to different people, but I’d forgotten I’d already used the term myself and defined it.

        I think that while we have both rejected Evangelical ideas about the Bible and Jesus etc, the difference between us is that you seem to have decided that nothing about the Bible is true and you can’t be sure Jesus even existed. On the other hand I think that the Bible is an interesting book that can tell us a lot, but perhaps not what Evangelicals and many other Christians think it does and I also think that Jesus did probably live and that the gospel writers do give us glimpses of the real Jesus amongst their accounts of the ‘truth’ about Jesus as they understood it. ‘Biographia’, which is what the gospels are, were not as factual as modern biographies are thought to be, so I would agree that we cannot be certain of any facts about Jesus.

        I believe that Christianity needs to be brought into the 21st century and to do that we must reject ideas that come from a purely medieval or even 1st century mindset and apply modern methods to our whole understanding of the Bible and of who Jesus was, and perhaps still is. Likewise we should recognise that most of what we understand hell to be like was invented by the Church Fathers and other early Christians, and it remains true that there is very little in the Bible to suggest that God will send mere mortals to hell, even less just because they don’t assent to Evangelical or any other doctrines.

        However, I can see that the gospels do tell us that Jesus referred to people being punished in or near flames in more places than I realised and I stand corrected on that account, but this still does not mean that Jesus believed in the existence of hell as such. We would have to be able to understand his precise meaning and know whether he was using a figure of speech or borrowing a popular story to give more impact to what he was saying besides also being sure he said those words and they weren’t put in his mouth by the gospel writers to make their point or because in their view he should have said them, as many Bible Scholars seem to think they may have been. The gospel writers don’t always seem to have loved their enemies as much as they said Jesus told us, and them, to do, which could suggest he really did say that.

  5. Sabio Lantz says :

    Perhaps after reviewing all your caveats and back pedaling here, Karin, you can see why weighing the Bible equal to all the other religious texts at that time is a reasonable move. Wanting it otherwise, just shows a clinging to the tradition you were accidentally born in and trying to justify it by any means. I get that, but many of us don’t feel compelled to do that.
    Or at least that is my feel from reading your last comment.

    • Karin says :

      I’m not exactly sure what you mean, Sabio, but if you are suggesting the Bible is no better than other holy writings, I do have great respect for the Buddhist writings, having read a number of books by Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve not had time to study them for myeslf, nor yet to study the Quran or sacred texts of the Hindus etc. I’m sure there is great wisdom in them all, which is why they are so enduring, yet, like the Bible, there is probably some of the worst aspects of human nature reflected in them, too.

      I wasn’t born into a Christian family, but the culture around me when I was growing up was a Christian one. It is my experiences of God and the risen Christ that make it hard for me to not believe, but I’m not trying to justify Christianity. I think Christianity needs a major overhaul and that if Jesus really existed, and as I said, I think he most probably did, then following Jesus should be quite a different thing from what most people think it to be. However, if the Church were to be full of people following Jesus faithfully tomorrow; being compassionate, feeding the hungry, embracing the marginalised and confronting ‘the powers that be’, it wouldn’t stay that way. It would creep back to what it is now, or something like it, within a few decades possibly, but I can still dream.

      I think what Jesus’ life and teaching and other parts of the Bible present is an elusive vision of life in holistic, egalitarian, compassionate communities, or ‘the kingdom of God’, which perhaps started as a folk memory of a time before people settled down and lived in towns, mixed with a yearning for a deeper more peaceful relationships. It may never happen, but we are the better for striving to make it at least a partial reality.

  6. Sabio Lantz says :

    Nah, I mean equally problematic in that it is obvious it is just a men writing their opinions and practicing rhetoric by placing their words in the mouths of others and of supposed gods. Sure, I agree, lots of value in all these books and a bunch of hogwash too. But then the same with all sorts of Literature.

    Simple as that — religious folks have absolutely no epistemological advantages.
    We all got to figure stuff out.

    • Karin says :

      At its best, religion is people figuring stuff out together with the advantage of the wisdom of ages, but sadly it is rarely at its best.

      • Sabio Lantz says :

        Yeah, I agree — “at its best”. And likewise so is science, psychology and much more. So I am all for removing the sanctimonious cloaking — for we are all doing the same damn thing.

      • Karin says :

        I see much of Science as figuring out the building blocks of life and of what supports modern lifestyle and Psychology as understanding why we do what we do. Like Religion, Philosophy is more about how we should live, but Religion can help us to connect with each other and build communities. Good religion is about putting the best of Psychology and Philosphy into practice.

  7. Sabio Lantz says :

    Yeah, that would be “good religion” — which we see go the other way far too much. So I say drop the holy rhetoric now that we have left the miracle days behind, and keep working on secular mechanism to do community and the good life. Europe is largely void of religion and can do that. Religion is not needed can comes with sanctimonious manipulative side effects.

    I am not against people using it necessarily, but I do encourage transcending it when possible.

    • Karin says :

      Whether you want to call it religion or not, I think we do need something to help us to transcend the negative side of being human, not by judgement, which will only make us judgemental in turn, but by calling out our deeper, better nature, perhaps by reassuring us that we are loved. Many people feel there is a Being out there who is greater than they are, so it can be good to know that this Being, this Source of Life, loves them and accepts them for who they are, warts and all. Knowing we are loved can help us to reach out in love to other people: loving our neighbour just as we love ourselves.

      However, human nature has a tendency to manipulate and control, which is why religion worldwide has its downside as well as the potential for great good.

      Science, too can be used to control and manipulate people, of course, while that also has potential for great good.

  8. Sabio Lantz says :

    I agree that we need something to “check” (I would not say “transcend” — don’t want to beg the argument) the destructive side of humans. We call that culture. It evolved long ago for that purpose and more. And culture doesn’t need religion to work — we have tons of examples of this.

    We certainly don’t need to imagine some invisible Being who is greater than us to do these things — we have amble evidence of this too.

    We can know we are loved, by loving and receiving love: nurturing love and protecting it. For those who don’t have that, imagining it may be fine but it only works temporarily.

    So the answer: culture — and culture does not need religion to do all the things that religious folks would like us to think are needed.

    • Karin says :

      I’ll be interested to hear how you think culture does this. I’ve responded to the post on your blog there, so hope that’s where we’ll continue this conversation.

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