Interview with Dr Joe Wenke
While 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?
Yes, 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?
I 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?
I 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.