What’s so funny about religion? Publishers with new titles that lampoon the faithful hope a whole heaven of a lot. But they acknowledge that taking jokes about God, the cross, the Bible, sin and salvation to the marketplace — especially in a climate where religion and politics is a staple of late night television comedy — requires a deft touch and a clear marketing strategy to precisely convey the tone of a title that is intended to inform, expand and tickle the reader.
God may be infallible, but publishers are not, so they take extra care when bringing out a funny faith book because of its potential to offend. That’s the case at Waterbook/Multnomah which has How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living by the staff of The Babylon Bee (May).
The Bee, as it is affectionately known by its legions of fans, is the hot Christian news satire site — think The Onion for the Jesus crowd — founded and written by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann. The authors, both evangelical millennials, offer up chapters such as “Worshipping Like a Pro” and “Looking Really Spiritual Online,” clearly signaling their tongues are firmly planted in their cheeks.
Beverly Rykerd, Waterbrook v-p and publicity director, acknowledges there is little light between funny and offensive so marketing for this title will highlight the authors’ evangelical credentials and established popularity with that audience. “The authors live with that tension every day on their website. They understand that there is a fine line between insightful humor that helps Christians regain their focus versus cynical comedy that sews division and despair,” she said.
Primary marketing efforts will target evangelicals and a secondary effort will be made among religious conservatives, Rykerd said. How to Be a Perfect Christian represents WaterBrook’s first major foray into Christian humor. The house is best known for its Christian romances and books by celebrity Christian authors such as Liz Curtis Higgs and Timothy Keller. Rykerd said this title would fill not only a gap in the house’s list, but also a gap in the marketplace. “We really went after this title because we could see in the short time that The Babylon Bee has been up and running it was really taking off and filling a void in the market for humor crossed with evangelicals and politics. There isn’t much in the way of satire in the marketplace so it’s really different in that way.”
At Pegasus Books, neither religion nor humor are regular categories, but that didn’t stop the indie house from acquiring The Jewish Joke: A Short History by Devorah Baum (May). Baum, a professor of literature and criticism at the University of Southampton in England, presents a catalog of old and new Jewish jokes and essay-like chapters that examine how Jewish comedians from Groucho Marx to Sarah Silverman use them to provoke and inspire.
Jessica Case, deputy publisher at Pegasus, said the house nabbed the title — which was published in England last year — because it made her laugh. Still, she also recognizes jokes about Jews might be problematic for a country that is experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism. “There is a very difficult history to grapple with here and sometimes the only way to deal with that is to laugh in places that are sometimes quite dark,” Case said. Baum addresses some of that in the book by raising tough questions: Is it okay to joke about the Holocaust? What makes a joke anti-Semitic?
Baum, who also wrote Feeling Jewish: A Book for Just About Anybody (Yale, 2017) has a good publishing reputation and a scholarly seriousness that Case thinks keeps the book on the right side of the fence. “Devorah has a track record of using Judaism and her Jewish heritage as a way to explore issues of identity.”
The Catholic audience has not been neglected on the humor front.
“We feel within the faith walk there is a place for gentle humor. Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Joe Durepos, executive editor of trade and acquisitions for Loyola Press, which published the holy humor books Jesuits Telling Jokes: A (Serious) Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality” by Nikolaas Sintobin, S.J. (2016) and What’s So Funny About Faith?: A Memoir from the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy by Jake Martin, S.J. (2012).
Durepos, who helped bring Father James Martin’s bestselling Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life (2011) to HarperOne, said the best religion and humor books do more than provide laughs. Humor evangelizes,” he said, noting that is why so many clergy tell jokes in their sermons. “When you laugh at a good joke you share something with people that is really profound and why would God not be in that?”