Brow Beat

Biblical Humor in The New Yorker: A Brief History

A recent New Yorker cover featuring Saint Peter and Steve Jobs.

Earlier this month, The New Yorker featured a humorous essay by comic wunderkind Simon Rich parodying the Book of Genesis. In Rich’s version—published under the magazine’s humor rubric, Shouts & Murmurs—God attempts to create the universe but keeps getting distracted by his rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Kate. Rich’s piece is about as funny as most of The New Yorker’s comedic essays, but it caught my eye largely because the magazine published another takeoff on Genesis in Shouts & Murmurs less than a year ago—and the rubric has featured at least five other Biblical parodies over the past decade. This may not be terribly surprising; after all, The New Yorker presents itself as a decidedly secular sort of magazine. What’s more surprising is that the magazine’s Bible parodies seem to be a relatively new phenomenon.

As fans of Mel Brooks and Monty Python know, both the Old and New Testaments make for excellent satirical fodder. Such spoofs typically retell Biblical stories in jarringly modern language, relate decidedly non-Biblical stories in faux-scriptural prose, or combine old and new into a jumble of anachronisms. The New Yorker has sent up everything from gentrification to Valley girls to the confusion of the 2000 presidential election this way. Over the years, though, the tone and intent of the magazine’s parodies have shifted—seemingly in concert with America’s own shifting relationship with religion.

Though the New Yorker was first published in 1925, I couldn’t find any Biblical parody before 1966, when the magazine published a very short piece of fiction by Noel Perrin. “The Lamentations of Neo-Jeremiah” is a list of one New Yorker’s complaints about gentrification and urban development, told in an exaggerated Old Testament style (and referring to New York as Zion). “She that was great among the nations and princess among the provinces, where are now her brownstones and where her joyful neighborhoods?” Perrin asks. There’s an undercurrent of sincerity in Perrin’s lines, and the last line is almost a direct quotation from Jeremiah—Perrin seems to expect his readers to have a real acquaintance with “the weeping prophet.” Which makes sense, given that American churchgoing peaked in the mid-1960s and 95% of Americans identified as either Christian or Jewish in 1966.

Strikingly, another two decades seem to pass before another Bible parody appears in The New Yorker—during which time the number of non-religious Americans quadrupled. “The Vonnegutenberg Bible: Genesis I and So On,” written by Susan Lardner in 1985, imagines how Kurt Vonnegut might have written the Book of Genesis, which is to say with near-constant asides and digressions. (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, which was not a bad start, considering how things have turned out a trillion years later or so, in 1985 A.D.”) It’s not clear whether the conceit arose from the portmanteau of the title or vice versa—either way, the piece mostly makes fun of Vonnegut’s signature style; Genesis functions merely as a familiar bit of (jarringly grand) content on which to project the novelist’s casual-sounding, idiosyncratic voice.

And that’s it, as far as Bible parodies go, until 2000. In the meantime, the use of religious themes in the magazine’s cartoons appears to skyrocket: 76% of the New Yorker Bible cartoon prints offered for sale by Condé Nast were published after 1990. And in the aughts, the Bible starts popping up regularly in Shouts & Murmurs. First Anthony Lane conflated the Florida recount with the story of David and Goliath (Gore as David, and Bush Goliath) in 2000. Paul Rudnick wrote two Bible parodies for the magazine in 2004 and 2005, first retelling the story of Jesus from the point of view of a boy-crazy teenage girl (“Everyone says that he’s the son of God, but I don’t care one way or the other because he’s just so cute!!!”), then imagining Genesis as the work of a fashion-designer God and his team of sassy gay deity assistants. (“‘One word,’ said the Lord God. ‘Landscaping.’”)

Later that same year, Ian Frazier modernized the Book of Job—Job is now called Jobless, and God brags to him about the mysteries and miracles of creation, particularly in the world of sports. Christopher Buckley ironically cast Mel Gibson as a Christlike figure in 2006. And 2009 brought my personal favorite New Yorker Bible parody, Yoni Brenner’s fake Hanukkah story of the Kangaroo Exodus:

Kangaroo Moses raised his wooden staff and said, “Fear ye not, O Kangaroo Israel, for the Lord has promised thee salvation!” Kangaroo Moses stretched his paw over the water, and, lo and behold, a strong easterly wind came and divided the waters, and turned the water into dry land, so that Kangaroo Israel could cross. And Kangaroo Israel rejoiced! For at long last they were free.

High above the kangaroo enclosure, the zookeeper shook his head.

“Every day they do this,” he muttered. “Every fucking day.”

While churchgoing has declined among the American population in general since the 1960s, it may have declined to an even greater degree among New Yorker readers: As of last year, only 15% of people with college degrees (The New Yorker’s target demographic) believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, while 46% of high-school graduates and dropouts do. And as New Yorker Bible spoofs have become more common, they have also increasingly made fun of religious belief itself rather than using the Bible as a tool to make fun of something else (uppity New Yorkers, quirky novelists). Rudnick’s pieces are particularly damning, so to speak: He compares faith in Jesus to the irrational emotions of an adolescent girl, and reduces God to a self-obsessed wannabe artiste. Likewise, Rich’s God is a bumbling nebbish who tries and fails to balance his work and personal life. Even the story of Kangaroo Moses, lighthearted though it seems, casts believers as ignorant animals.

In Paul Simms’s 2011 version of Genesis for the magazine, God solicits feedback on his blog about the universe he just finished creating, and the 24 resulting comments tear his work apart for various reasons. The piece relies in part on some of the conventions of New Yorker Bible humor—notably, using lots of capitalized pronouns referring to God for comic effect—but its humor goes deeper than that. It satirizes the endless nitpicking of Internet commenters, of course, but, it also reads like an allegory for the increased public mockery of religion. Simms seems to understand that one-dimensional ridicule of religious belief gets old fast. I wish the editors of Shouts & Murmurs would catch on, too.