5A Context and Web Humor: The Case of Religion Sites

Humor is notoriously less than universal: people have preferences as to degree of subtlety and most exclude some topics or treatments as in bad taste. Satiric humor—making some other discourse appear ludicrous—can fail to amuse because it makes ludicrous something the reader values, or because the reader does not grasp the implicit values of the writer against which the target appears ludicrous, or, in the extreme case, the reader can miss the satiric intent entirely and see the writer as endorsing the targeted discourse or practice. This last case is the one professors like to shake their heads over. It is likeliest to occur when the piece is read by itself without reading anything else like it, anything else on the same topic, or by the same person. www.theonion.com is a very popular and successful satiric site because its newspaper format presents numerous "articles" which reinforce each other in target and tone (as well as having the same targets of helping-profession-ese, media chatter, and bigotry). (Of course, the reinforcement can also result in repetitiveness and predictability; reading straight through The Onion's archives is not the best way to experience it.)

Subtle humor and satire are of course the professors' preferred mode (even though it is most subject to misreading), partly because it gives the reader the pleasure of exchanging imagined, knowing smiles (or sneers) with the writer. Dry wit and dead-pan delivery, because not heavily marked, is dependent on contextual cues: what we know of the writer/speaker, where we find the discourse, the perceived tone of the piece and related pieces, and the comments or responses of other pieces to it. And for satire on the Web, many of these features of context are weak or absent. Many pages are by unfamiliar writers, or have pseudonyms, or are anonymous. They appear free standing with few links to surrounding pages. The only clue that somebody suspects they are satiric is their appearing on a humor-satire section of Yahoo or another categorizing index. And, conversely, we know that someone does not read them as satire when they are linked by sites like About's Spot the Loony!, www.crank.net, or Dante's Compendium of Idiots.

Babysue: Jesus Hates Stupid Homosexuals Like You
Westboro Baptist Church

For example, the two URLs at the left point to pages that express similar sentiments adequately conveyed by their titles, "God Hates Fags" and "Jesus Hates Stupid Homosexuals Like You". Let us suppose that one or both of them is intended to satirize religiously-endorsed homophobia. The second is done with much more polish and detail; the apparent contradiction of love and hate is forced on us by the two opening panels: left is "Love Crusades," a list of links to reports of anti-homosexual demonstrations scheduled by the WBC and right is a satisfied description of Matthew Shepard burning in Hell (Shepard was a young man brutally murdered for his orientation in Wyoming 1028 days ago, as the site says), followed by reports of "fags" as murderers, not victims. The first site is just plain text on a blue background; its special contribution to the question of whether one can be homosexual and Christian is a report of a recent interview with Jesus on the point, the details of which I will not go into. Passages of the Bible are also offered in evidence, but the passages, book titles, and translations are inexact at best. If you just show people these sites and ask if one or both are genuine hate pages, you will get quite a spread of answers. We will hold off attempting an answer until we have looked at a few more "Christian" sites, most of which link to each other in a quite a tangled rhizome.

Subj:   Hello, wanna be "Jesus"!
Date:   96-06-18 08:33:29 EDT
From:   Ruben "Zubba" Dalen
To:     jesus316@aol.com
CC:     hansd@netpower.no

This suck's! This is blassphemy!
I know he is risen but he does NOT have a homepage! 
Whoever you are, you've lost your mind, sense 
for reality and the point.

Subj:   your page
Date:   96-07-22 23:54:15 EDT
From:   MrSpike
To:     jesus316@aol.com

is one of the best things I've seen on the web. 
Really, really funny. Also, in case you really are 
that Jesus guy, which film portrayal did you prefer: 
Ted Neeley in "Jesus Christ Superstar" or Victor 
Garber in "Godspell"? I would vote for Victor 
because his version had a senseof humor 
about himself, which is something that the Jesus 
all these webpage naysayers love apparently 
doesn't have. Don't they realize he's probably 
laughing too and wishing they would completely 
lighten up?

The funniest thing is that they just DON'T GET 
that your page is a parody of web pages, 
not a parody of Jesus. DUH! HELLO?!?


We begin with the earliest site, the Jesus home page called jesus316 which was put up by Solomon Tunt Productions (which you will note abbreviates to S. Tunt, the signature to the What's New page) in February of 1996. It is still up, though it is not an active site; even the email board closed in 1996, and most of the external links are dead. It was reviewed quite enthusiastically by Jon Katz in HotWired (hotwired.lycos.com/netizen/96/20/ katz1a.html), who concludes "The imagining of Jesus on the Web is a great creative stroke, the Web's own equivalent of spirituality." The site is irreverent but not, as Katz says, "pointlessly blasphemous," and could be seen as not anti-Christian at all. The very name of the site, jesus316, is a bow toward the verse that is said to contain the entire gospel (John 3:16--For God so loved the world ...). If there is satire, its weight falls more on homepages and their conventions than on Christianity: he has a photo album of family pictures (clips from Renaissance paintings of the Holy Family), a page of "wacky links" and a Dilbert link (which, he notes, everybody has to have), and you can be interactively saved and even baptized. And he does have a set of emails that show us other people responding to the site. Not everyone, it seems, is as wise and charitable as Katz. The emails range from appreciations to gentle rebukes from somewhat offended Christians (and ex-Christians!) on to a snarling intensity which moves other writers to rebuke them, and as that process continues, the email board becomes quite hermeneutically rich and sophisticated.

Here we see the beginnings of a new type of text, one which provokes a range of responses and becomes the center of an email conversation about its meaning, which conversation also adds meaning so that it takes on aspects of collective authorship. The antecedents for this practice are clearly in online bulletin boards and newsgroups where people had been negotiating the meaning and propriety of other people's posts for over a decade before this was put up. The responders exhibit no sense of art-awe, operating rather as a self-appointed peer response group. Such email sections have become a regular feature all of the "Christian" sites we will look at.

Another and more properly "peer" group of responses come from links on other sites to the page. Since any of these links may be the route of entry to jesus316, each of them is a frame around the page. At time of writing, Altavista reports 603 links on other pages to jesus316 which is really quite a lot for a page with no institutional sponsorship or affiliation. Most of these are personal pages with "humor" links and some of them are avowedly Christian (also with humor links) and even a link from www.theologie-links.de/misc.html. There do not seem to be many links from atheist sites nor sites identifying jesus316 with the Anti-Christ. In the aggregate, the Web seems to place jesus316 fairly accurately in tone and intention.

As noted, most of the external sites in his "Wacky Links" section are long gone, but his "Favorite Links" are still mostly there (the Vatican was a safe bet) and perhaps also the Dead Sea Scrolls. First in the list is a link to another Jesus site ("The Mysterious Winking Jesus") which came on line about the same time, but has been maintained and is networked into many newer sites. It is as if the link passes the baton to Mr. Jonathan C. Chase, and to his Winking Jesus we now turn.

Acts of the Apostles: from Paul's Speech to the Athenians:
17:29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

Author: BlindChick666 
Subject: dude, he WINKED! 
Fri Feb 2, 2001 10:49 pm 
Message:  aright yo, i'm all blind and sh*t, but like...
i got this phat brail computer that, ya know, like, 
goes on the net, and like, i actually FELT the lord 
ya know dude, jesus christ, f*ckin WINK at me yo, 
so dude, it happens yo, even if yer blind man, 
even. if. you're. blind.

The Miraculous Winking Jesus opens with a small animated gif, a portrait of Jesus, which winks its right eye a second after loading. This is presented as a miraculous icon. If you see it wink, you can press the "Jesus Winked at Me" button and enter your reflections on the experience in a form textarea which will be appended to the site's bulletin board. In addition, you can buy your way onto the list of Apostles of the Miraculous Winking Jesus which appears with 11 names and several links on it. At the very bottom of the page appears "Acts 17:30 KJV," the text of which I thoughtfully provide at the left. That, a SuperStore page offering mugs for sale, and a pitch for donations, make up the entire site—that, and the Reflections board. The board reports that over 630,000 visits have been made to the site and lists the over 1000 posts to the board that have been made since February 2001 with links. Most of these are brief, but again show a great range of response and an interest in commenting on the comments. The Center for the Easily Offended provides a compilation of more extensive emails to Jonathan Chance including responses to this site as well as his other sites. This is a staggering number of emails; equally staggering is the fact that they continue to pour in five years later in response to a relatively slight, unchanging page. Of course, Chance enhances his visibility as a target with his other pages unmasking Halloween as a Satanist celebration and revealing the secret diary of Santa Claus. In addition, he links into the very large and active Landover Baptist complex of sites via its Sister Rossetta site, and the link is returned. That will get him some visitors, but why the visitors choose to leave a message in such numbers is a mystery to Chance, and, frankly to me, other than that he appears to answer all his "fanmail." The little animated winking GIFT has proved to be a wonderful irritating grain of sand that apparently triggers the secretion of unending etext Reflection.

Landover Baptist Church, scaled banner

To Whom It May Concern:

This is in regard to your web-site. I have one main question...what is your problem???? I do not understand why you feel you have to spoof Christianity with such viciousness. It is completely unnecessary and offensive. I am sure that is what you were going for, though.

While your web-site really bothers and upsets me, I know that I cannot tell you what to think or say, and I would never try to do so. I do, however, have a legitimate argument, I believe. It is that on your web-site you only state that it is a parody in a very small light gray font at the bottom of the web page. Anyone who is not familiar with real Christianity and does not notice the very small word "parody" at the bottom of their screen is going to get a very wrong picture of Christianity. Now, I do not know what you believe, but you have no right to be so deceptive. You are making it seem as though there really is such a church as "Landover Baptist" and in doing so, may very possibly lead some people astray. I know full well that I cannot get you to remove your web-site, but I think that it is your legal duty to make sure everyone knows it is a parody. I thank you for your time and I hope you take into consideration my plea.

-Amy - Angel42915@aol.com

At the left is the (scaled) banner of the Landover Baptist Church of Freehold, Iowa. (On the Web since 1997) The Keywords of the page start out "religion, satire, parody, Christianity, church" and it includes the word parody in a copyright declaration. The banner itself pretty well sets the mode of the page: "Where the worthwhile worship. Unsaved unwelcome. As Jesus commanded" claiming "The Church Newsletter for True Christians" as a registered trademark. That is, it speaks as a Christian church, but develops its advocacy of standard fundamentalist beliefs in a way that it supposes is patently hypocritical, ludicrous, cruel, and bizarre.

Ownership and authorship of this page are claimed by Chris Harper and/or Americhrist Ltd.; related satellite pages ("Sister Taffy's Friends of Baby Jesus" and "Betty Bowers is a Better Christian Than You") are anonymous. Landover Baptist Inc. and Wexler Offshore Holdings P.L.L.C. are the defendants in a complaint seeking prior restraint on the publication of the July1, 2001 newsletter for allegedly defaming a couple of movie actors (names undisclosed) by portraying them as participants in various perverse sexual acts. Plaintiff's petition was granted, and the July 1, 2001 link on the site leads instead to a pdf file containing a copy of the Court's order. Of course, the entire document could be bogus--my sense of the preposterous gives out at the courthouse door.

The judge does find that Landover Baptist is a very popular site with millions of visits a month. Altavista reports 1400 pages with links to Landover Baptist. In layout and design, it is very spiffy and professional with good integration of images, with the pieces reinforce each other much in the manner of The Onion. One ad image for Betty Bowers is an animated gif showing her casting the first stone at the viewer. There are numerous links to pages with presumably fictitious authors (Sister Taffy, Betty Bowers, Brother Harry Hardwick, Sister Rossetta, and Judy O'Christian), there is a very active Landover Baptist Message Board at voyager info systems (voy.com). Whether fictitious or not, Brother Harry is a registered Expert at Yahoo on religious questions. Recently Sister Rossetta's application for membership in Landover Baptist has been opposed by Sister Taffy, who denounces her as Satan's concubine. Sister Rossetta for her part has boycotted Sister Taffy's page and outs her as Sister Taffy Davenport Crockett Gaines. None of this is particularly subtle—it is on the order of Mad Magazine—but a jolly good time with open eyes seems to be enjoyed by all.

Dear pastor (if you can truly call yourself that)

VERY unfortunately I stumbled on your web-site by accident and was at the VERY least horrified by what I read. It seems you and your group of Vigilante "Christians" have forgotten the most basic principles of Christianity...love, forgiveness, understanding, compassion, peace, hope etc.... Rather than trying to "scare" somebody into being a Christian, you are supposed to win them over by showing them how much more appealing a life through Christ is. You are supposed to show the basic principles I mentioned earlier rather than beat them over the head with such utter nonsense as blood splatterings and women using tampons (i refuse to even discuss how asanine this was). Your group seems to be more of an occult that a Christian organization. I hope you and your lost sheep see the err of your ways before you "scare" people away from you and Christianity for good. Please pray about this - deep down I'm sure you realize you are going about "soul saving" the wrong way - God is NOT in this...at all !!!!

Carey McKee, an extremely concerned Christian

carey mckee

Or almost all. At the left are a couple of letters from the Landover Church Mail Bag, which contains unedited letters, most of them taking offense and expressing anger. Most are in the "rebuke" mode, though they divide into whether the rebuke is for mocking Christianity or for being bad Christians. They say the letters are unaltered, but they do appear to be selected; a much wider range of responses can be found in the Guestbook where cross-talk between posts generates further posts. The posts in the Church Mail Bag, however, are directly addressed to the makers of the site and treat it as a text with authority which must be responsibly exercised by its author by clear labelling and not playing around with serious matters. A large proportion of these Mail Bag posts list aol.com as the Internet address, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Landover Baptist was pulled from the AOL server with no notice or reason given in January of 1998. There appear to be quite a number of very earnest and literal readers with aol.com addresses who were perhaps in need of the censor's protection. After reading through a goodly number of their posts, however, one begins to have some sympathy for the anguish of simple believers who wish to dissociate themselves from the voices and positions that are parodied.

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