The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus by Tom Breen

I won The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture by Tom Breen in a Facebook or Twitter giveaway from the good folks at Baylor Press. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it but is sounded interesting and it was a quick read. So I bumped it up the TBR pile.

I am afraid I am going to offer one of my truisms again. What you think of it will have a lot to do with what you expect and the attitudes you bring to it.

Here is Publishers Weekly:

In this entertaining gem of religious satire, Breen, an AP journalist, skewers American Christianity from every imaginable angle. Calling himself the ‘Internet Theologian,’ Breen romps through the Bible, religious history, denominational differences. Halloween, contemporary Christian music and spectator sports, among other topics. Some of the book is pure silliness, but other sections achieve that elusive ‘perfect storm’ where humor is sharpened by raw intelligence and a keen knowledge of history and theology. Even Breen’s glossary of terms is hilarious. Heck, even his endnotes are funny and not to be missed. (One says merely, ‘Seriously. Wasn’t Calvin a nut?’) Readers seeking irreverent, laugh-out-loud musings on the sometimes ludicrous intersections between faith and pop culture will want to read this insouciant guide.

If you want satire, there is plenty of satire. And there is lot of humor that I found quite funny – from laugh out loud to quiet chuckle. But the larger question is whether the satire and humor adds up to something more than entertaining reading.

My take after the jump … defines satire as follows:


1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.

3. a literary genre comprising such compositions.

But let’s turn to the Wikipedia entry on satire as well:

Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.

The problem is that it is not always clear what Breen is skewering because he strongly disapproves of it and what he is simply using as a comedy foil.

The introduction notes that while pop culture may seem like oil and water they are actually deeply intertwined today:

Americans, in other words, have take to Christianity the way we’ve taken to everything else – with an orgy of scatter-brained, well-meaning-but-crazy exertions that ultimately leave everyone feeling exhausted and slightly queasy.  And when these exertions find a public expression, that expression is what Americans do better than anyone in the world: pop culture.

As a result, today’s Christianity is first and foremost dynamic. It is not merely something people are guilted into doing on Sundays by their nagging, churchy spouses.  While that may have been true for our boring parents and their irrelevant forms of worship, today the varieties of religious expression include not just church, but rock concerts, skateboarding competitions, wrestling matches, video games, bestselling novels, major motion pictures, and tiny comic books telling you the Devil invented trick-or-treating as a way to lure unsuspecting children into eternal damnation.

And a chunk of the book makes fun of – and criticizes by extension – the extremes of this “everything must be relevant” obsession of too many churches.

But another theme of the book seems to be that popular culture and Christianity have always intersected in both positive and negative ways. And for a long period in Europe and the West Christianity was the dominant culture. The two ideas sometimes seem to clash depending on the issue being satirized.

Sometimes Breen seems to be making fun of things simply because they are funny.  For example, the sections dealing with Christians and holidays are hillarious to anyone who grew up hearing the debates about Christmas , Halloween, etc. Breen notes that an increasing number of Christians are shunning October 31 because of its pagan roots:

This may come as a surprise to those Americans who, as children, associated it with primarily the Hershey corporation and, as adults, thinkof it almost soley as an opportunity to see young women dressed as naughty nurses. But, ironically, it’s a conviction shared by many Christians and pagans, and one backed up by a great deal of poor scholarship. Exactly the kind of scholoarship most appropriate for the Internet Theologian, in other words.

But some are more effective at using humor to make a more serious point.  The chapter on A Field Guide to the Major North American Jesuses also successfully skewers the various cultural attempts to rub all the rough edges off of Jesus; to make a Jesus of one’s own. The next chapter notes the hippie mindset that underlys so much of the seeker culture in the modern church.

Which brings me to central question with the book.  The best form of satire, in my opinion, offers not just biting humor but insight into the thing being mocked. And Breen’s shtick – even if over-the-top at times – is funny, and he successfully highlights some of the absurd cultural traits of what might be called the evangelical subculture, in the end you aren’t left with much besides jokes. He doesn’t help the reader understand the conflicts and tensions very much.

The “Dispatches” of the subtitle is important here. The book has the feel of essays and blog posts combined into book form. While the jokes – including footnotes – build on each other (the mock anti-intellectualism, etc.) the sections don’t really add up to more than the disparate parts.

As I read I enjoyed the humor and chuckled at the asides and silliness but after I finished I couldn’t really offer any particular insights or deeper points made by Breen. It has an empty calorie quality to it.

And in the end I think, as noted above, what you are looking for determines your enjoyment. If you just want to read some funny satire of the Christian subculture you will enjoy this book. And in many cases, the more you are familiar with the issues and attributes the funnier you will find it.

But if you are looking for more than skewering – if you are looking for a more serious underpinning to the satire – I think you will be slight disappointed.  To my mind Breen simply doesn’t offer anything coherent in terms of a response.

Christians can be funny, and anti-intellectual and ahistorical and even un-Biblical in their pursuit of smorgasborad faith that is relevant and integrated into pop culture (or in building a separate culture). But why this is dangerous and to be avoided is not exactly spelled out in any clear way. And how the various problems inter-connect is also left unclear.  Readers are instead mostly left to come to their own conclusions about what it all means.

Perhaps I am just expecting too much out of humor book but I think many readers will be looking for more than just laughs – particularly those who take these issues seriously. Of course Breen might just call them eggheads …

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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