I’ve never been ashamed to openly admit that I’m a Christian (or that I was a virgin, for that matter, way back in 2011 when I still updated this blog on the reg). That being said, the truth is that I spend precious little time in faith-related spaces on the internet. I might pause mid-scroll when I spot an interesting thread from /r/christianity, but the majority of my engagement with religious writing online comes from Facebook, where a friend will share a link to a Relevant article or a rebuttal from a Professor of Theology at Wheaton College to a write-up on how his school has become too “woke.” But that wasn’t always the case. There was a point in time, almost exactly six years ago, when the faith-related internet content I read and enjoyed was of a decidedly different bent.
The Babylon Bee was launched on March 1st, 2016, and by all accounts was something believers never even knew we wanted: a Christian version of The Onion. In its early days we were treated, and I write this with complete seriousness, to such satiric bangers as “Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus” and “Witty Church Sign Sparks Revival.” These were articles clearly written with the kind of inside baseball that is so integral to comedy, deftly lampooning the life experiences of countless Christians. And, just like The Onion, The Babylon Bee was an immediate hit on platforms like Facebook, where the headline alone is enough to sell the joke.
As the years went by, however, I noticed that not only were fewer members of my various circles linking to the site, but those that were yielded stories that were less and less focused on (sorry about the alliteration) critiquing contemporary Christian culture and more and more focused on…politics.
To be clear, it’s important to note that it’s generally impossible to be apolitical. Sitting down to eat in a restaurant may seem wholly innocuous, until we consider what it once meant to do so while Black in the United States. Marriage is a commonplace, run-of-the-mill union between a man and a woman, but when it isn’t is seen as something else entirely. Even admitting to being a practicing member of an organized religion as I did in the opening line to this post can be hugely divisive depending on the context. All of that is to say that The Babylon Bee was always political, as much as anything is or can be. What actually happened, as you probably guessed from the screenshot above, is that the Bee took a hard-line stance in aligning itself with the American political right.
The how is quite straightforward, and to avoid simply regurgitating its History section on Wikipedia, boils down to this: founder Adam Ford sold the The Babylon Bee to present owner and CEO Seth Dillon in early 2018.¹ The marked shift in content took place not too long afterwards.
I’m well aware that referring to this as “The Greatest Loss in Online Christendom” is a tall order, but it genuinely makes me feel sad. Countless websites from Cracked to ComicsAlliance are mere shadows of their former selves, and I’ve mourned many of them, but it’s so much more than just The Babylon Bee churning out content that doesn’t appeal to yours truly. It’s that the site went from producing funny, relatable, good Christian satire to…not doing that.
The Babylon Bee Identifies As Not Funny…
Full disclosure, but while I’d been meaning to write this post for a little over a year now, what led to me actually setting fingers to keys were two recent catalysts, the first of which was an episode of Some More News titled “Why Is Conservative Comedy So… Not Very Good”-
-specifically the section starting at 1:01:48, the title of which I stole for my heading above. Host Cody Johnston dives into the site repeatedly returning to a singular “joke” which, if you haven’t guessed from the name, is focused on trans people and gender identity. Here’s owner and CEO Seth Dillon proving that very fact, and I genuinely have no idea whether or not he’s even aware of this.
I mean, come on.
Setting aside the Bee’s obsession with harping about gender, there’s an illuminating interview on The Atlantic with the site’s editor in chief Kyle Mann that helps spotlight their ethos when it comes to comedy.
Green: You guys wrote an article in January 2020 that was shared roughly 3 million times, claiming that Democrats called for the American flag to be flown at half-staff when the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in an American strike.
What makes this funny? I know that’s the worst question to ask somebody who writes jokes.
Mann: It’s funny because General Soleimani died and then they called for flags to be flown at half-mast. Get it?
Green: But that’s what I’m saying. Besides just saying the joke again, what makes it funny?
Mann: Do you want me to explain the joke to you? Because the joke is that General Soleimani died and Democrats were sad.
If you don’t know why that’s funny, then you’re not the audience for the joke. The funniest part is that it got fact-checked because it was so believable that Democrats would do that. That’s a real honor.
How is it that Mann, who at the time had been writing for the online publication for going on five years, was unable to break down the humour in the content he’s responsible for? Although humour is subjective, it’s also structured. Satire in particular largely requires one of four elements: Exaggeration, incongruity, reversal, and parody. I ended up cutting a line here where I wrote “While I’m not saying that the Bee’s editor in chief is required to have an in-depth knowledge of the nuances of comedy writing,” because after further consideration realized I absolutely am. Heading a humour publication fundamentally requires you to be able to explain a joke, and the reticence or inability to do so is telling.
This point is short and sweet, but what happened to the headlines about churchgoing tween boys trying to impress their peers by carrying multiple chairs under each arm? A brief look at the front page for March 31st, 2022 yields headlines about new programming on CNN+ and a dig at President Biden-
-and scrolling further down reveals yet another dig at Biden, a blatant advertisement for their own subscription service, a story on iPhones autocorrecting every word to “gay”, yet another one of their relentless slams of AOC and, blessedly, a headline on how a father with the stomach flu felt like he was literally dying. That’s relatable content, folks.
One out of seven ain’t bad, but given how general it is, that’s the perfect segue into my final point-
…Or Really All That Christian
The Babylon Bee refers to itself on its About page as “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire,” but what is inherently Christian about implying that Fauci is a liar (“Fauci Wins Oscar For Best Dramatic Performance”)? On average only one of the six to eight daily news stories published by the Bee have anything at all to do with the Bible or church or Christianity in general so the description feels generous at best.
Part of what made The Babylon Bee really sing in its heyday wasn’t just jokes about how the rear pews are the most popular, but takedowns of shameful figures within Christianity, even catching ire for mocking prosperity gospel Jan Crouch on the day she died. Now to be fair, just three days ago the site returned to that well when it gleefully jumped aboard the bandwagon that so many other online outlets have in ghoulishly riffing on the altercation at the 94th Academy Awards (as seen on the right), but these moments are painfully few and far between.
It’s increasingly saddening and frustrating as the rare glimmers of the Bee’s former self are really, genuinely biting. One fake news story in particular (“Baptist Church Sings ‘Don We Now Our Straight Apparel’) handily pokes fun at the very Christian tendency to see Satanic or ungodly influence peeking out from behind every corner and our consequent overboard reactions. I was absolutely delighted by this video they produced-
-to the point that I chose to break my self-imposed rule to not link to any of their content so you could see it for yourselves. It riffs on a number of topics in rapid succession, from the homogeneity of Christian women’s sartorial choices to their tendency to fall for multi-level marketing schemes, and does so flawlessly.
It works partly for the same reason that Sarah Z’s videos on the Tumblr and fandom do, because they were there at the time and are deeply familiar with the subject matter (Sarah is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns). That idea is echoed by founder Adam Ford when he answered why satire is important in an interview with Christianity Today (emphasis added):
It’s important to look at what we’re doing, to “examine ourselves.” Satire acts like an overhead projector, taking something that people usually ignore and projecting it up on the wall for everyone to see. It forces us to look at things we wouldn’t normally look at and makes us ask if we’re okay with them. And sometimes it just makes us laugh. That’s all healthy …
There is so much more that I could write about The Babylon Bee. I could go in depth covering the secondary catalyst to my writing this: the publication’s Twitter account being banned from posting for a transphobic article it shared.
The “joke” in this case was naming United States Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, as “Man of the Year.” Dillon’s refusal to delete the offending tweet means that while the page is back up, they are unable to post anything new.
Speaking of Twitter, I could go on about how Dillon and Mann use their personal accounts to rail against the COVID-19 vaccine and how that has in turn leaked into many of The Babylon Bee’s stories. Or spent more time delving into how gross it feels to have the site be backed by My Patriot Supply, with a special act-now deal for emergency food supplies, while contributing to an atmosphere of fear and distrust of the government. Or I could have written about whether or not, in the current age of misinformation, the Bee is even capable of creating decent satire at all.
All of this is worth reading more about, especially the latter, given just how much discourse has taken place regarding fact-checking resources and The Babylon Bee. Some have argued (correctly, for what it’s worth) that overzealousness in marking such headlines as “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication” as fake news does more harm than good, but there’s also the sobering truth that there are readers who are unable to discern fact from fiction (you’ll have to click through the images on the tweet to see the responses).
There is a lot to say about The Babylon Bee, but instead I’ll end on this: The Babylon Bee used to be good, and then it stopped. It’s not even that it ceased updating like other outlets, which would have been a mercy. The online publication adjusting course away from relatable jabs at Christian culture and toward content that only heightens the increased polarization of our world is a tragedy. Instead of “[examining] ourselves,” as Ford wanted, that energy is projected outwards in a way that further others those that many of us already find little common ground with. Instead of bringing Christians together to laugh it furthers divides within the body of Christ.
As Susan Campbell, a former newspaper editor and lecturer at the University of New Haven, shared in the Forbes article on the Bee’s Twitter ban:
“We need more satire, but I question the motive of The Babylon Bee. It seems to have a lot of stories that make fun of the transgender community.”