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“Michael Phelps Becomes Immediate Christian Icon After Apparent Shout-Out To God”
“Worship Leader Under Investigation For Not Playing ‘Oceans’”
These headlines from The Babylon Bee are satirical, but they and ones like them carry enough humor and truth about today’s evangelical church to turn the Bee into a popular destination. The satire site has quickly become The Onion for Christians.
Adam Ford—a former atheist, once an aspiring pastor, and now a father of three boys—launched The Babylon Bee in March, and already it has 145,000 fans on Facebook and 34,500 Twitter followers. After six months in existence, the website receives between 1 million and 2 million unique visitors every month. He won that large following on the strength of the content; Ford, 33, has no company or venture capital investors promoting or backing the site.
“It seems to have filled a void in the Christian internet,” Ford said.
And it’s mostly from his brain. At the beginning of this year Ford sat down for a few “blurry” weeks and put the site together, skipping sleep and drinking buckets of coffee. He asked a few other writers to contribute. The site launched with about 20 articles. The site’s name is modeled after a traditional newspaper, like The Sacramento Bee, but published from “Babylon.”
“Satire is a powerful, effective, and biblical tool for conveying ideas—and one that, much like webcomics, belongs almost exclusively to the anti-religious worldview,” Ford wrote on his webcomic site in announcing the Bee’s launch.
Now Ford has transformed the nursery in his house in Detroit, Mich., into his office, pushing two desks together to hold the three screens he works from. Ford wakes up early, reads the Bible, and then spends time with whichever of his young sons wakes up first. He starts working on the site at 7 a.m., and after a couple of hours goes for a run to clear his head. Ideas often come to him during his run. He’ll come back and work until evening, also drawing comics for his own website, Adam4d.com. That was his first project after deciding he couldn’t be a pastor.
That realization came when Ford began suffering from severe anxiety, panic attacks, and clinical depression a few years ago. Suddenly certain social situations, like Bible studies, became crippling. He only agreed to do an interview with me by email because he has learned that real-time interviews can become an “anxiety snowball.”
Ford says a lot of Christians who suffer from mental health issues are afraid to talk about them. “I didn’t grow up in the church, so I don’t have some of that baggage, and I think one reason God has given me these problems is so I can help comfort other Christians who struggle like I do.”
Ford’s wife Chelsea describes him as ‘an intellectual hermit who likes to laugh.’
An avowed atheist as a teenager, Ford viewed religion as “a cheap coping mechanism.” Ford was arrested several times in his teens, and he described himself as “a troublemaker, a fighter, and a huge pothead.” But one man began talking to him about the gospel, and Ford began listening and reading the Bible.
“The words seemed so perfect and ... authoritative to me,” Ford recalled. “I read and read and read. And everything began to change. It was not of my doing, in the least.”
He became a Christian in his early 20s. Ford didn’t want to share his church affiliation, but he shows deep familiarity with evangelical culture. He said he knows that world because “my faith is my life,” but he also reads the “Christian internet” voraciously. Ford’s wife Chelsea describes him as “an intellectual hermit who likes to laugh,” and Ford thinks he might have mild Asperger’s, but he hasn’t been diagnosed. Ford doesn’t have formal comedic “training,” but he likes observational comedy like The Office or Seinfeld.
“I realized at a young age the power of humor as a vehicle for ideas, and made a point to study it in its different forms,” Ford said. “When I started publishing comics on the internet and people started really liking them—I guess that’s when I knew I was onto something.”
Now he is no longer a one-man team. Another paid writer, Kyle Mann, helps him churn out content. Mann, 29, is an elder at a small Southern Baptist church in San Diego, Calif., where he’s currently helping with preaching and leading worship. He has worked as a freelance writer the last seven years, publishing on board game and video game sites.
Mann said he’s constantly writing down ideas for the Bee, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night or stopping in the middle of church setup. He and Adam bounce ideas off each other to see what works, but Ford has the final say on what reaches publication.
Ford calls Mann an “idea fire hose.” They connected when Ford first asked people on his website earlier this year for story submissions. Mann submitted this headline: “Holy Spirit Unable To Move Through Congregation As Fog Machine Breaks.” It was a hit, and Ford asked him for more. Mann says many of the articles he comes up with are autobiographical, “with only names and places changed to protect the accused, you might say.” He says more often than not he’s making fun of himself.
‘Satire is a powerful, effective, and biblical tool for conveying ideas—and one that, much like webcomics, belongs almost exclusively to the anti-religious worldview.’ —Ford
They also have a group that Ford calls the “Think Tank” that kicks around story ideas—Ford won’t reveal its members. One rule the Bee team has is “to satirize opinions we each personally hold dear.” He also isn’t afraid to be controversial.
“There are plenty of things that are off-limits,” Ford said. “As editor, I go with my conscience. I will make mistakes, sure.”
One story after TBN co-founder and prosperity gospel preacher Jan Crouch’s death garnered criticism on social media for insensitivity. The piece described “baffled prosperity gospel preachers” wondering how Crouch could have died given “her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.”
Some fans said the piece went too far and was insensitive to Crouch’s mourning family. Fox News covered the controversy, interviewing professor Barry McCarty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who is a fan of the site but who called the article “beyond the pale.” Ford stands by the piece.
“The prosperity gospel, in my opinion, is one of the more evil, damnable worldviews in existence,” he said. “That one wasn’t an opportunist joke, it was a calculated strike against an egregious, sadistic, false gospel that preys on the vulnerable to enrich itself.”
The Bee is certainly coming from a more conservative evangelical perspective, but it aims darts at evangelicals, the pope, Democrats, and Republicans. It has jabbed televangelist Joel Osteen (“Joel Osteen Apologizes For Using Lord’s Name In Sermon”) and blogger Rachel Held Evans (“Rachel Held Evans Suffers Momentary Lapse Of Doubt”).
The mockery of evangelicals can be more subtle, often targeting cultural Christianity: “Local Family Attending Church On Easter Just In Case God Is Real” or “Pastor Kicks Off Comprehensive New Study Of His Personal Opinions.”
Politics is fair game too. The site has consistently criticized both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “Aides Hurriedly Teaching Trump Bible Stories Via Flannelgraph Ahead Of Meeting With Evangelicals,” reads one headline. Another: “Trump Delivers Eulogy As Republican Party Formally Laid To Rest.” And: “James Dobson Claims Ancient God Cthulhu Is ‘A Baby Christian.’”
Clinton also gets her share of criticism: “Hillary Clinton Rehearsing Convention Speech In Dozens Of Different Dialects.” And: “Massive Dust Storm Envelops East Coast As Hillary Clinton Brushes Off Bible To Court Evangelicals.”
The site especially targets Democrats on the issue of abortion: “DNC Crowd Erupts As Kermit Gosnell Gives Surprise Speech From Prison.” And: “Nation’s Unborn Collectively Recoil As Hillary Clinton Accepts Nomination.”
Ford’s humor is pointed because he is. He finds that his anxiety and depression leave him impatient over “fluff and superficiality.” That’s why he’s drawn to satire.
“People in the church put too much emphasis on ‘being nice,’ at the expense of the truth,” he said. “There are big, weighty, eternally important things being played out every single day, as my anxiety constantly reminds me. ... Wrapping the message in humor helps its reception sometimes.”