this weekAll Lit Up

October 17, 2004

The Wittenburg Door

The strange world of religious satire

Although I hesitate to admit this, I subscribe to a religious magazine, and with minor lapses, have done so since 1985. I don’t often make statements like this lest I be branded a holy roller, which I most definitely am not. But this magazine is unique in the world of religious publishing, and though it has its faults, it’s a publication I’m not embarrassed to have on my coffee table next to Wired, Harper’s, National Geographic, and The New Yorker. It’s called The Wittenburg Door, and it bills itself as “The World’s Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine.”

The magazine was founded in 1971 by two youth workers named Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice. Yaconelli was a minister in extreme northern California who had had the distinction of being kicked out of two different Bible colleges; Rice was a writer and bluegrass banjo player living in extreme southern California. Their company, Youth Specialties, published resources for Christian youth workers. Yaconelli and Rice were both devoted Christians, but saw a lot of problems in the organized church. Hoping to provoke reform—or at least self-awareness—they began putting together a slim, bimonthly humor magazine poking fun at the hypocrisy and failings of the Christian church from the inside. They called the magazine The Wittenburg Door, after the church door in Wittenberg, Germany where protestant reformer Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses in 1517. (They kept the misspelling even after it was pointed out—an inside joke that they felt was a perfect example of how the church should be able to laugh at itself.)

To Wit
Ostensibly aimed at youth ministers and the like, The Wittenburg Door quickly developed—excuse the term—a cult following among people who were disillusioned with church dogma. Sometimes described as a religious version of Mad Magazine, it featured interviews with leading thinkers and media personalities, incisive feature articles and editorials, parodies of books, magazines, and films, satirical cartoons, and so on. The magazine was unapologetically irreverent, leaving no golden cow unturned (and no metaphor unmixed).

And it was very, very funny. A recurring feature in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a comic strip called “Dogs Who Know the Lord.” I couldn’t do the cartoons justice in words, but I can give you a brief taste. In one strip, a dog smells smoke and barks to alert his owner. The owner says, “What is it, boy? What’s the matter, Toby? Is something wrong?” Toby replies, “Yes. Your heart is on a path whereof one gets singed, if not completely engulfed by the raging fires of hell!” The owner scowls and replies, “I thought I told you to keep your stinkin’ yap shut about that nonsense!” One of my favorite columns was “Loser of the Month.” In each issue, editors awarded the coveted “Green Weenie” to someone they felt exemplified stupidity, greed, or heartlessness in the name of religion. And then there was the “Wittenburg Dare.” Readers were asked to perform scavenger-hunt-like tasks and send in the results, to be published in the next issue. For example, take a photograph of the worst-looking car actually driven by a minister, someone asleep in church, or graffiti about God. In August of 1985, they even published a “Swimsuit Issue,” featuring photos of pastors’ wives in swimsuits.

It was shortly thereafter that I became acquainted with the magazine. I was attending a college that had a seminary attached to it, and one day I stumbled across the magazine while doing research in the seminary library. I couldn’t believe the Powers That Be allowed such clearly heretical stuff to be seen by students. I decided I’d better subscribe before someone figured out what it was and had them all burned.

The magazine was supposed to be published bimonthly, but it was almost always late (sometimes by several bimonths). It was also famous for typos, layout blunders, and a general look and feel much more reminiscent of an underground political rag than a serious magazine. But that was also part of its appeal—it enhanced the impression you were reading something subversive and maybe even dangerous. In 1989, in an effort to expand its readership, the magazine shortened its name to The Door and adopted a new, slick layout, complete with glossy paper and two-color spreads. That may not sound very impressive, but for a fringe magazine that had always taken pride in its edgy “just-typed” look, it was quite a change.

The Swinging Door
The Door was moderately successful for a while, as was Youth Specialties, but eventually the focus of the publisher and that of the magazine diverged. After a couple of decades as Senior Editor, Yaconelli began to feel it was time to find the magazine a new owner. So in 1996, publication of The Door shifted to a Dallas-based outfit called Trinity Foundation. Unlike Youth Specialties, which catered to the clergy, Trinity Foundation is a charitable organization serving the homeless population in Texas and elsewhere. But they are most widely known for their work investigating fraud among televangelists. Volunteers monitor and record hundreds of hours of TV broadcasts every week, attend live tapings undercover, and dig through dumpsters—all for the sake of exposing abuse of the public trust by preachers who solicit donations with outrageous promises of divine blessings, and then spend it all on lavish homes and cars. The organization’s work has figured prominently in exposés by 60 Minutes, Inside Edition, and other news programs.

Although The Door lost Yaconelli, they picked up someone with equally good credentials for this kind of work—Joe Bob Briggs, the legendary drive-in movie critic of Grapevine, Texas. Joe Bob Briggs (the nom de plume of journalist and actor John Bloom) would be at the top of my list if I were writing about interesting people. He has had a colorful career mostly centered around pop culture, bad movies and/or gambling. He also, strangely enough, has some background in theology. Although he’s listed on the masthead as “Associate Publisher,” his actual contributions to the magazine are few and far between. Still, there’s no one I’d trust more to call a spade a spade. For a while, Joe Bob appeared as a commentator on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” where he reviewed all the wackiest things TV preachers had said and done in the past week. (Collections of these videos are still available from The Door.)

That’s Entertainment?
As a result of the publisher’s focus on televangelists, a lot of articles in The Door these days lampoon the likes of Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn. While I have no doubt that all such criticisms are richly deserved, it does seem like preaching to the choir. The sorts of people who read The Door are not, on the whole, those who would be likely to watch preachers on TV, except as a sleep aid. I mean, they’re funny, but not that funny.

But Door staffers clearly watch more than ministers on TV. The cover of the September/October 1996 issue declared Beavis and Butt-Head “Theologians of the Year,” a decision that resulted in the magazine being dropped by a major distributor that had previously placed them in Christian book stores across the U.S. (For some reason, naming Mother Teresa “Loser of the Decade” a few months earlier didn’t provoke such a strong reaction.) They’ve also parodied everyone from Bart Simpson to the Pope, in keeping with their pledge to be “equal opportunity offenders.”

No Laughing Matter

At the same time, the type of no-holds-barred satire that characterized the early days of the magazine is largely gone. Having watched The Door evolve over almost 20 years (and flipping through my collection of back issues as I write this), it strikes me that the magazine is neither as funny nor as thought-provoking as it once was. For my tastes, it’s a bit heavy on evangelical language, and it seems to define authentic religious experience rather narrowly. Whether because the magazine has changed, because I have, or both, it just doesn’t appeal to me the way it used to.

And I’m certainly not alone. My August/September 1986 issue (published in November, natch) indicates a total paid circulation of 19,609; by September of 2002, that number had dropped to 4,137—and is apparently still on the decline. Trinity Foundation publishes The Door at a loss, and has more than once sent out pleas for donations to keep the magazine afloat. As for me, I’ll keep subscribing as long as the magazine is published, purely on principle—I believe in the value of holding self-important leaders and institutions accountable for their actions, and in the power of humor to do so. —Joe Kissell

UPDATE: Mike Yaconelli died tragically in a car accident in October, 2003. In January, 2005, the magazine permanently changed its name back to The Wittenburg Door (misspelling intact) as a tribute to Yaconelli.

More Information about The Wittenburg Door…

The Wittenburg Door’s official Web site is located at www.WittenburgDoor.com.

(Almost) everything you ever wanted to know about Joe Bob Briggs is on his home page.

Mike Yaconelli ran Youth Specialties until his death in 2003. Wayne Rice still plays the banjo.