The rise and fall of Big Butter Jesus
In my hometown in Southern Ohio there was a prominent prosperity gospel congregation. It was classic predatory televangelist fare: spray-tanned pastors soliciting money from a primarily working class community by promising wealth and blessings from God, and then using that wealth and blessings to buy themselves fancy cars and horse farms.
They did one thing to set themselves apart with all of that money, and commissioned Southern Ohio’s largest Jesus statue, constructed on the front lawn of the church. It was a six story Christ, frozen in a touchdown pose, facing across the highway at a local porn shop and strip club so patrons would know that Jesus was watching.
It was made of styrofoam with a thin fiberglass skin, which probably was the economical choice, but not a good aesthetic one. It gave the statue a yellowish tint, so people took to calling it Big Butter Jesus.
This is a true story.
One night, tragically, it got hit by lightning and burst into flames. In just a few hours it burned to the ground leaving behind just a metal frame. It was left looking like post-apocalyptic Terminator Jesus in the end.
The burning made national news because this is an objectively funny story. Gaudy, styrofoam Jesus destroyed by lightning, the quintessential act of God.
But also, if you’ve had a religious history, don’t you feel kind of bad laughing about it?
Even if it was made of plastic, you know that the statue was paid for by donations from a whole crowd of people who believed that they were giving to God. I can testify to the truth of that because I went to that church occasionally when I was a teenager. I’m sure I put money in their offering plate more than once because I consistently did when I went to church. I gave a 10% tithe for years because that’s what I thought God wanted. Probably some of my own money helped pay for that flaming, styrofoam Jesus.
It cost a quarter of a million dollars to build. It caused three quarters of a million in damage when it burned. That’s a lot of poor people’s money.
It was an easy target for jokes, but to the congregation Big Butter Jesus was no joke. The people who built it were expressing sincere spiritual motivations. It probably meant a lot to people in that church, and I’m sure tears were shed watching it melt into the ground.
So, is it okay to laugh about this sort of thing? Is it different from laughing while Notre Dame burned? Was that okay to laugh at?
The beliefs that drove the donations - even if sincere - were clearly wrong. If there’s a God, seriously, there’s no way they want rich grifters spending poor peoples’ money on giant styrofoam statues of themselves.
But that’s true of so many things in religion. If there’s a God, there’s no way they’re actually like what any religion says about them. Every historical religion has objectively untrue, conflicting beliefs. It’s human nature to latch on to ideas that are untrue for complex reasons. Religions all have beliefs and practices that are very easy to make fun of. Where’s the line?
Can you laugh when the Ark is damaged in a flood?
A few years later, and just down the road from Big Butter Jesus in Grant County, Kentucky, fundamentalists built a gigantic scale model of Noah’s Ark according to the dimensions described in the Biblical book of Genesis. It cost a reported $100 million dollars of donated money and was cast with the grand vision of lending credence to a literal interpretation of scripture. As with the styrofoam Christ, I’m sure that some small amount of my own money went to building it because Angel and I gave regularly to a church in Louisville that supported Answers in Genesis, the organization that paid for it. (For a time in my youth I was enthusiastic about the cause, because I thought evolution was a lie from the devil.)
Shortly after it opened, the property experienced damage due to rain during a weather event that was significantly shorter than 40 days and 40 nights. The organization entered a protracted legal battle with the insurers who declined to cover the cost.
Once again, that’s an objectively funny story. Noah’s Ark, built with grandiose ideas about asserting fundamentalist superiority, damaged by a little bit of rain. Your Ark can’t stand up to the smallest act of God, so you sue the insurance company to pay for it.
Is it okay to laugh about this one? Once again, this is built on the backs of thousands of people’s sincere religious beliefs. But it’s also a structure paid for by a well-funded organization that is dedicated to the spread of false ideas. They’re spending a lot of money to do active damage to the cause of human progress. Surely it’s okay to laugh, right?
I don’t want to tell you how to answer to that question, but personally, as someone who played some small role in the construction of those golden calves, I retain the right to laugh when they burn. It just seems fair.
I don’t think that you should go out of your way to mock someone’s sincerely held beliefs. Religious beliefs are almost always more sophisticated than any public caricature might indicate, even if they seem as silly as a styrofoam Jesus or a roadside oddity Ark. All beliefs have a purpose for the believer, and they might feel like they’re relying on them to survive.
But for people who’ve been scammed or misled, I think the right to laugh at your deceiver is fundamental. For the person who’s been damaged by religion, laughter is one way to stop being victimized - to stop religion from being the source of negative emotion, and allow it to become a source of humor. It’s a way to assert your own autonomy over it. You don’t laugh at a charging gorilla in the wild, but you might if it were behind glass in the zoo. You don’t laugh at styrofoam Jesus if you still think that Pastor’s got a message from God, but you do when you decide to stop giving him money because you know that he’s full of it.
I can’t speak for everyone, but as someone who was misled by false beliefs and the institutions that propagated them, and who sincerely maintained them myself, I retain the right to laugh because otherwise I’ll just get angry. Laughing makes it feel like the power behind the ideas is in the proper place - the ideas don’t hold any sway over me anymore. If you're in the same boat, I personally won't judge you if humor helps you cope.
Is it okay to laugh at someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs? I don’t know, but I do know that it’s okay to laugh at things that have harmed you. If there’s a God, there’s no reason to mock them, but it’s a very different thing to say burn, styrofoam Jesus, burn.
I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation is my attempt to provide some catharsis for people who've left behind religious systems that left them feeling scammed or misled. It's full of this kind of ridiculousness.