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27.02.2017

Are you Sitting Uncomfortably?

I’ll never forget my university admissions interview. I applied to read English and was asked the predictable question: ‘What have you read lately?’

I began reeling off a pre-prepared list of novels, plays and non-fiction fare, each title extracting a look of mild disinterest. Becoming increasingly desperate, I offered: ‘I did read the whole Bible over the summer.’ This (to my great relief) unlocked a fascinating conversation culminating in the question: ‘Do you think it is appropriate for authors to make fun of the Bible?’

Although there wasn’t time to address it in my interview, behind this question lies another, wider, one that I’ve been considering ever since: when is it appropriate for artists to joke about religion? Or are there some subjects that are simply too important, too risky, too taboo to be mocked by popular culture?

According to recent events, perhaps not. Last week the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize was announced. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a fierce satire on race relations in America, will now be sitting on many literary lovers’ to-read piles. The novel tells the shocking story of a black man who attempts to reintroduce slavery and segregation to his American ghetto.

Beatty addresses the delicate issue of racism head-on and his witty, scathing tone has won him high praise. Amanda Foreman, chair of this year’s judging panel, described the novel as ‘both funny and painful at the same time’. She continued: ‘Fiction should not be comfortable. The truth is rarely pretty and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. That is why the novel works. While you’re being nailed, you’re being tickled.’

Foreman used a curiously Christian metaphor. Indeed, we might soon see more uncomfortable, un-pretty satires that address religion as well as racism. So here’s my prediction for fiction’s near future: prepare to be shocked, outraged, and challenged by books over the coming years. Prepare for Christianity to take a battering. Prepare to ask, again, when should our art satirise our faith? Prepare to be pushed for an answer.

The Sellout opens with the narrator sitting on ‘a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.’ We as readers might also need to get used to sitting uncomfortably as the literary world looks towards bold satires that agitate our most challenging taboos.

Rachel Helen Smith
Rachel works in digital marketing for Newcastle University.

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Rachel Smith

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