At the Babylon Bee, the news is always fake but the stories are often true.
The satire site, which began in early March, features witty headlines that poke fun at the foibles of churchgoers.
The site is the brainchild of Adam Ford, 32, a Detroit dad who quit his day job a year and a half ago to produce Web content.
His first project was Adam4d.com, a Web comic supported by small group of donors and a few ads. He’s aiming bigger with the Babylon Bee, which he said attracted more than 1 million visitors in its first three weeks.
Ford edits the site and has asked unpaid freelancers to write for it. A self-described theology nerd, he hopes to make people laugh and think.
“Most of the articles serve to hold up the truth and let it do the work,” he said. “I hope people leave the site with a spring in their step, or limping.”
Running the site has given Ford a second chance at sharing his faith. He once dreamed of being a pastor, but that plan was derailed when he began suffering panic attacks about five years ago. The first one was so severe that Ford thought he was having a heart attack and almost crashed his car.
The panic attacks were followed by clinical depression. “Pre-anxiety-depression-me wanted to be a preacher,” he wrote on his Web comic. “Now the idea of leading a small Bible study is enough to make me lose sleep and/or be violently ill and/or die.”
His illness left him feeling introverted and isolated. So he turned to writing as way to share both his experience and his faith.
That faith, and medication, have kept him going.
“I’ve been in a dark place before, numerous times, where all I really had to cling to was the gospel,” he said. “God’s promises are what sustained me. I didn’t feel them, but knew them, and that was enough. Feelings can lie, but the truth is the truth.”
Writing the Web comic and now the Babylon Bee helps Ford bring joy into his life.
He has been an equal opportunity satirist. He has poked fun at some of the biggest names in the God business and some of the smallest.
Then there was the time televangelist Joel Osteen’s happy thoughts made him able to fly.
“Well I just decided one day I wasn’t going to let the enemy hold me back anymore, and I started boldly declaring before God each and every day that I was going to fly,” Osteen says in the Bee’s satirical account. Before long, the satire sends Osteen soaring over the former NBA arena that serves as his church’s home.
Another story lauds a small church that finally voted to changes lightbulbs in the entryway after a winter in the dark. “We’re looking forward to putting our dark days behind us,” the church’s pastor declares before announcing plans to start a lightbulb committee.
The Bee excels at poking fun of the small idiosyncrasies of believers, especially evangelical Protestants.
Ford has published Bee stories about a youth pastor who caused an uproar by refusing to “love on” church members — the term is evangelical shorthand for being caring — and about a witty church sign pun that leads to a revival.
“I’ve never talked to God in my life,” a man says in the Bee story, “but when I saw that ‘Son screen prevents sin burn,’ I pulled right over, dropped to my knees, and begged God for forgiveness.”
Among the Bee’s fans is Terry Lindvall, author of “God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert.”
Lindvall, who teaches at Virginia Wesleyan College, said that satirists often act like prophets, helping believers see where they’ve gone astray. “You can be a prophet with solemn pronouncement,” he said. “Or you can be a prophet with comic pronouncements.”
Humor sometimes works better than hellfire and brimstone, Lindvall says. Especially when it’s clear that the satirists are poking fun at themselves as well as their targets.
“People that can laugh at themselves are open to their own repentance and redemption,” he said.
Michael Coughlin, a preacher in Columbus, Ohio, likes the Bee so much that he sent in the story idea about the church with the lightbulb committee.
“You can be satirical without being cruel,” he said. “I chose to make fun of something I love.”
Sometimes the best satire is tempered by love, said Jon Acuff, author of “Stuff Christians Like.”
For eight years, Acuff ran a satirical blog by that name that poked fun at evangelical culture, with its penchant for awkward side hugs, Jesus jokes and phrases such as “Bless her heart.”
Satire works best as a mirror, he said, for both the author and the church. “It’s not you pointing in a mirror at someone else,” he said. “You are looking at yourself as well.”
Acuff is glad to see the success of the Bee. Christians could use a good laugh, he said.
“God invented laughter — it wasn’t an accident,” he said. “We all need to laugh a lot more.”
This post has been updated.