by Josh Karpf
Former Satanist High Priest Now America's #1 Christian Comedian, screamed the flyers peppering the Oberlin College campus. I had seen "Christian comedians." Most Americans are Christian, which would make most American comedians Christian, but that doesn't mean religious humor. Most comics are secular, or even anticlerical to make theism the worthy butt of some jokes. But to Warnke's evangelical fans, "Christian" means something different. Ask them if they're religious and they say "No, I'm a Christian." Ha. Evangelical humor? It could be interesting. It was definitely free. I went.
It was free to me, at least. Everyone else forked over a requested "free will love offering" at the door. "Thank you," urged a Christian waving a can at me. "You're welcome," I said, guarding my wallet and ducking past a table of books, tapes, and SatanBuster T-shirts. (A card requesting another "love gift" was shoved in my hand before I escaped the lobby and walked down the aisle for a front-row seat.)
You never saw so many Christians! The concert was in Finney Chapel, a giant hall devoted for decades to secular concerts for our own students. Oberlin's a secular, even freethinking school. I didn't recognize more than thirty schoolmates in the throng of several hundred. The hall was jammed with remarkably clean-cut and well-scrubbed religious families from neighboring towns and counties. Little boys raced about throwing pieces of paper. Teenage girls stood around looking guardedly cute in tight jeans and baggy sweaters. Wives demurely herded their families to seats found by their husbands, who looked oddly calm and content in their patriarchy.
The road manager warmed up the crowd. "We thank you," he prayed, "that Christians can have more fun than anybody because the big questions are settled." He praising the teens present. Punctuating his words with "man," "y'know," and "weird," he introduced the star of the show. The publicity flyers had shown Warnke casually reclining in jeans and sneakers, looking harmless in long hair, antic grin, and double chin. But when he emerged onstage the his suit was polyester, and his sneakers shoes of leather. He carried a cold black Bible with gold leaf shimmering fiery bronze in the stagelight. Bobby McFerrin's "Be Happy" was piped to the speakers; once it had faded and Warnke had snapped at the sound crew for lousy timing, the show began.
I had wondered what constituted "Christian" comedy. Once you eliminate jokes about religion, sex, and personal misfortune, what's left that was really funny? It wasn't Warnke's material, which concerned Jell-O, yogurt, Teflon, airplanes, nose picking, politicians, five minutes of dog jokes, and ten minutes on "that bastion of society, the family," with its hardworking father, harried mother, and those darned kids. The crowd ate it up. He pretended to insult six or seven sects easily represented in the audience but the gags were anonymous, applicable to any group. He did show skill and insight in fingering evangelicals who needed a godly excuse for everything, including fast food. He threw in a parable now and then, but didn't really begin preaching until an hour had passed. The segue was very smooth, sliding from joking about his "weirdness" (the teen theme again) to chastising the crowd for judging him on the basis of appearance.
The fun being over - if that account of an entire hour seems brief, well, Warnke himself could have been briefer; I am doing the reader a favor - he introduced Warnke Ministries, claiming a staff of 35 Kentuckians handling 50,000 prayer requests per month and proselytizing in prisons and mental hospitals. But he placed the most emphasis on his people's counseling of abused children, and the group's working with local police forces and supplying "expert testimony in court to get convictions" on the relationship of the powers of Satan as used by child abusers!
I'm talking about a little girl in Louisiana who was murdered in 1987 by a group of people who practice a form of satanism. When a satanist kills - if a Satanist kills, and all Satanists do not - they don't kill to spill blood. The idea is when something dies - an animal, a person - the force is released. If the right rituals have been performed, then those present can absorb the power that is released during death. and In the cases of some Satanic cults, the more violent and painful the death, the more power is released, and the more power can be absorbed. They killed this child by cutting her sexual organs out while she was alive. And then they cut her chest open and took out her heart, cut it up in little chunks, and took communion on it. And they cut down both sides of her head and down the back, they peeled the flesh away from the bone, they stole her skull to be used in further ceremonies, and took her mutilated body and put it in a garbage bag and threw her in the dump.
I don't mean to offend you. I don't mean to offend your children. But this sort of activity is offensive to me.
In the following days I searched that year's newspaper indexes for Warnke's little girl, and did not find her. I was not surprised. Of course Warnke would slam "Satanism." Just as Christianity cannot not claim salvation without supporting a devil with which to threaten its followers, Warnke could not claim to be "America's #1 Christian comedian" without his background as a "former Satanist high priest." His little girl was as illusory as the Satan to which he claimed she was sacrificed, no more real than the cannibal Jews of the Middle Ages said to use blood and foreskins from Christian babies. What I had not expected was that Warnke, alternating between holier-than-thou and lowlier-than-thou, would feed pablum humor to a hall of mental children, and then shock them. I assume he shocked them, as they gasped at the right moments. He certainly shocked me.
For the past hour, Warnke had been telling the weakest of jokes, his repertoire limited by the childish conservatism of his audience. He spoke to an group considering itself clean of mind, limiting its porn to Bible atrocity couched in the King's English of the sixteenth century of the myth by which they lived. Then, after introducing the aims of Warnke Ministries, he gave the shock fiction of Satanic crime on a powerful symbol of vulnerability. Can you guess what followed?
You bet your bottom dollar, for were you there, you would have lost it! Money! For a quarter of an hour, Warnke pleaded for funding, sending teen girls out shaking their cans. Decrying any similarity with Jimmy Swaggart or the Bakkers ("Look at me," he leered, tossing his tresses), he beseeched the crowd for specie "to pay the phone bill." The crowd gave generously, the little girl still vivid to them. Warnke returned to jokes - on Southern food, directed at the "ladies fixin' to get married" - to keep the giving going strong as the ushers "ushed" their way to the rear.
The "comedy concert" now little more than a camp meeting, Warnke led a hymn. The crowd knew all the lyrics. I did not stand with them; sitting conspicuously in the front row, I was noticed by Warnke, who beamed a quick, benevolent smile upon me. After the songs he asked the unsaved to stand, forgiving in advance the "righteous and frightened" who sat. From my limited vantage point (I was up front and sitting, after all) I saw only two stand for salvation. One was a woman behind me, bent with age, who audibly swore as she struggled to rise with help from relatives. The other was a man who had heckled Warnke. He could have been a plant - shills are common at such gatherings - but for this crowd, I'm sure he was just a family man who wished to save face via submissive repentance. He'd probably been saved twice this month.
The concert ended with Warnke praying for the crowd and reminding it that offering buckets still circulated. The sheep, newly fleeced by yet another traveling shepherd, this one a Tartuffe of polyester instead of sackcloth, left Finney Chapel, discussing ecumenism as they sorted themselves into sectarian crews as their church buses, youth group vans, and family cars began to pack them off for home.
I wrote "Christian Comedy from Hell" after attending the concert, which was sponsored by the poor dupes of Oberlin Christian Fellowship in 1988. The article appeared in Big Apple Atheist in 1991. The exposé "Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke," by John Trott and Mike Hertenstein, first appeared in 1992 as a thirty-thousand-word article in Cornerstone magazine, and was published as a full-length book by Cornerstone Press in 1993. The book is still in print and is available from Amazon.com. Another Cornerstone update was featured in 1992. In January 1995 the Skeptical Inquirer reviewed the book. A 1995 statement is available online from the Watchman Expositor.Back to home page for more unholy essays!