What is The Wittenburg Door and why is it needed?

The Wittenburg Door is a satire magazine that has punctured the pretenses of the church for 50 years (give or take a few years of hiatus).

A youth minister named Mike Yaconelli helped start the magazine  with a band of “holy fools” back in the early 1970s.

This was during the days of the “Jesus Movement” on college campuses in an America filled with cultural turmoil and searching youth.

These young, dedicated believers took great delight in exposing Christianity’s feet of clay and tipping over its idols. They shared a passion to use the magazine to expose abuses of religion through confrontational, unconventional, sarcastic, and sharp-edged satire.

(Satire is a time-honored prophetic tool–it was used by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus himself with wonderful effect.)

“I think we all saw a lot of things wrong in the church,” recalls Ben Patterson, the magazine’s first editor.  That was an understatement.

They named the publication after the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, where the great reformer  Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses. The Door’s purpose was to call the church to accountability.

The Wittenburg Door started out with 16-pages typed on a typewriter, with almost no illustrations other than a little clip art. It was printed in black and white on flimsy newsprint. It had the look and feel of other “underground” radical  newspapers springing up in cities around the country.

Early on, an unnamed designer misspelled the name on the logo as The Wittenburg Door. But no one was inclined to change the title back.

The circulation peaked at about 20,000 in the 1980s. Often banned in Christian bookstores and kept under the counter in seminary libraries, The Door served for years as a touchstone of hope for thousands of its readers who were often on the periphery of church life. It gave people permission to be different from the normal “churchianity”  they saw around them.

But by 1995, Yaconelli had mellowed. He also had founded Youth Specialties, a resource company for youth ministries. The magazine “no longer really fit within the context” of what the company was doing, according to Karla Yaconelli, his wife.

Yaconelli sold the magazine for $1 to the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based non-profit that had gained notoriety for exposing televangelist fraud and abuses.

With Trinity as publisher the magazine expanded its size, added color throughout, won design awards and got plenty of publicity. But for a number of reasons  it failed to solve the problem of a dwindling subscription list, and had to stop publishing in  2008.

For 50 years, The Wittenburg Door has  gone after people who take themselves too seriously, using humor to point out when they are putting their self-interests above the message of Christ.

We think the prophetic message of The Door is needed as much today as it ever was.

There are many seemingly more “important” ministries the church is engaged in. But when Christian institutions undertake ministry while full of pretense and hypocrisy, all their good works turn to chaff. And there are too many churches generating chaff today.

Why then does the church– and the world– need the mocking voice of a holy fool?

For the same reason every kingdom needs a jester.

In the medieval court, the  jester was a counterweight to the gravity of the king, a reminder to those in authority of the need for humility.

The jester is a clown, a fool, a buffoon who can’t take himself seriously in this world, yet abides in the center of worldly power. He holds a mirror up to those in charge.

–The jester’s floppy crown and jangly sceptre show the true backruptcy of the ruling power.

–His broad comedy, ribald insults and clever jibes combine to make a serious point even as they entertain.

–His juggling emphasizes the impermanence of this world.

–His sleight of hand tricks show we can’t trust our senses.

The point is this world and our assumptions about it are absurd. The jester highlights that absurdity. He has nothing to lose and nothing to prove.

The Door’s mission–like the jester’s– is to mercilessly make fun of the petty, frivolous side issues that consume most church congregations and clergy, and skewer pop religion and cult heresies, driving a wedge between soul and spirit.

The Door exposes life’s grand charade, rips away the cloak hiding the idolatry in both our society and our personal lives. It points out the futility of all our self-effort. 

When the church is finished laughing at itself, it’s ready to preach the cross in humility.

Today there is no other magazine performing this needed service. At least that we are aware.

The result is an increasingly misguided idea of what the gospel is, the growth in popularity of the health and wealth message, scandals, political power grabs and a gradual surrender to spiritual malaise and cultural forces across the denominational spectrum.

Without The Door, there’s no one to lance that festering boil.

Written by John Rutledge in 2009 and still applicable today.

2 replies on “What is The Wittenburg Door and why is it needed?”

In a deeply visceral sort of way, I’ve missed the Door. As mentioned in the article, its voice is badly needed and was never replaced. Is there a better way to navigate current polarities than by the injection of salty satire?

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