A self-styled “evangelist” vlogger in Nevada was able to gin up yet another silly media frenzy with a video criticizing Starbucks for their red holiday-themed cup. This time it’s not old Pat Robertson on TBN, folks. It’s an idiot with an iPhone.
Now, the media is gleefully reporting this as if there is a massive Christian outrage campaign against Starbucks.
Since zero respectable Christians actually give a crap about Starbucks’ red cups, this to me suggests one more reason we need strong denominations and church authority structures—so idiots like this can be plausibly disclaimed and shut up. Christianity doesn’t have an image problem, it has an authority problem.
Also, Starbucks coffee is burnt and nasty. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it.
Consider the well-worn saying that “God has a sense of humor.” This is usually meant to refer generally to the unexplained ironies and lucky chances we encounter in life. What I mean, though, is that God as a person, or rather, as three persons in undivided unity, has a personal style of humor which he employs in speech, often through the literary device of satire.
What is satire?
Satire is a genre that, while broad, has certain definite characteristics. The literary distinction between friendly Horatian satire and splenetic Juvenalian satire illustrates two poles of the satirical genre. Any particular satire can fall anywhere in between, and may retain characteristics of other literary genres. The following summarizes the essential character of satire:
In his classic The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.” Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry. . . .
Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized. In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as one wants to be treated by others). [source]
This “better world” of normal ideals is an essential element of satire, and may either be explicitly referenced or left unspoken. This often depends on whether the intended audience is aware of or in agreement with the “norms.”
Satire is not always in keeping with the taboos of polite society. Many find it low and offensive. Ambrose Bierce observes this tendency in his satiric definition of satire:
An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a sour-spirited knave, and his every victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent. [source]
Although Bierce is right that Americans do not care for ‘negativity,’ the act of ‘tearing down’ has its right place, if not in the American psyche, at least in the pages of Scripture, associated with the destruction of physical and theological idols—as in this verse from Deuteronomy:
You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. (Deut. 12:3 ESV)
The purpose of satire is the destruction of false idols and the restoration of true norms.
Satire in the Old Testament
God often uses satire in the Old Testament. The book of 1 Samuel tells an incident in which the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and carried as a prize into the temple of their fish-god Dagon, whose image had a man’s upper body and a fish’s tail. After the first night, the priests of Dagon return to find their god doing obeisance to the Ark. They set him up again only to return the next morning to find him again fallen down in front of the Ark, but this time his head and hands are broken off and sitting on the threshold of the temple. The Philistines are also afflicted by painful boils and mice. But rather than worship the true God, they have his Ark sent away—with offerings of golden boils and mice—to propitiate themselves and their own impotent god.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah calls the people of Israel together along with the priests of Baal and presents a sharp-edged object lesson. After the people fail to choose between Baal and Jehovah, Elijah proposes a test: although the prophets of Baal outnumber him 450 to one, the question will be determined objectively: the God to provide fire for his sacrifice will be acknowledged as the true one. Elijah allows his adversaries the first try, taunting them as they attempt to invoke their god.
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Elijah then proves Jehovah’s power through significant actions. He first builds his altar with uncut stones, calling them after the tribes of Israel:
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name…” (1 Kings 18:27–31)
The satirist is not only concerned with tearing down but also builds up what is true. Elijah’s construction of the altar symbolically reminds the people of Israel of their sacred calling. He then drenches the sacrifice, fuel, and altar with water, the element opposite to fire, in an act of absurd contradiction, to show that Israel’s devotion to God has been quenched. God answers with overwhelming certainty. His fire consumes the water, fuel, sacrifice, the altar itself, the trench around the altar, and even the dust. In a return to right norms, the priests of Baal are driven out and slaughtered.
Idols are a frequent target of satire. In various places, the prophets point out the folly of idol worship in ironic juxtapositions.
He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14–17)
The book of Jonah is the most overtly satirical book of the Bible. God sends the prophet Jonah to warn Nineveh, a wicked enemy city, of impending judgment. However, no character in the story is less devout than Jonah himself. Attempting to flee God’s calling, he boards a ship to Tarsus. When God sends a dreadful storm after him, the superstitious sailors recognize that someone aboard must have angered God to have elicited such disaster. They save their own lives by throwing Jonah overboard. The reluctant prophet is then swallowed by a fish for three days while he prays very piously for God’s deliverance.
After the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah undertakes his commission, traveling through Nineveh proclaiming “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” The entire city responds in fear and repentance. The king issues a proclamation: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” But when God actually does relent and spare Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry and complains, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah is not really interested in God’s will unless it aligns with his own prejudices.
God has the last word, reestablishing the true “norm” of his divine mercy: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Satire in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are obdurately forgetful of even the most fundamental principles of God’s law, so they must be constantly harangued by the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus encounters an entirely different situation. The Jews have finally adopted the Law as a way of life, but are failing to understand its deeper significance. Jesus uses a much more subtle sort of satire in his parables and deeds. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell asks Abraham to send a beggar named Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they may avoid his torment. Abraham however observes that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In John’s gospel, Jesus actually raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders, far from being convinced by either the proofs of Jesus’ divinity in the Law and the Prophets, or by his miraculous actions, plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
Similarly, Jesus claims he will give no “signs” of his divinity—miracles—for the religious leaders and instead recommends to them the “sign of Jonah.” Like Jonah, the religious leaders ignore all the “signs” in Moses and the Prophets that God’s will is to extend His merciful kingdom to the whole world. They look exclusively for a Messiah who will restore their nation’s earthly glory, and so they reject Jesus.
Christ’s bitterest, most “Juvenalian” speech, is in Matthew 23. He tells his disciples and the people who are gathered around:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
Jesus begins by invoking the “norm”—Moses’ law—and ironically exhorting his listeners to obey the scribes and Pharisees out of respect for Moses—but not to imitate their behavior. After his initial catalog of their social hypocrisy, Jesus turns to direct, caustic accusations in high satirical style. The Pharisees and scribes “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” with their arcane distinctions that obscure rather than illuminate the law. Jesus repeatedly employs hyperbolic imagery, exaggerating their actions to match the sin in their hearts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
These characterizations are harsh enough, but Jesus is not done with the Pharisees. He relates their present-day hypocrisy to the disobedience of their ancestors.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.”
“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers,” Jesus taunts them, knowing they soon will.
On one hand we have 21 poor Egyptian martyrs who went to their reward calling on the name of Christ as they were beheaded by masked barbarians. On the other hand we have JD Hall*, a plump Reformed Baptist from Montana, and his friends, condemning anyone who deviates slightly from his own doctrinal system.
The Copts (the ancient Egyptian church) are not Christians, says Hall*, because they “believe in salvation-by-works.” Hall’s* supporting evidence for this is shaky, but according to him the Copts are like other non-Protestant Christian groups in that they “do not share our faith in Jesus” and prefer traditional communal expressions of faith, such as liturgy, creeds, and fasting, to personal expressions of faith like blogging about doctrine.
“Confessions matter.” Yes, and these martyrs confessed Christ with their mouths even in the face of death. But you will not even confess them as brothers. Surely the blood of the same Christ cannot flow in your veins.
The Islamic State can only kill the body. You think you have the power to consign these martyrs souls to hell.
Do you have the authority to judge these men? Let us see who has received the authority to judge:
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4 ESV)
So I think we can be certain that the Coptic martyrs will be exalted in the kingdom of God. But what can we say for the Calvinist connoisseur? Hall* may not be going to hell, although that would be poetic. He already inhabits a hell of his own manufacture, cut off by his words and actions from the living body of Christ.
The works of Flannery O’Connor are not for everyone. A fair number of fellow readers that I’ve encountered have been repulsed by her violent style, her grotesque images, and her gothic setting. This is fair enough, I suppose. Some of these readers, though, are discerning enough to recognize her virtues even while not preferring them for themselves. This latter group tend to be religious and literary.
It was especially disappointing to me, though, to read Marilynne Robinson’s rather cutting remarks towards St. Flannery in her New York Times interview. Frankly, I was shocked that a writer like her—who very much occupies the categories of “religious” and “literary”—should so flatly misunderstand O’Connor. Continue reading Not a Cold Eye
Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”
The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.
Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard. Continue reading “The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”
Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.
To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep the conversation from devolving into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.
New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.
The larger culture too often mistakes evangelical Christians for an unfractured conservative bloc. Many would be surprised to know about the culture wars that rage between liberal and conservative evangelical Christians. For instance, the advocacy of left-leaning evangelical groups is often reported as “a shift in evangelical culture” when in reality the same people have been saying the same things for a long time.
One would think that arguments between Christians about hot social topics would be more gracious and constructive than the venomous contest between the religious right and the secularist Left.
But is it? Evangelicalism’s internal culture war, between bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans and pastors like the recently ousted Mark Driscoll is lamentably hobbled by sloppy logic, red herrings, and an even firmer commitment to never having anything but an exchange of insults. The fond idea that the culture wars would not be so nasty if folks just got to know each other does not hold up in the case of the evangelical community, where the venom is even more poisonous for its thin coating of sentimentality. In fact, the culture wars rage within the evangelical world with a special viciousness, and this is probably to be expected. As anyone with siblings will attest, intimates tend to fight more often and with deeper malice. Continue reading Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war
There is a phenomenon which you have probably heard about if you are an evangelical Christian, which is that Young People These Days Are Really Into Liturgy.
Christianity Today may be responsible for this perception, since there has been a trend among its younger writers to promote liturgical forms of worship. Now, the backlash has begun. In an online Christianity Today piece which basic anti-liturgical protestants are no doubt posting all over Facebook, writer Kirsten Guidero paints a picture of a liturgical service full of people who take Holy Communion and then hours later are back on the streets murdering people:
The service was undeniably beautiful. Dedicated pastors and volunteers had planned it for weeks. There were banners, incense, and altar decorations. The sanctuary was packed: more than 1,000 folks overflowed the seats, latecomers standing along the sides and back. The congregation participated with gusto. But after receiving Communion, they marched out of the sanctuary. By the closing hymn, only a few folks dotted the pews that just five minutes before had been filled to bursting.
Some left to cram in work, but many in this particular group were on their way to that night’s parties. In another five hours, many would be passed out on the couches of friends or strangers, a few would be rushed by ambulance for alcohol poisoning treatment, and, most horrific, some would be sexually assaulting their peers or suffering such violence. It was the weekend, and the community in question was a Christian university.
Last week at Juicy Ecumenism, Metropolitan Jonah, the former primate of the Orthodox Church in America, rejoiced that Russia has risen from the grave of secularism:
Churches and houses, businesses and stores, even government buildings and public squares proclaim the Paschal joy of Christ’s Resurrection. Festal processions of tens of thousands of people, led by hundreds of vested clergy, wind through the streets of Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin, singing the Paschal hymns, as all the bells in all the churches and bell towers, from the Kremlin to the countryside, toll in joy.
This was unimaginable thirty years ago. It is still unimaginable to many in the West, and outrageously politically incorrect. Who could permit the faithful Christians to process from their churches, some at the heart of the center of the government buildings, with Christ is Risen! hung on the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House? It might offend someone! Choirs of students gathering in the quads and halls of the State Universities to sing the Paschal hymns and shout Christ is Risen! Call the Police! The CIA! The NSA… [sic] Homeland Security!
What has arisen in Russia, Jonah says, is not just a restored Orthodox faith, but a distinctly Christian national outlook and mission. Continue reading Belief in Russia
Marie Antoinette must be ghostwriting editorials and judicial opinions now, because all we hear from the bench or on the internet these days is let them eat cake. Yes, today’s pundits and jurists can think of no more dangerous threat to democracy than a few confectioners who don’t want to provide same-sex couples with the flavorless monument to conspicuous consumption that is every American couple’s dream.Continue reading Would Jesus turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding?