God, the satirist

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.

Enrique Simonet: Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem (1892)
Enrique Simonet: Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem (1892)

“The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”

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.”

Hipster liturgists: or, Why I am an Episcopalian

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.

Found on Steve Woodworth's page (click for link)
The Liturgical Hipster (found at Steve Woodworth’s blog)

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.

Now if any fool had actually been going around claiming that “liturgy” was going to replace discipleship, I can see why we would be having this conversation. Except precisely nobody is that stupid. Continue reading Hipster liturgists: or, Why I am an Episcopalian

A New Taxonomy of “Conservative” Christians

Young evangelical Christians are at the center of a sea change in opinion and practice in the church. The rhetorical tropes and divisions of a previous generation (Spiritual vs. religious? Reformed vs. fundamentalist? Liberal vs. conservative?) are beginning to fade in people’s perceptions, and new categories are taking their place.

With 20th-century theological liberalism faltering, along with the cultural “Christian” consensus, abandoning the faith of your parents no longer means social marginalization. Consequently, those who remain in church are more likely to be those who actually maintain a sincere and heart-felt belief in a real experience of God. This does not mean that all will think alike. We can feel new generations of young adult Christians dividing along new lines.

This shift has occasioned a good deal of confusion. Older liberal Christians have assumed that a younger generation of evangelical Christians, who are clearly more liberal politically than their generally Republican parents, will join them on the theologically liberal, desacralizing side of the church. What is actually happening, though, may be more complicated than this. Younger evangelicals who keep the faith are often dissatisfied with elements of their parents’ churches, but they seem to be shifting in a more ’catholic’ direction, toward a more liturgical, roots-oriented Christianity. While their politics may not be those of the Christian Coalition, their religion may actually be more ‘conservative.’

This movement is not unique among evangelicals. David Bonagura writes that within the ascendent ‘conservative’ camp of the Roman Catholic Church there begin to be seen important distinctions between what he calls the “new orthodoxy,” concerned with maintaining and restoring authentic Catholic teaching, “outspoken opponents of abortion [and] same-sex marriage” whose “theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church”; and what he calls the “Benedictines” after Pope Benedict XVI, whose ultimate goal is the restoration of a more reverent, traditional liturgy. These two groups within the rising ‘conservative’ Catholic movement may find themselves opposed in certain ways even as they are in agreement on the major theological and moral doctrines of the church. The newly-chosen Pope Francis seems to belong, as it were, to the “new orthodoxy,” and under his rule it would not be a surprise to hear of discontent among the “Benedictines.”

Significantly, there seems to be a generational dynamic to these divisions. The “new orthodox” tend to be in their “late forties and fifties,” according to Mr. Bonagura, while the “Benedictines” are somewhat younger.

Rising generations of evangelicals exhibit, I think, a similar division. We begin to see, especially among Gen-Xers, what I would term “evangelical” conservatives, who are primarily concerned with maintaining authentic Christian doctrine; while Millennials tend to be “liturgical” conservatives, concerned with a more authentic way of worshiping than what they experienced growing up.

Both of these are, in a sense, “reactionary” movements. Evangelical conservatives react against a lukewarm, rote “traditional” religion they remember from growing up, or else against a sloppy, undemanding, cheap-grace form of baby-boomer evangelicalism. Liturgical conservatives react against a church that has forgotten the importance of form and beauty in worshiping God, that tries to be relevant by eliminating any and all distinctions between itself and the world, whose deracinated warehouse Starbucks aesthetic has rejected altogether the beauty of historical Christianity.

If evangelical Protestantism has a future, it needs to bring the two together. Theological conservatives must learn to appreciate how the beauty of liturgy and tradition does not distract from authentic Christian belief but rather deepens and confirms it. Similarly, aesthetically-sensible liturgical conservatives need to understand how the beauty they rightly love grows from the same root as traditional Christian theology and ethics. We need young Christians who are both liturgically and theologically conservative.

Much of the division, sin, and confusion in Protestant Christianity today stems, I believe, from a fundamental disconnectedness in the evangelical mind between the order and beauty of the soul and religious belief, and the order and beauty of externals. Each of these ought to promote and confirm the other. Instead, suburban evangelicals tend to deny the influence of externals, and are surprised when their children rebel, sleep around, and abandon the faith.

Beauty strengthens faith. No less, then, does true faith preserve beauty. The order and coherence of traditional Christian liturgy and art depends for its strength on the conviction that what it centers on is true; that God is true, that the Bible is his word, and the church manifests his kingdom in the world. Without these convictions beauty has no reference point and liturgy is a series of empty observances done for the sake of doing. The reason liturgy is attractive to sensitive people is that it actually reflects what is true, and speaks to the listening soul of what is closest to the ground of its being. This is why the mainline churches are in decline. To practice a received liturgy and at the same time deny received Christian truth is eventually a self-defeating occupation.

This article was originally published on Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Introductory Essay

Fra Angelico - The Visitation - 1434

Getting political

The Hipster Conservative is a very political sort of publication, because  the things we are interested in writing and talking about here are often political in nature. We did not, however, discuss the recent U.S. elections. We could attribute this to our hipsterish apathy and the scorn we show toward things that are popular and “mainstream.” The true reason, however, is that the present political culture offers only a narrow and bleak idea of politics. Here, we like to speak of “politics” in a more Aristotelian sense: of things having to with life in common with other people, especially where they have to do with creating the conditions necessary to live a virtuous and happy life. The drama acted out as “politics” on the national stage would be rated a farce in bad taste by any sensitive critic and holds at best a questionable connection to the ends of living a good life.

So much for being hipsters. As conservatives, we cannot absolutely ignore the continued predations of our natural adversary, the all-powerful State, with its lackeys and profiteers. In our public lives we fight the Minotaur in various ways. Here, we are more concerned with strengthening the intellectual foundation of the good life, while, we hope, undermining the already cracked and crazy stilts modern absolutism rests upon. Continue reading Introductory Essay

Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Introduction

Recently someone observed that there are hardly any professed “atheists” in political office. This is remarkable not because atheists represent a large portion of the population, but because atheism is hardly even controversial in present-day society. If someone tells you that he does not believe in God, you are not shocked. You may think he is mistaken, but you are not offended by his unbelief, nor do you think he is a bad person simply because he is not convinced of God’s existence. So it is odd that there are so few professed atheists in elected office. Whether or not a person believes in God doesn’t seem to have much to do with how he or she would fulfill the duties of the public trust.

If it is nevertheless true that the public doesn’t trust atheistsas voting patterns suggest, perhaps it is because they see atheists perpetually engaged in the comic but macabre project of beating the corpse of a medieval idea, or tilting at ruined 15th-century windmills. Atheists have liberated themselves from belief, but it stings them to be reminded of what they have left by others’ faith. They seem to be crusaders for positive unbelief in the public square. This attitude, perhaps, annoys the public, who are for the most part uncomfortable with True Believers of any strain, and happy with their customary distinction between private belief (“church”) and public action (“state”).

Yet perhaps both the raging atheists and the comfortable bourgeois secularists are wrong. If God does not exist, a society of liberal Western institutions needs to reconsider its first principles, including the value of personal liberty and human rights, to see whether there is still any support for them. Can the influence of Christianity in promoting human rights be written off as insignificant? Is there a post-religious path to individual liberty? On the other hand, if God is a real omnipotent being, how is it even possible to partition him away from the public sphere?

Few seem willing to face the implications of God being either absent or present. Western liberalism, with modern roots in the Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual developments, builds upon an understanding of human equality which developed, albeit imperfectly, during the period when Christianity shaped European culture. Yet the influence of religious beliefs and institutions in the development of these liberal tenets, individual liberty and human rights, is less recognized.

I would like to discuss three connected ideas in this essay, by means of a few concepts. The first is the “death of God” as encountered in modern philosophy. The second is the “kingdom of God,” which, if it exists, must necessarily have political implications. The third is the crucial distinction between Christ and Antichrist. These three ideas are necessary for an adequate understanding of Western history and culture. For good or ill Christianity has influenced the direction of historical development toward what we see at present. If God is missing in modern Western political culture, the absence is distinctly Christ-shaped, as attempts to replace Christianity inescapably show. But if Jesus Christ is in fact reigning over the world as king, what does this mean? In closing I will suggest an interpretation of Western history in which the reign of Christ and the pretensions of various forms and manifestations of “antichrist” have continued through the epochs in a dialectical conflict which frustrates the efforts of historians and philosophers to attach the label of “Christian” to any particular nation or political order. Continue reading Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Russian Exceptionalism

Illustration: "Holy Russia" by Mikhail Nesterov
Mikhail Nesterov, Holy Russia, 1902

From The Possessed (Demons) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The following conversation takes place between Shatov, a former agitator and now a believer in “the Russian God;” and Stavrogin, the princely but self-destructive son of a nobleman, who made Shatov’s acquaintance when they both were members of a revolutionary society. We have put some sentences in bold for special emphasis.

***

“Do you know,” he [Shatov] began, with flashing eyes, almost menacingly, bending right forward in his chair, raising the forefinger of his right hand above him (obviously unaware that he was doing so), “do you know who are the only ‘god-bearing’ people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world… Do you know which is that people and what is its name?

[Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin:] “From your manner I am forced to conclude, and I think I may as well do so at once, that it is the Russian people.” Continue reading Russian Exceptionalism

Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games

Cover of "The Hunger Games" by Susanne Collins

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2010
384 pages, paperback, $8.99

(Given the wide-spread popularity of The Hunger Games and the multiplicity of reviews of it, this review will not summarize its plot; the reader can find a summary here.)

The Hunger Games presents its readers with a nihilistic world in which evil actions can be excused based on necessity. It accurately portrays the potential endgame of a big, centralized government and a population addicted to mass-media entertainment. In such a world, survival becomes the basis of morality and people mere objects in the pursuit of survival. While such a Machiavellian ethic seems realistic given the situation in which Suzanne Collins places her characters, she presents no alternative ethic. Instead, she crafts the plot to mitigate, as much a possible, the moral culpability of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Continue reading Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games