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.
Let’s buy another round! Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned!
Show Congress we are wild!
Ignore appeals they filed!
Who cares what precedents they found?
Let’s buy another round!
We’ll pass no bar in town until our fears are drowned! Continue reading Supreme Court Drinking Song
Gracchus has given a dowry of four thousand gold pieces
For a horn-player, or one perhaps who plays the straight pipe;
The contract’s witnessed, ‘felicitations!’, a whole crowd
Asked to the feast, the ‘bride’ reclines in the husband’s lap.
O, you princes, is it a censor we need, or a prophet of doom?
Would you find it more terrible, think it more monstrous
Truly, if a woman gave birth to a calf, or a cow to a lamb?
He’s wearing brocade, the long full dress, and the veil,
He who bore the sacred objects tied to the mystic thong,
Sweating under the weight of shields. O, Romulus, Father
Of Rome, why has this evil touched the shepherds of Latium?
Where is it from, this sting that hurts your descendants, Mars?
Can you see a man noted for birth, wealth, wed to another man,
And your spear not beat the ground, your helmet stay firm,
And no complaint to the Father? Away then, forsake the stern
Campus’s acres, you neglect now. ‘I’ve a ceremony to attend
At dawn, tomorrow, down in the vale of Quirinus.’ ‘Why’s that?’
‘Why? Oh, a friend of mine’s marrying a male lover of his:
He’s asked a few guests.’ Live a while, and we’ll see it happen,
They’ll do it openly, want it reported as news in the daily gazette.
Meanwhile there’s one huge fact that torments these brides,
That they can’t give birth, and by that hang on to their husbands.
But it’s better that Nature grants their minds little power over
Their bodies: barren, they die; with her secret medicine chest,
Swollen Lyde’s no use, nor a blow from the agile Luperci.
Yet Gracchus beats even this outrage, in tunic, with trident,
A gladiator, circling the sand, as he flits about the arena:
He’s nobler in birth than the Marcelli, or the Capitolini,
Than the scions of Catulus and Paulus, or the Fabii,
Than all the front-row spectators, including Himself,
The one who staged that show with the nets and tridents.
This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.
Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.
But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.
Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.
Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.
Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.
No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.
The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.
Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.
By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)
As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.
A lot of people come up to me at conferences, to which, as a very successful hipster-progressive post-evangelical blogger, I have been invited to speak, asking me how they, too, can make a name for themselves as a voice for the disaffected semi-faithful.
Normally a successful writer conceals the hidden mainspring of his success with golden platitudes like “insight” and “perseverance.” I used to be reluctant to divulge the true secret of my success, until I realized that, like Washington politics, progressive opinion is not a zero-sum game. To paraphrase the great Thomas Friedman, the world is flat, hot, and bothered. So now I give the following advice (and invite them back to my suite for more in-depth conversation if they’re cute).
Post-evangelical blogging is not for everyone. If you are going to be successful you need to have a few important things settled from the outset:
A. Your personal background. It is imperative that as a post-evangelical blogger, you grew up in circumstances that the average 18-29 year old evangelical reader would recognize, such as a non-denominational Bible church. This experience serves as your fundamental reference point for any assumptions or general statements you make about Christian fellowships, beliefs, or behavior.
B. Your departure. It is equally important that you now look back upon your formative circumstances from a point of critical detachment. Your Christian perspective should express itself primarily in contradistinction to this background, which you share with the majority of your readers. (If you are uneasy with calling yourself a “Christian” you may refer to yourself as a “Jesus-follower” or a person of “deep yet questioning faith.”)
C. Your crisis. If at all possible you should narrate your grievances with the ways Christians you used to know treated people, either yourself or others. Use the fact that they acted badly as evidence that their deeply-held beliefs are false.
D. Your re-evaluation of Christian moral teaching. Observe ways in which the beliefs of Christians you used to know differ from those generally accepted by the surrounding culture, and how those same Christians were themselves incapable of living up to their own standards. This shows that they were wrong to maintain those standards, and also that current cultural practices are more natural and authentically human.
With these preliminaries in place, the main thing about post-evangelical blogging is to be relevant. Relevance may seem difficult to understand, but it is actually achieved through an easy and–dare I say–mechanical process.
The Secret to Achieving Post-Evangelical Relevance
As a prospective progressive blogger, you are no doubt familiar with the organs of contemporary thought: Jezebel, The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Krugman–the list goes on. The trick of post-evangelical blogging is to take the progressive issue du jour, be it gay marriage, birth control, gun control, abortion, or assisted suicide, and re-interpret it as a fundamental and authentic challenge to the assumptions of the suburban evangelicalism which, for you, represents the sum total of Christian belief and experience.
Explain the personal conflict you experience between your evangelical roots and what you now truly believe is a devastating challenge to those formerly-held beliefs. Suggest that instead of being so quick to oppose the issue, Christians should extend “grace” (don’t define) and a “generous response.” Above all, they should “re-evaluate” their views in light of this challenge. Remember: “Questioning” is a one-way street.
Write at great length about authenticity and humanity–or rather, assign those terms to whatever culturally-acceptable practice you are promoting.
If you are a man, express a deep and sensitive regard for feminists and those with alternative sexual lifestyles, and be quick to reevaluate your male, presumably heteronormative perspective in light of new information about what is culturally ascendent.
As a general rule you don’t actually need to do the difficult intellectual work of re-evaluating anything, as long as you talk about doing it. Your audience doesn’t know the difference.
To strengthen your message, write in extremely short paragraphs containing not more than a sentence or two, sometimes just a single phrase. Avoid capital letters and you will be as raw and authentic as my unfiltered cigarettes.
Finally, avoid unhelpful discussions of the concept of “sin.” Serious Christian intellectuals are working hard to wrest the language of “sin” from the patriarchal power structures which have used it to repress people since the rise of Judaism. Undoing four thousand years of oppression isn’t done in an afternoon. After all, even Jesus, though he claimed to have overthrown the authority of Caesar, Satan, and the Sanhedrin, refrained from challenging the all-male priesthood, which has perpetuated this idea of “sin.” This is not amateur hour, and you can save yourself a lot of trouble by avoiding “sin” altogether.
I hope this advice helps. Here’s my card. What do you say to drinks at my place after this?
This is a gratuitous and unserious rant about one thing and one thing only: the use of the phrase “towards a theology of.”
First, the invariable use of “towards” by American academics instead of the more standard American spelling of “toward.” The S imparts no etymological variance or shade of meaning whatsoever; its only purpose is to bolster the stilted sibilance of a faux-intellectual lisp, like that of my freshman-year English teacher whose appreciation of Derrida fixated entirely on the stupefying length of the philosopher’s paragraphs.
Second, the phrase itself is a terrible cliché that keeps popping up in theological publications like whack-a-mole. There is nothing original, there is nothing smart, in using this phrase now. It brands you as a tiresome trundler of thin thought.
Third, speaking at all about a “theology of” is backward. Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, not the science of seminary queens. It is not a thing that can be enlisted to dignify some relatively minor preoccupation. The correct question is “What has theology to say about X?” not “What new perspective has X to contribute to theology?” Perhaps sometimes the former is what people mean when they use the phrase, but in my experience it skews toward the latter.