The word mockery brings to mind Onion posts, Saturday Night Live, and other comedy outlets. The degree of acidity varies. Some taunting is relatively mild, such as Stephen Colbert’s observation that the new White House Press Secretary’s name basically means “just kidding, but seriously,” and Jon Stewart’s assessment of Jonathan Hoenig’s comment—regarding the Ferguson situation—that racists are the main people who talk about race: “Did you really just he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it racism?” More acute forms of mockery include charges of warmongering, as when Stewart impersonated alleged bloodthirsty Republican senators itching to intervene in Ukraine: “Let’s go to war! It’s been 48 hours!”
Push back on what I say. Maybe mock me a little. Or a lot. But refusing to go further than simply acknowledging that mockery may be appropriate in very narrow circumstances and only on Friday mornings seems like weak sauce. People are regularly made to look like fools (some needing less help than others), and judging by the popularity of such shows and websites, human beings quite enjoy watching other human beings receive the stinging lashes of mockery. In fact, by reading and watching these shows, people even demonstrate a certain amount of affirmation of and complicity in making fun of others.
But what are Christians to think about the practice of “making fun”? The word fun is right there in the phrase, so how bad can it be? Christians don’t want to unnecessarily begrudge people their happiness or fun, but there does seem to be an inherent aversion among Christians to using mockery (openly) to have fun.
So, as a Christian, it is with some trepidation that I broach the subject of viewing mockery as a valid and effective tool for Christians to use. This viewpoint is not particularly PC, and I fully expect some readers, after hearing my proposal, to head straight for the nearest chicken coop to gather stray feathers, and then to begin warming up the tar.
Some ground clearing
Instead of waiting until the end to address those of you with different opinions, I want to make a few points at the outset, mainly to let you know that, as one speaker slyly cautioned, if you stop listening after you hear the first crazy thing, you’re going to miss all of the others.
Some Christians concede that there may be some warrant for making fun, mainly because the Bible sure seems to include lots of it. If that is you, then let me encourage you not to remain in a state of indecision. If you’re willing to admit that, despite the pitfalls, mockery may theoretically have proper uses for Christians, let’s investigate together. Push back on what I say. Maybe mock me a little. Or a lot. But refusing to go further than simply acknowledging that mockery may be appropriate in very narrow circumstances and only on Friday mornings seems like weak sauce. Is it appropriate or isn’t it? And if it is, why aren’t you willing to use it? You might personally avoid mockery because you know your own tendency to use it in a sinful way. No problem. I’m not trying to push overeaters towards the buffet. I am, however, trying to garner some support from those who are dragging their feet.
It may be helpful to define what I mean by mockery, although I don’t want to get too bogged down here. Traditionally, satire is considered a subset of irony, which is the saying of one thing when another thing is meant. Mockery is not always satire—jeering “Go up, thou bald head” is not satire—even though satire is necessarily a form of mockery, because satire aims to prick the inflated. However, my goal isn’t to provide a neatly categorized schema that labels each rhetorical device according to classical terminology and hierarchy. At times I may conflate mockery with satire or another word, but in general, I am suggesting that Christians can use mockery (i.e., derisive forms of rhetoric) with clear consciences.
We could easily take our cues, not from the PC sophisticati, but from Christian experts at mocking the world, and all that therein is. Experts who have made our way straight include Erasmus, Swift, Spurgeon, Chesterton, Lewis (see Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian 3)—all of whom were familiar with the classical tradition (Horace and Juvenal) and knew the biblical precedents far better than we do. So what are the biblical precedents?
There are a number of places to go to check out the data for yourself, but if you want to see, not only what the Bible says, but also how it says it, see A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (ed. Ryken and Longman). Neither mockery nor making fun is an entry in the subject index, but satire is, and in the chapter on Ecclesiastes, Leland Ryken defines satire as “the exposure of human vice or folly” (274). In the same book, in a section about Old Testament prophecy, Richard Patterson notes that Ezekiel includes satire in its laments, Nahum heckles the Ninevites, and “whole books [of the Bible] can be analyzed in terms of satire,” including Amos and Jonah (305).
Dealing with the particulars of the book of Amos, Ryken writes that “satire is an attack on human vice and folly,” and “the essential differentiating feature of satire is the element of attack or exposure” (338). Later, Ryken writes, “The Bible is one of the most satiric books in the world . . . . Satire appears in every part of the Bible,” appearing all throughout Proverbs, the prophets, and the Gospels (346-47), and “Jesus himself was a master of satire” (47).
For example, in Matthew 6 (particularly verses 2, 5, and 16), Jesus makes fun of how people pray and how they eat. Sounds like poor taste. Talking with the Creator is no joking matter, and neither is fasting, considering the anguish that many people have over eating habits, weight, body image, etc. And yet Jesus empties a clip on the pretentions of spiritual fakes.
Paul’s tone is more gruff than Jesus’. Paul satirizes the Judaizers by suggesting that if they’re so in love with circumcision, why not make a really spiritual statement and just lop off everything to the nub (Gal. 5:11-12). Paul also publically expresses a desire to walk several folks (he mentions them by name) down the hallway to the principal’s office—this particular principal being Satan (1 Tim. 1:18-20). Of course, the most severe kind of making fun is reserved, not for someone struggling with sin, but for the person who with a high hand constantly rejects loving correction and fixes his path on a course of rebellion.
As mentioned above, poets and prophets also put laser beams on lazy people (Prov. 26:14), meddlers (Prov. 26:17), disturbingly cheerful early risers (Prov. 27:14), prostitutes (Prov. 11:22), and nagging wives (Prov. 19:13), just for starters. God is sarcastic with Job (see chapter 38), Elijah uses potty humor to mock idolaters (1 Kings 18:27), and Amos refers to polite society as a bunch of cows (Amos 4:1).
Dignity and respect, and the imago Dei
The foregoing list may come as a cold, wet slap to some people. Mocking prostitutes is not the MO for most ministries, especially ones geared towards helping prostitutes escape their bondage. But the imago Dei is not a trump card that nullifies the legitimacy of satiric bite. Proverbs 11:22 (“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion”) does not disappear from the pages of Scripture because someone prefers to gush about dignity and respect. It has been said that satire is not a one-size-fits-all tactic; neither, it seems, is treating people sweetly.
“Be ye kind” doesn’t disappear either, but that’s the point—often verse grenades are lobbed at ideological opponents as if the verses were to be taken as universals statements. A quick look at Proverbs 26 should clear that up (see verses 4 and 5). Look before you leap, sure, but he who hesitates is lost. The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. You know the drill.
The imago Dei certainly tempers our mockery, but it tempers it in a way that Matthew 18:15-17 tempers our excommunication. If someone appears approachable, then using mockery as the first resource would be unwise. As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, the sword of truth can point as well as chop (156). The Bible is less like a buffet and more like a multi-course meal: we don’t get to ignore the parts that we don’t like, but neither to we have to eat everything at the same time. We don’t have the option of ignoring rebuke, but we don’t have to serve it for every meal either.
However, people who consistently refuse correction, perhaps public figures who have made a career out of blasphemy, are fair game. Pray for Bill Maher, yes, but if there appear to be no signs of repentance, there is nothing wrong with praying that he be hoisted by his own petard.
Judging by the actions of godly people in the Bible, we can conclude either that “treating people with dignity and respect” is not a universal law, or that our understanding of “dignity and respect” is a little warped. Did God treat Uzzah with dignity and respect after Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant? Did Jesus treat Peter—a Christ-follower!—kindly when he told him to get out of his face? The answers to these questions might be “yes,” if we broaden our anemic understanding of the terms. Or maybe some people, because of their sinful actions, have forfeited the full benefits of dignity and respect (if these words simply mean “niceness”), and now what they deserve is justice.
Justice and judging
Inevitably in these kinds of discussions, “judge not that ye be not judged” pops up, and there is some merit to this, because mockery implies a standard. Without the violation of a standard, mockery has no backbone, no substance. Therefore, mockery always coincides with judgment, and people have a right to know who died and made you pope.
But the self-consciousness roots do not run deep, because by bandying about the clause “judge not,” people are inescapably engaging in judgment: “Hey, you! I don’t approve of the judgment implicit in your mockery, and I think that you should stop!” Judgment is unavoidable, so the question is not whether we will judge, but who, what, when, where, why, and how. It is important, then, to “judge righteous judgment” (John 13:38). The Greek word for “righteous” here is also translated as “just” all throughout the New Testament, and this leads me to the point that mockery can be a form of justice.
Consider a recent homily preached by the Right Reverend Jon on The Daily Show:
So we live in New York City, a liberal bastion, [and] recently we sent a correspondent and a producer to a building in this liberal bastion where we were going to tape an interview. The producer—white, dressed in what could only be described as “homeless elf attire,” and a pretty strong five o’clock-from-the-previous-week shadow—strode confidently into the building, preceding our humble correspondent—a gentleman of color, dressed resplendently in a tailored suit. Who do you think was stopped? Let me give you a hint: the black guy. And that s— happens all the time. . . . You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f—ing exhausting it is living it.
Events like this do happen, and people have a right to ridicule those who perpetuate injustice or engage in hypocrisy.
Some kind of response seems to be the most basic level of justice, including a seemingly minor response of laughter, because laughter can be a form of mockery. In fact, God and the righteous use this form of mockery at times (Ps. 2:2-5; Ps. 37:13; Ps. 52:6). If you thought #facepalm was a recent invention, see 2 Kings 19:21. Regarding the 1 Kings 18 passage mentioned above, Matthew Henry said this: “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.”
Could it be a miniature form of justice to call Nancy Pelosi’s Catholicism flimsier than a loincloth made of wet paper, a flimsiness evidenced by her unwillingness to lawfully protect the lives of unborn children? Well, why not? Is it appropriate to note wryly that the career of an MMA-touting, satire-loving pastor appears to have been body-slammed? Probably so. May someone propose that the Anthony Weiner story is both sad and hilarious? Yes and YES. (Really now, what are the odds? Weiner?!) Can a pastor employ sarcasm to suggest that a certain view of sanctification is a little droopy? Is it okay for a student to point out to his buddy in class that the blowhard professor berating the class over something silly has his fly down? Is there any justice behind the action of making memes from pictures of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s deer-in-the-headlights face? You bet.
I don’t have the space to get into the justification for mocking authorities, but suffice it to say, authorities are not exempt from criticism. Those who persist in their sin should be publicly rebuked, so that others will stand in fear of receiving the same coal raking (1 Tim. 5:20). For homework, you can read the last few sections of Calvin’s Institutes (4.20) to see what he says about the obligations of those in authority (hint: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way”).
Naming and name-calling
In the Bible and elsewhere, names often did not merely identify people; they revealed essential characteristics of the person: Esau was hairy, Jacob was a heel-holding supplanter, Jesus means savior, etc. The connection here is that naming something or someone accurately can be a form of justice, or simple truth-telling, and it can be unjust to refuse to call something what it is. To be sure, name-calling can be a type of logical fallacy, but ad hominem is a fallacy only if the person arguing is using the tactic as a distraction, and not as a valid means of persuasion. (E.g., Joey is a malodorous fellow who smells like the offspring of ranch dressing and black licorice. So he can’t be right.) Calling something what it actually is is not necessarily a logical fallacy. Jesus did not commit the ad hominem fallacy every time he name-called, and he name-called frequently (e.g., liar, thief, viper, graffitied tombstone, devil-spawn, etc.).
In fact, if you’ve read CAPC for a few years, you know that sometimes calling people fools is unhelpful, but sometimes implying that people are fools is helpful. For example, if certain news reports are vile and disgusting, do they deserve to be labeled as such? Ryken doesn’t believe that satire needs to be funny—it’s simply exposing the foibles of the corrupt (338). Let’s not pretend that adding an element of humor to the exposure of corruption somehow makes the action “inappropriate.” I think the word we’re looking for is “better,” and as I’ve shown above, many biblical figures considered that route to be better too. Naming something accurately is part of telling the truth.
Clearly, with tongues that can rage like fire (James 3:1-11), we must be careful in deciding when mockery is a proper approach, since sometimes it is not. It is not my intent to flick a match into a particular oil barrel labeled “Doug Wilson,” but I am constrained to admit that, regardless of whether or not you believe that Wilson’s use of satire is wholly suitable, my own thinking on the propriety of mockery has been heavily shaped his book A Serrated Edge, which John Frame reviews (somewhat negatively) here, and which Wilson defends here, adding insightful guidelines.
Because my hand waving—go here for more!—may seem like (or be) deflection, let me point out some other general guidelines, besides the few that I’ve already mentioned (already-mentioned ones being that legitimate objects of mockery are, first, often leaders who are unjust, hypocritical, or otherwise abusing their power, and second, people who are very comfortable in and arrogant about their sin; also mentioned above was the regulation that mockery is for the cheeky, not the chastened).
In his new book Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, John Piper untangles a biblical complication that I think applies here. Piper’s book is about the “poetic effort” of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis, yet Piper is personally confronted with “the foolishness of preaching” and other biblical statements that seem to discourage the use of eloquence. Piper’s insight is that even as Paul is writing against bad eloquence (sophistry), he is employing good eloquence.
The takeaway is similar to the takeaway from Al Wolters’s book Creation Regained. Wolters writes about the importance of structure and direction: structure has to do with the inherent legitimacy of the activity, and direction has to do with its usage, once it has been determined to be structurally sound. For example, brothels may be conducted in houses, but no one is advocating that Christians abstain from living in houses.
Part of Piper’s argument in his first chapter is that eloquence that exalts the self and ignores God is necessarily bad eloquence. To use Wolters’s terms, eloquence is structurally sound, and the issue is direction. To relate these ideas to mockery, the structure of mockery is sound, as first-century Christians and others have demonstrated. The direction of mockery, to some extent, depends on whether or not the mocker is cutting someone else down only to exalt himself.
Some may say, “In the past, I have used mockery to hurt others and to inflate my sense of superiority. I have not been successful in this area, and I will not participate.” This is a legitimate and mature response. An illegitimate and immature response, one based on cowardice, is to say that, sure, the structure of mockery is fine, but we just can’t agree on direction, so let’s forget about it. Not everyone is required to be a satirist, just as not everyone is required to be scientist. But if the structure of mockery is God-created and God-approved (not to mention God-utilized), then at least some of us are required to explore appropriate directions.
So the next time you are enjoying or participating in forms of making fun, and you start to feel guilty, go ahead and evaluate your motives and see if maybe you should cease and desist. But if the situation seems to warrant the mockery, and yet you’re still tempted to think that “good Christians don’t do this,” ask yourself “which Christians am I thinking of?”
Because it’s not the first-century ones.