Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
It may be that the Internet introduced the world to the word “satire,” and it’s almost certain that it did a lousy job of it. The Onion hit the web shortly before the average American did (1996, in case you’re keeping score), and it’s been “trolling” people ever since, as evidenced by the blog Literally Unbelievable. If you click the link, you’ll see an unfortunate cavalcade of people believing Onion stories, often to a chorus of lol its satires.
It’s hard to think where satire was coming from before the Internet. National Lampoon? Not really satire. Jonathan Swift? Yeah, he’s dead. Randy Newman? Maybe.If you can’t give the author the benefit of the doubt, why should anyone afford you the same courtesy?
But the fact remains that The Onion popularized the idea of satire, while letting most of us remain blissfully unaware as to what the word “satire” actually means. If the countless news sites that have tried to rip off The Onion are any indication, most people just think it means “made-up news.” And if people like the geniuses behind Grand Theft Auto are right, it just means “offensive stuff with jokes.”
But, just so we’re clear, none of that is what satire is.
Crack open the old dictionary, and you’ll find the following definition: “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” In other words, the jokes aren’t the point, and neither are the lies; something is satire if it’s being used to criticize stupidity or vices. So The Onion’s current headline, “All Of Child’s Fondest Memories Times When Dad Trying To Make Up For Things,” is satire not because it’s made up or because it’s supposed to be funny, but because it’s written to be an oblique criticism of mostly-absent fathers.
I ran headfirst into this problem when I published a satirical piece on CaPC last week called “Ten SHOCKING Bible Verses Your Pastor DOESN’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT!” It was, for the most part, well received. Most people got it, and it quickly became the most-shared thing I’d written for the site (to the point that it apparently broke the share buttons). But then there were these people:
LOL This is the dumbest thing I’ve read all day. You’re a real theologian, dude. You should read the whole thing, in context, before you try to proof text your way through a blog post that shows your ignorance. Good golly.
It’s hard to address stuff like this without coming off as condescending or apologetic, so let me be clear that neither is my intention. Justifying and/or absolving myself is the furthest thing from my mind right now; I just find this interesting. When someone doesn’t “get” satire, that’s kind of the point—the fact that you can exaggerate someone’s stupidity and still get taken seriously is proof of exactly how ridiculous that person is being.
But then there was also stuff like this:
My Lord in Heaven this shouldn’t even be dignified in existence by being called a satire. It’s not even clever to be sattire. These verses can easily be explained and some are even taken out of context. Again I know some of you say it’s a satire, but it’s not even tthat much
Frankly, I’m as mystified by that one as you are. To quote a friend, “I guess he’s saying scripture in context is satire?”
Honestly, though, I’m glad I was misinterpreted by so many, because it really makes my point for me: namely, that a reader ought to approach a text with a certain degree of humility.
This would be true, regardless of whether the piece were any good. Even granting that it’s terrible, the fact that so many missed the point of a piece from someone who was from their own time, place, and culture demonstrates how easy it is to misinterpret a text. And it stands to reason, I’d say, that it’s even easier to misinterpret a text when the writer is starting from completely different cultural presuppositions than yours.
That, ultimately, was the point of the piece: too many among us—Christian, atheist, or otherwise—read the Bible as if it’s something they dug up in their backyard last week. They treat every verse and passage they read like they’re the first person ever to read it—and never mind that there are literally thousands of years of commentary available, all of which is closer in time and culture to the writers of the Bible than we are.
At their core, the worst fundamentalism, the worst theological liberalism, and the worst anti-Bible screeds all come from the same place: the attitude that one person’s understanding of the Bible is the only one. If you think the Bible is utter garbage, it ought to give you pause that literally billions of people (Christian and otherwise!) have sincerely disagreed with you over the last few millennia; similarly, if you think the Bible commands you to handle snakes in worship, it ought to give you at least a teensy bit of hesitation that no one before you has ever read the Bible and come to that conclusion.
Otherwise, you’re no more clever than the high school student sitting in the back of his English class loudly declaring that Hamlet sucks “because, like, nobody talks that way, and stuff.” If you can’t give the author the benefit of the doubt, why should anyone afford you the same courtesy?
Image of Caïn, by Henri Vidal, via Wikipedia.