Saturday, October 16, 2010

Looking for Satire in the Bible

An interview with pastor and author Douglas Wilson about his book A Serrated Edge, which highlights satire in the Scriptures.

I can’t help noticing absurdity in the world around me. So when I see folks hawking corny religious t-shirts and kitschy paintings in the name of Jesus, my snarky side comes out. I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t be thrilled with those silly manifestations of sentimentalized faith. If I didn’t believe in the resurrection, I’d assume he was spinning in his grave.

Yet I feel out of place when I call attention to this sort of consumerism masquerading as belief. Other Christians tell me not to be so negative–kitsch must minister to somebody. Precious Moments figurines can’t be all bad if they have Bible verses on them. (Never mind that the Pharisees were pretty good at quoting Scripture, too.) It just isn’t comfortable to criticize others in the family of faith: People think you’re doing a disservice to the Church.

So when I find someone else—ANYONE else—who’s also fighting for truth, justice, and the end of Jesus Junk, I rejoice! A while back, I ran across a book called A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking, and immediately sensed a kindred spirit. Author Douglas Wilson asserts that satire–when used on its proper objects–is not only appropriate, but even a sort of Christian duty.

Through the magic of long-distance, I tracked down Wilson in the wilds of Idaho for an interview. He’s the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho; the founder of several ministries, including Canon Press; and the author of more books than I can count on my toes. He’s also a prolific blogger at, a grandfather, and a Calvinist (but I’ll try not to hold that against him). Here’s what the good reverend had to say about satire and Scripture.

GEORGE HALITZKA: In your book, you assert that satire is actually used in the Bible! Can you give me a few examples?

DOUGLAS WILSON: Sure! Probably the best example would be Matthew 23, where Jesus goes after the Pharisees and makes fun of all kinds of things—even things that some people would say are theologically irrelevant. You know, he makes fun of how wide their phylacteries are, and how they like their flowing robes, and the length of their prayers. He is doing the work of a traditional polemical satirist. So one of the things I argue in the book is that if we Christians want to be like Jesus . . . we’re not. It’s a variation on the WWJD bracelet—“What would Jesus make fun of?” Some would say, “Well, Jesus is the son of God; he wouldn’t make fun of anything.” But they’re not paying attention when they read the New Testament.

GH: If satire is so abundant in the ministry of Jesus, why do we see it as being unbiblical in contemporary Christianity?

DW: Well, when someone says, “I’m just trying to imitate Jesus [by using satire],” the response is, “You’re not Jesus, pal! You don’t walk on water, either.” That shows how we are being arbitrary in our principles of selection. Someone says, “Well, Jesus did it perfectly. You’re not going to do it perfectly—therefore you ought not to try it at all.” So why don’t we apply that to other virtues? Jesus loved people perfectly, but I’m not going to love people perfectly—so why should I try it at all? There are certain virtues Christ exhibits that Christians insist we must imitate, however badly. But they don’t apply that to satire, even though satire is such an abundant presence throughout the whole Bible. Amos wrote an entire book making fun of things! Jesus does it; Paul does it–

GH: Still, many Christians think that satire is inherently risky. How can it glorify God?

DW: By lampooning that which does not glorify God. Paul says knowledge puffs up, and when something is puffed up, what you need is a good, sharp pin. When someone applies the pinprick to the balloon of self-important knowledge, the balloon explodes! That glorifies God because the puffed-up knowledge was in defiance of God.

GH: In our broader culture, whenever we tell people “this is what the Bible says”—through satire or otherwise—we’re accused of being arrogant. Why is that?

DW: Because our society has the definition of arrogance upside-down. It’s a good example of Isaiah 5:20—“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.” If a preacher gets in the pulpit and tells anecdotes about his summer vacation or the quarrel he had with his wife on the way to church—in other words, talks about himself the entire time—he will be thought to be humble and transparent. If someone gets into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and says, “This is the Truth. It would be the Truth had I never been born; I am irrelevant,” he’s going to seem to everyone to be arrogant. “Where does he get off telling us what the Bible says?” So we’ve got our definitions of arrogance and humility in almost a photo-negative inversion. And that’s one of the reasons why satire is so necessary.

GH: Obviously, our culture uses a lot of satire—I’m thinking of The Daily Show or The Onion. And you can’t read too much of it without seeing something that lampoons Christianity. How should we respond when somebody satirizes believers in Christ?

DW: We disapprove of them using that weapon on God’s people—unless, and this is the important thing—let’s say Jon Stewart on The Daily Show attacks hypocrisy in the church. Then I say, “Be my guest!” But if he, in an unjust way, extrapolates to the whole and says, “There’s no such thing as righteousness” or “All Christians are idiots”—then of course I object to that. And the reason I object is because the contest is between right and wrong; truth and error. It’s not like a football game on a level playing field. The fact that Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed sepulchers does not mean that they get to call him demon-possessed and a glutton.

GH: That didn’t stop them.

DW: Right, but here’s what I mean: in a football game, clipping is a foul for both teams. The ref is going to call clipping regardless of your affiliation. But when Jesus calls them a name, the name is accurate. He’s telling the truth. When they call him a name, they’re telling a lie. There’s not a level playing field. Now, how would I express my disapproval of Jon Stewart? I think what we need to do is learn how to counter what they’re saying in an effective way. The stock, caricatured response of the conservative Christian is shrill and schoolmarm-ish. I think we need Christians who can deftly handle that kind of attack—return fire in an effective way.

GH: So we should fight fire with fire; satire with satire?

DW: Well, not quite—fight unclean fire with clean fire. We should say, “What have I learned from Scripture about how to handle this thing?” One of the things that has exasperated me for years is when Christians get out there to do battle for righteousness’ sake—and God bless them for it—the thing that is counterproductive is when they come off as shrill. They write letters to the editor with a fisted crayon—you know, “I are so mad.”

GH: Some would argue that when Christians engage in satire at all, it has the effect of chasing away unbelievers. Yet you see it as being potentially redemptive?

DW: Absolutely! Think of it this way: Imagine that you’re an intelligent non-christian. Maybe your life is screwed up and you know it. So you’re sort of ripe for [hearing about faith]. But what image do you have of Christianity? Well, everything you know about Christians you learned from TBN, the religious broadcasting network.

GH: God forbid!

DW: You think, “That’s what people look like who believe in the Bible.” Now, suppose a group of Christians who also believe the Bible make fun of that stuff. It shows the intelligent non-christians that there are Believers who are willing to police their own ranks. We’re not willing to give anything and everything a pass so long as it’s done in the name of Jesus.

GH: Well, it seems from your book that you find a lot of things to critique in modern evangelicalism.

DW: It’s what the Navy calls a “target-rich environment.”

GH: So what do you think Jesus would do if he saw our “Christian” media—radio stations; magazines; books; Thomas Kinkade paintings?

DW: If he went to the CBA (Christian Booksellers’ Association) convention, Jesus would be there all day turning over the tables.

GH: What do you think he would say to them?

DW: “You workers of iniquity!” [he would say]. “’Satan Stomper’ socks? What are you doing with ‘Satan Stomper’ socks? And what are these ‘Testamints’? Breath fresheners; what’s this about?” This kind of marketing hucksterism preys upon the simple. I don’t think Jesus would be attacking the people who are consumers of these products. I think he’d be attacking the cynical businessmen who’re raking it in.

GH: Well, certain things obviously need to be held up to ridicule. But other examples are a little less clear-cut. I notice on your website that Canon Press offers a book called Right Behind (a satire of the Left Behind series of end-times novels) and another entitled The Mantra of Jabez (lampooning devotional book The Prayer of Jabez). How do you respond to people who say, “You’re just mocking people who are ministering in different ways.” If they’re building the Kingdom of God, why go after them?

DW: If we’re simply talking about methodologies—you know, one person preaches to large crowds; another is a skilled personal evangelist—I think we should leave that kind of thing entirely alone. But The Prayer of Jabez was a “life is a vending machine—put the nickel in” approach to spirituality. It was a gross distortion of Biblical theology. And so we thought it was ripe for The Mantra of Jabez. Right Behind and Supergeddon were sendups of the Left Behind series. The point there is that you are making a bazillion dollars from getting people to believe the world’s gonna last for three more weeks—and that’s false.

GH: But don’t you think Left Behind encourages people to consider the Bible’s claims that Christ can return at any time?

DW: Yes, but a lot of people became Christians in the 1970s because of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth—a mega-bestseller. According to Lindsey’s early predictions, the world was supposed to end in 1988. It hasn’t, but he’s still making money; he’s still writing books. He didn’t cover his mouth in embarrassment and walk off the stage, saying “I’m not really qualified to be doing this anymore.” I think that’s where satire is appropriate. “Look, isn’t this sort of thing false prophesy according to the Bible?”

GH: Well, one hopes that LaHaye and Jenkins (co-authors of Left Behind) were trying to impact the culture redemptively–whether they raked in millions in royalties or not. Some might say, “Wilson, you’re living in a small town, preaching to a small church, writing for a small Christian publisher—almost everything you do is aimed at other Christians. Who are you to criticize LaHaye and Jenkins for their outreach efforts?”

DW: That’s a fair objection. But I’m thinking of something King Lune of Archenland told one of his sons in The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis: “Never make fun of someone unless he’s bigger or stronger than you—and then as you please.” So I acknowledge that the satirist’s position is almost always that of an establishment outsider. That’s something you see consistently throughout the Scriptures as well. Usually it’s a prophet coming out of the desert, answerable to nobody. Certain people will think, “Who are you, and what seminary did you go to?” But other people will think, “What he’s saying is right.” That’s what this is all about.

GH: As you’re attacking Left Behind or Jabez, you have to be wondering, “What will the neighbors think?” I mean, this stuff won’t make you the confidante or presidents or get you invited to speak at Christian conferences.

DW: That’s a good point. Over the years, people have come to me with concern over my use of satire. Generally, their objections fall into one of two categories. The first one is, “I don’t think what you’re doing is Biblical.” So my response is, “That’s a fair objection—let’s have a Bible study.” That’s where the serrated edge comes out; it’s the result of careful Bible study. When you’ve convinced the objector that this is a Biblical thing, then they say, “Well, it may be Biblical, but I think it’s counterproductive.” To be frank, I’ve found that to be exactly the opposite of the truth. The more we’ve done this, the more we’ve seen our ministry grow and prosper; the more we’ve had an impact on people’s lives. So if this use of satire is slowing anything down, we haven’t noticed.

GH: As a satirist—when you launch an “attack”—how do you avoid the “Everybody else is screwed up, but I’m okay” mentality?

DW: I believe that a satirist is to be someone who knows how to live and is a peaceful member of a worshipping community. He’s got to be the kind of man whose wife and kids don’t flinch when he comes into the room. He’s got to know how to turn it off. It needs to be a weapon that he picks up when the situation calls for it, and puts down when the situation doesn’t call for it. Satire is a tool meant to accomplish certain things that the Bible defines—not just something to be done willy-nilly.

GH: I’ve been known to dabble in satire a little myself. And I have to admit, often it comes out of a tendency towards being critical.

DW: That’s true.

GH: So even if writing satire doesn’t cause arrogance, sometimes it can result in bitterness. How do you stop yourself from slipping away from joy?

DW: That’s a great question. One of the things I would recommend—aside from worshipping God and reading his Word—is a healthy dose of the right kind of satire. I would call it a sunny satirical disposition as opposed to the dour Jonathon Swift kind. I urge people who think that they might be drifting that way, towards a hard-bitten cynicism, to read C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Among nonbelievers, I think H. L. Mencken had that kind of sunny disposition. Although he knew how to hit hard, I don’t think I pick up personal malice in what he was doing. You want to be around people who you think have gotten the tone right.

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