Satire: The Good and The Bad
Recently I got into a Twitter argument, and by argument I don’t mean a food fight but rather an actual point, counterpoint, with a pastor on Twitter about The Babylon Bee and the role of satire in Christian life.
Here is the original tweet:
Pastor Carter eventually got enough feedback, including from the Bee’s editor-in-chief, that he felt the need to issue this clarification:
This is very different from the original tweet. In my response to the original tweet, I refenced a book by Prof. Terry Lindvall of Virginia Wesleyan University entitled God Mocks, but the subtitle is almost just as important: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately, Lindvall’s book was published just before the Bee became a thing.
In the book, Lindvall recounts what Pastor Carter mentions in his follow-up tweet. The prime example is when Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal by explaining that maybe the reason their god did not answer their calls is because he was busy relieving himself.
But, it also mentions Christians satirizing other Christians. And this is where things get tricky, because the Church and its members are not above sin, obviously. Meanwhile, satire, unlike other forms of comedy — like knock-knock jokes — has a point it’s try to convey. It exists to point out what is wrong and to correct it. Sometimes satire is misunderstood because the point is not always obvious and it appears to just be cheap ridicule.
To illustrate, let’s take two recent Bee headlines and compare. The first is dated May 17 and says “Joel Osteen Unveils New Ultra-Thin Yacht That Can Fit Through The Eye Of A Needle.” The point here is rather straightforward: the Prosperity Gospel is a false one and the correction needed is to abandon it.
Another one, a bit further back, on October 23 has a headline that says “World Turns To Christianity After Learning There Are No Politics In Heaven.” Here, the correction that needs to be made is more hidden and a bit self-referential, as all good satire should be. It is not “politics sucks the fun out of life, so become a Christian because politics doesn’t matter,” but that Christ is above politics. However, we Christians often do not live up to that. Instead, we use the Bible to justify why we did or did not vote for Trump and why you are a bad Christian for doing the opposite, but when we get to the Pearly Gates, we are not going to be asked why we did or did not wear a MAGA hat.
Here the idol that Pastor Carter mentioned is politics and it seeks to correct not just the non-Christian’s turning of politics into an idol, but the Christian who does the same thing. But, the article doesn’t smack you in the face with it the way the Osteen article does. This is good satire, but what about bad satire? What is it and how can we identify it if the point the satirist is trying to make is not always visible at the surface level?
Lindvall notes that C.S. Lewis in his satirical work, The Screwtape Letters, identifies four sources of laughter that Screwtape calls joy, fun, the joke proper, and flippancy. Lindvall notes that satire falls uncomfortably between the joke proper which, as Screwtape informs Woodward, “turns on sudden perception of incongruity” and flippancy where “the Joke is always assumed to have been made.”
Satire relies on incongruity. For example, a yacht small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. But, what separates satire from puns and other juxtapositions commonly associated with the Incongruity Theory is the moral/correction. Satire without these things just becomes mean-spirited mockery, or flippancy, where the joke is assumed to be self-evident: mainly, the person of group being satirized is stupid, ugly, or evil, although evil is real, so this is more contingent on the specific joke.
In baseball, the amount of time it takes for the ball to travel from the pitcher’s hand to the hitting zone is milliseconds. The difference between swinging and missing and hitting a home run is microscopically small. So, it is with satire. Sometimes the satirist strikes out, sometimes the satirist hits home runs.
For a time the Bee whiffed, here’s an overt political May 12 article entitled, “Carter Says He’s Finally Hopeful That He Won’t Be Worst Presidential Failure In His Lifetime.” Now, I happen to agree that Jimmy Carter wasn’t a good president, but it’s still not good satire. It’s just stating that Carter was a bad president and that Joe Biden is a similarly bad president, with a Jeb!-esque appeal to “please laugh.”
Similarly, nobody would ever accuse me of being a fan of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but some of the Bee’s material can be seen as just saying “AOC is stupid, please laugh.” More strikeouts.
I use political examples, because I wish Pastor Carter had provided an example of the Bee mocking Christians in a way he finds wrong. A lot of the Bee’s jokes about Christians is two-fold. The first, isn’t really mocking as much as it is playful teasing, such as a May 4 article saying, “Nation’s Baptists Begin Exodus To Promised Land Of D.C. Where Dancing Is Now Banned.”
Introducing The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wrote:
humour involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.
By gravity, Lewis means seriousness, as in “the gravity of the situation,” not Newtonian physics.
The Bee’s ribbing of the Church’s more idiosyncratic tendencies are not flippant. It does not mock God Himself, nor does it mock belief in God, nor those struggling with sin, but it does mock our attempts to justify it or to solve it without Christ, this is the second type of Bee joke (more on this in a minute).
Instead, it looks at the Church and its members from the outside and realizes there are things about Church culture, especially Church culture in America, that are not necessarily Biblical and that are funny. If you can’t find things about yourself funny, then you turn yourself into an idol.
Other satire targeting Christians is of the sort mentioned above, going after false teachings whether it’s from Osteen or Trump supporters or progressives. It also targets sin and how we try to justify it, “‘Trump Was Merely Sharing The Gospel With That Porn Star,’ Explains Jim Bakker,” reads a January 19, 2018 headline or our attempts to fix it without Christ as a December 9, 2019 article states, “Porn Addiction Ended By New Law That Requires Matt Walsh’s Disapproving Face To Appear On All Adult Sites.”
A good test to see whether something is good satire or not is to ask what is the satirist trying to convey? If it is just that the person or group being satirized is stupid or ugly or what have you, then it is bad satire and just derisive, it’s insult comedy without the personal affection of a roast. But, sometimes we are so blinded by the errors of our ways, that the shocking value of satire may be the only thing to get us to wake up. That’s just as true for Christians as it is for non-Christians, maybe even more so.