In Defence Of Satire
In Between Two Worlds, John Stott defines satire as a literary device or tool that uncovers folly. It subversively exposes the fallen human condition, which tends to make us resist corrective truth. One blogger recently wrote, “Satire tends to take bad behaviour to a humorous extreme in order to expose what’s wrong with it. It participates in the bad behaviour in order to hold up a mirror, and it does so humorously so that a viewer might sufficiently lower their guard to see themselves in that mirror.” This was my intention for 3 Timothy. Regarding my satirical Pauline epistle I said, “I hope that, by parodying the pastoral epistles, readers will see how far much contemporary Christian leadership and church growth literature is from the New Testament.” In this lengthy note I want to respond to three criticisms made against satire, both generally and specifically my own.
Satire Is Ineffective and Easily Misunderstood
Firstly, the effectiveness of this literary device is debated. Quoting the first blog linked above, “The danger with subversive approaches such as [satire] is that they are easy to misunderstand if you’re missing some of the cues.” This became evident to me in more than a few conversations following the publication of 3 Timothy. A question I heard on more than one occasion was, ‘Were you imagining what Paul would write to the 21st century church?’ The short answer to that question is: ‘No.’ If anything, my point was that Paul already wrote two epistles focusing on church ministry to the 21st century church: 1 and 2 Timothy. The need for such clarification means that this charge stands. Satire is easily misunderstood. But then so are metaphors, hyperbole and irony. Only I don’t hear any calls for a moratorium on those literary devices.
Satire Offends and Ostracises
Secondly, one friend wrote, “I’m not sure satire works in popular Western culture anymore, other than to convince the already convinced…I also think it alienates in popular discussion.” This is a twofer. Satire can create an echo chamber while also ostracising and even offending those outside of your camp, persuasion or tradition. This criticism is also hard to deny. BabylonBee is a good example of this significant shortcoming. To that example I could add another satirical post I wrote: 5 Ways to Feel Better About Killing Unborn Children. Satire can deeply upset readers, there’s no way around this point. But in my books that does not count against its value—at least not in every situation.
Christians are called to an incredibly high standard when it comes to speech. This is evident from almost every book in the New Testament. These numerous exhortations regarding our speech extend beyond what we say to how we say it. Growing up I thought the Christian kids were simply those whose range of expletives was: ‘shoot,’ ‘crud,’ and ‘fudge.’ But it is a mistake to think that God is merely opposed to cussing. Yes, we are commanded to avoid obscene language, slander, insults, and gossip. However, God is just as much opposed to proud or haughty speech, harshness, abrasive talk, and divisive intent.
Because God is equally concerned about how we speak, John Piper says that despite plenty of evidence that the Bible commends the use of satire, “it is so difficult to use without sounding arrogant.” He goes on, “Some of us are so prone to be clever and biting in our criticism that satire fits our natural sinfulness way too easily.” In other words, while one cannot really make a biblical case against satire as a communicative or literary device, those who utilise it must assess their motives. At times satire is nothing more than a vehicle for ridicule. At others it merely displays my creative ingenuity and wit. When this is the case we should resist making use of it.
That being said—and this is in incredibly important caveat—if what I write results in an emotional response that does not mean I have sinned. As Kevin DeYoung writes in the Art of Turning, “Just because someone is bent out of shape that doesn’t mean we’ve dented anything.” Of course how we package truth needs to be carefully considered, with sensitivity to both our context and audience. But there are numerous reasons someone might be upset because of satire. It may be the result of my insensitivity or harsh speech, the use of words designed to inflict injury. On the other hand, the satire may have simply confronted its reader with an unsettling truth.
Satire Offers No Arguments, Only Angst
A third criticism levelled against satire is that it doesn’t present an argument. At first I actually agreed with this point. But upon reflection and a couple of conversations I think that it is wide of the mark. For a modern Westerner the claim that satire does not offer any arguments might ring true. Propositions and statements aren’t sequentially arranged to drive the reader via deduction towards logical conclusions. In rhetoric, this is called logos. However, dating back to one of the fathers of the Western mind, Aristotle, good rhetoric includes pathos, or emotion. That is to say, certain writing stirs feelings in order to persuade its readers. Of course this rhetoric will also involve words. But the intention behind them is to drive the reader to feel a position first, rather than mentally assent.
To illustrate this point we need only consider the Old Testament. I’m unsure what proportion of it consists of narrative, but I know it’s a lot. Are we left to conclude that the likes of Genesis or 1-2 Kings don’t make any arguments? True, neither of these books lays out a rational argument, as the prophets might. But that is not how narrative or story functions. Instead, Old Testament narratives convince and persuade using a wide array of literary devices. One of these is irony. Irony bears some similarities to satire, as it plays on ambivalence or nonconcurrence—even misdirection. Someone emailed me about my satire, “Shouldn’t sin just be called sin, and tackled straight up front? I mean, I would prefer that—if I’m sinning, don’t play word games with me—tell me.” You may prefer line by line logic and propositional statements. But that does not mean they’re always the most effective approach to persuasion. The Old Testament suggests otherwise.
We could also turn to the New Testament in responding to the suggestion that satire offers no proper argumentation. As Kim Fabricius wrote, with his searing and sorely missed wit, “Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’ preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, ‘subversive speech.’” Fabricius then goes on to show that Jesus’ teaching often invited participation rather than presenting a logical, rational case. Thus the Logos used pathos (John 10:31-32). So did Paul (1 Corinthians 4:8). It seems to me that cool, detached reason is more Enlightenment than evangel. But let me not fall foul of a false dichotomy. Good rhetoric has a place for both reason and emotion, respectively logos and pathos. It is simply not true to say that satire does not present an argument.
So there you have it. Satire is well attested in both New and Old Testaments. Its ability to upset is akin to the gift of fire: dangerous and effective to wield. However, let it not be said that it is only ever derisory, not to mention deficient in conveying an argument. In conclusion, I can’t do much better than John Piper, “in the rough and tumble of truth-speaking in a world of evil and folly, there will always be a place for irony and satire to do its work of exposing error and evil and folly. Nevertheless, I think the use of it is very limited in bearing the kind of fruit that love longs to see in transformed lives…It seems to me…God grants repentance more often in connection with brokenhearted appeals than with clever indictments (2 Timothy 2:25).”