“It is a test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
– G.K. Chesterton
My favorite writer of all time is Mark Twain. The man was not only a brilliant humorist, but also a wise, prophetic, and at times searing cultural commentator. I often wonder what Twain would think about today’s culture of blogging, Twitter, and reality TV. He’s been dead my entire life, and yet somehow I miss him.
One thing Twain always got right was satire.
Satire, or any sort of humor for that matter, is tough to do right. But it’s too important not to do it at all, and I think Christians in particular can do a better job of using humor as a prophetic, yet disarming, method for sharing with vulnerability, challenging the powerful, and tearing down idols. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses on this— from the prophets, to Chaucer, to Swift. Jesus too was a brilliant humorist, with a penchant for hyperbole—planks in the eye, camels through the eyes of needles, straining gnats and swallowing camels. (I love that God seems to find camels especially comical.)
So maybe we need to practice humor and satire a bit more often. As a writer who has attempted some satire myself, I’ve observed a few things about when satire works and when it doesn’t.
1. Humor works when it's directed toward yourself
Before I wrote Evolving in Monkey Town, I re-read the best books from my favorite memoirists—Anne Lamott, Sara Miles, Donald Miller, David Sedaris, Ian Cron, etc.—to see what they all had in common. I jotted down notes as I went along, and among the four or five commonalities I observed was that each of these authors were consistently self-deprecating.
“I started writing sophomoric articles for the college paper,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird By Bird. “Luckily, I was a sophomore.”
Self-deprecating humor is disarming. It sets the reader at ease. It lets her know that you’re not the high-and-mighty-writer who has everything figured out; you’re just like her, taking it one day at a time. Self-depreciation, (without indulgent self-hatred, of course) makes you approachable, as a writer and a person.
So instead of writing a scathing blog post against your ex entitled, “10 Reasons You Can’t Get a Date,” try writing a funny, self-depreciating post about yourself entitled, “10 Reasons I Can’t Get a Date.”
2. Humor works when it's directed toward your own community or culture
You can get away with a bit of humor when you're picking on your own community or culture, so long as it’s gentle and wry. This is why Jon Acuff’s “Stuff Christians Like” blog works. It’s why “Portlandia” works. It’s why Ian Cron’s chapter on growing up in Catholic school in Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me works.
Laughing at the idiosyncrasies of a shared culture bonds us together and helps us avoid taking ourselves too seriously.
While we can pick on our culture a bit, we should avoid picking on other people’s cultures. It makes sense, for example, for me to joke about the elevation of the Proverbs 31 woman in evangelical culture. [“In the evangelical Christian subculture, there are three people a girl’s got to know about before she gets her period: 1) Jesus, 2) Ronald Reagan, and 3) the Proverbs 31 woman. While the first two are thought to embody God’s ideal for all mankind, the third is thought to represent God’s ideal for women.” – A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p. 74] It would not, however, make sense for me to pick on interpretive biases within, say, Mormon culture or Jewish culture.
Humor about one’s community both strengthens that community (by pointing to shared experiences) and challenges it (by gently poking at its blind-spots and assumptions).
3. Humor works when it’s directed toward the powerful
This is the true purpose of satire: to mock power. It is, truly, the language of the powerless. From the biblical prophets, to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Swift, to Twain, to Orwell to our beloved Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, satire works best when the targets are the powerful and elite—be they institutions or people.
Jesus’ sharpest comments were always directed toward the politically or religiously powerful. Always. Indeed, you could argue that Jesus’ entire life—from being born in a barn in the midst of a genocide, to hanging out with prostitutes and drunks, to healing on the Sabbath and touching the untouchables, to riding into Jerusalem on donkey rather than a war horse, to healing the ear of a Roman soldier after it had been cut off by Jesus’ allies—was a stinging indictment of religious and political power.
In this sense, I believe the book of Esther too can be read as satire, (or at least as including some fantastic instances of satire). King Xerxes epitomizes the imperialism, greed, excess, and senseless violence that Jews in exile were up against. And yet, routinely, the king and his court are portrayed as directionless buffoons, with no real substance. The emperor—the one that determines the timing of a genocide by casting lots— has no clothes. Power, even the scary kind, is an illusion. (And somehow, that makes it a little less scary.)
Satire only works when its most stinging indictments are directed toward the powerful. This is why attempts at satire fall on their face when they make the weak their target. For example, the writers at The Onion are usually great at satire, but they blew it with the Quvenzhané Wallis tweet, because it just doesn’t work when the subject of a c-word joke is a nine-year-old girl. Same goes for Daniel Tosh, who is a funny guy and all, but who probably should avoid making jokes about rape.
The rule of thumb: Pick on someone your own size, or bigger…never on someone smaller. And don’t take cheap shots.
In the tradition of Jesus, Christians should feel free to wisely, carefully, (and perhaps sparingly) employ satire to poke holes in our culture’s obsession with power—be it in the form of religious oppression, patriarchy, violence, fame, or corruption. And we should be eager to share the good news that, in the Kingdom that lasts, the guy on the donkey is Lord.
4. Humor works when it tears down idols
As a kid, I loved the part of the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal when Elijah taunts his rival prophets and the lack of response from their gods by asking if perhaps Baal is busy traveling or sleeping or going to the bathroom. (It was one of those rare, delightful moments when bathroom humor was allowed in the Sunday school classroom. I think even the teacher was excited!)
Our culture is full of false gods and packed with idols: fame, notoriety, power, money, food, workaholism, legalism, “real men,” “true women,” the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect relationship, the perfect life. And humor may very well be the most effective idol-smashing weapon we’ve got. Through humor, we can ridicule these idols of greed or indulgence or legalism, cut them down to size and expose them for what they are: empty promises, impotent objects of our worship. If ever there was a time to make our humor especially biting, it should be when it is directed toward idols….and our own propensity to bow to them.
Now, the opposite of mocking idols is mocking that which is truly holy. And this is where cynicism comes in. Cynicism perceives everything as fake and therefore mocks everything as fake. Cynicism begins with the assumption that there is nothing good or pure or holy in the world, that any form of sincerity should be regarded with suspicion. My generation is great at satire, but it is also pretty great at cynicism. I sense this within myself and struggle daily to keep my cynicism in check by cultivating the fruit of the spirit, nurturing my sense of wonder and gratitude, and practicing grace.
It would be awesome if I could get it right more often.
But there is grace…
As I said before, these are just general observations I’ve made about humor and satire through the years, and some principles I worked really hard to incorporate into A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which included quite a bit of both.
What about you? When have you seen humor/satire done well, and when have you seen it fall flat? What are some other principles to keep in mind.
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