When Should Christians Use Satire?
Shane, a listener to the podcast writes in: “Pastor John, with the growing popularity of Christian satire, for example, websites like ‘The Babylon Bee,’ what are your thoughts on the use of satire to communicate Christian thought?”
The dictionary defines satire like this: “The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” And then, if you look for a definition of irony, which was used to define satire, the definition it gives is this: “The use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.” So satire, then, is a way of exposing folly, foolishness, error, or evil by saying the opposite of what the author really thinks in such a way that, while claiming to support something, it makes it look ludicrous and, therefore, undermines the attitude or the activity.
“God grants repentance more often with brokenhearted appeals than with clever indictments.”
Now, in deciding whether it is wise to use satire or irony we should ask, Does the Bible use it in a way that commends it? And, if so, when might it be appropriate, and when not? And, are there other biblical exhortations that would put the brakes on it or guide it, minimize it, maximize it? So, the answer to that first question is Job, the prophets, Jesus, Paul — they all used satire. They all used irony to expose the folly of the people they were dealing with.
For example, Job 12:2, “No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you.” That is exactly the opposite of what he thought. Or, Isaiah 44:14–17 — this one is really, really good:
He [the idolater] cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
That is really powerful.
And then Elijah: “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27). That is just pure irony and satire and sarcasm in his case. Then, consider Jesus: “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he [Jesus] was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:16–17). Which was a very pointed indictment of those who were talking to him, thinking they were well when they were, in fact, sick.
“We should be careful before we pull out our sword of satire when dealing with someone’s error.”
And then Paul says, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!” (1 Corinthians 4:8). He says the exact opposite of what he thinks because that is what irony does. It is not lying, because the assumption is everybody knows exactly what I am doing, and they are being indicted by it.
Now, in all of those cases as I look at them, the people who are being exposed by the irony are those who are acting wrongfully in a fairly entrenched way. In other words, these are not poor, weak people who have simply stumbled and made a rare mistake, but are hardened people who go on and on in their error and do not respond to exhortation. Which means, I think, that satire and irony are not going to be a Christian’s first or main strategy of correction with people, not people we are trying to win anyway. We know that Jesus said not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). But we should be very careful before we put someone in the category of swine. We will be very slow. Similarly, we should be careful before we pull out our sword of satire when dealing with someone’s error.
One of the difficulties with satire — and I will just say this about myself, in particular — is that it is so difficult to use without sounding arrogant. James Denney said it is very hard to show that Christ is magnificent and that I am clever at the same time. It has been a very powerful word for me over the years.
Some of us are so prone to be clever and biting in our criticism that satire fits our natural sinfulness way too easily. I would put myself in that category. So, for myself, I find I need to read other sets of Scriptures, other passages more often, like these:
2 Timothy 2:24–25: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”
James 3:17–18: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
1 Peter 3:8: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
That is what John Piper needs to hear over and over again, because I am wired to be sarcastic. I daydream about how to say things with pointed, ruthless effect. So, I need those verses all the time.
So, my conclusion is that 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. God grants repentance. It seems to me — and I base this on 2 Timothy 2:25 — God grants repentance more often in connection with brokenhearted appeals than with clever indictments.