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Friday, April 29, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: To Bee or Not to Bee?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: I found this websiteand I’ve got to admit, Tom, I laughed. And then I thought to myself, “You know, that isn’t all that funny”. Actually, it’s quite common, and quite tragic.

But I guess that’s what irony does: it strikes us at first one way, and leaves us feeling another.

So let’s talk about having a sense of humour. Maybe I can begin with the obvious: God seems to have given us all a sense of humour; but how is a Christian to use it?

Tom: For those who have not seen it, under the pretence of presenting “Christian news”, The Babylon Bee pokes fun at the way modern Christians interpret scripture, engage in hypocrisy and are generally painfully un-self-aware. The articles, as you say, IC, strike me as simultaneously hilarious and painful. I’ve got to admit I’ve been reading almost everything they’ve written and, frankly, splitting a gut. And I find myself wondering whether finding this stuff funny is a good thing or a bad thing.

Baal is Musing … or Something

IC: Maybe we start with looking at any times in scripture when the ironic tone was used … or humour in general … and work from there.

Tom: Okay, I’m going to steal the obvious one: Elijah, mocking the prophets of Baal for their unsuccessful attempts to invoke his power, says, “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”. Clearly not a serious educational moment in theology there. “Your god is having a bowel movement” seems a rather unlikely scenario. He’s making a point, but very plainly and very much at their expense.

The Gnat and the Camel

IC: Okay. Well, then, I’m going to refer to the Lord himself telling the Pharisees they were guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel. I think it’s fair to say that that’s not just ironic but hyperbolical as well, and not a literal truth … but memorable, amusing and apt, yes.

Tom: Wait, I can top that. How about, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision”. That’s clearly mockery.

IC: How about Paul, to the Galatians: “I wish that those who were troubling you would … [how do I put this delicately here?] … double-circumcise themselves”. That seems over the edge of ironic, and well into ribald, doesn’t it? And yeah, it’s funny too.

Foolish Talk and Crude Joking

Tom: I was just waiting for you to go there. Okay, so I think we’ve established that the Bible is not a humourless book. You have drollery, insults, mockery … and yet we can hardly overlook the fact that we are cautioned against inappropriate joking as well:
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place …”
That ought to make us careful about the lengths we’re willing to go to get a laugh. So what features make humour constructive and biblical, and what features make it “out of place”? Some might say that both Paul and Elijah in our examples could be considered a little bit coarse …

IC: Indeed. And ridicule is not a weapon we, as Christians, are directly encouraged to use. It can be a dangerous tool, and can cut the hand of the wielder just as easily at its mark. So we need to exercise some discernment here.

Gentle and Reverent to Whom?

For the most part, “gentleness and reverence” are to govern our responses to the unsaved, no?

Tom: I think so, for the most part, but we should also note that contextually the gentleness and reverence comes in when we are dealing with sincere inquirers, those who ask us for a reason for the hope that is in us. I’m not sure it would extend to, say, the prophets of Baal or the Judaizers in Galatia.

IC: That’s a great point. And I think it gives us the key: in the Bible, ironic humour is not used for light entertainment, or for casual mockery, and certainly not for “silly talk or coarse jesting”. Rather, it seems to me it is reserved for situations in which something spiritually contemptible is being highly regarded, or some value God despises is being used to deflect people from due reverence to him. Whether it’s the worship of Baal, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees or the false teaching of the circumcision set, in each case there is something being elevated to replace the worship of God or response to his word.

It’s not used generally in scripture. But in those instances when it is truly warranted, it can be biting.

Examining Our Motivation

Tom: Right. Maybe what we’re saying is that, as holds true in connection with everything else in the Christian life, it’s the motive that’s key, not just the specific words themselves. It’s a question of what the remark was designed to do.

IC: Irony imparts scorn. It deflates the inflated. It reveals the unworthiness of unworthy objects. It puts its targets’ values to shame, and at the same time challenges us to judge better. And it seems to me that scripture uses it selectively, for that sort of purpose, not for just for general humour.

Tom: And especially not for personal aggrandizement. When the world uses a put-down or a snide remark, it’s often to exalt the speaker rather than for any loftier purpose. It’s shorthand for “Look at me! Look how much smarter I am than this other guy!” And in God’s economy, nobody cares how smart or wonderful we are. The moment we get caught up in how we appear, and in whether or not WE win, we’ve lost the spiritual battle.

Jumping Up and Down on the Rubble

On the flipside, understanding the importance of motive explains not just the use of humour, but the devastating put-downs delivered by Paul or Elijah, or the grotesque imagery used by Ezekiel. Apparently when you’re demolishing a self-deluded, wicked, infectious argument, it’s fine to jump up and down on the rubble just a bit. We’d just better make sure it’s really in the interest of taking “every thought captive to obey Christ”.

IC: Indeed. And it very much helps if you have the Holy Spirit to indicate to you just how far to go. Because there’s a real danger with using irony that it will tip over into pride or personal spite. Anyone who’s talked online knows how that goes. But that’s not the purpose of biblical irony.

He Who Sits in the Heavens

Here’s the point: it’s not a good thing when God laughs at you. You can see this in Psalm 2:
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel
together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ ”
Good luck with that! And then the Lord responds to their ambition to overthrow his authority:
“He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury ...”
When the Lord laughs, it means you’re a fool ... and you are going to face his judgment. That’s pretty far from the purpose of “light entertainment”, isn’t it?

Edified, Scandalized or Both?

Tom: Quite. But don’t run away: what do you think of The Babylon Bee after all that? I’m torn, not because of anything I’ve read so far, but because I guess I don’t trust Christians to be funny and manage to keep a scriptural perspective at the same time. Is it possible to be simultaneously edified and scandalized?

IC: I guess what I’m saying is that irony is a weapon that must be used with caution. When it is appropriately directed to some “lofty thing”, something artificially “raised up against the knowledge of God”, it can be an effective way to bring back perspective. It can reduce that artificial value and expose it for the unworthy thing it is. And that’s legit: I think the Lord did it, as did Paul, Elijah and others.

Tom: I agree so far …

IC: But I think you have to look at the particulars: what is being mocked, and how is the mocking of it likely to issue in a restoration of clear thinking. If what is being mocked is something actually worthy of esteem, then irony is wrong. And if the humour does not conduce to rebalancing values in a positive way, then it’s just self-important ridicule, not edification.

For you, where does the Babylon Bee come in on that scale?

Break Out the Dirty Laundry

Tom: I haven’t read everything they’ve published, but everything I’ve seen has been, on the one hand, a bit of a jolt, and on the other, edifying. That’s not something I’m used to. I’m not sure I like the idea of Christians airing our dirty laundry in public, and, well, this is the Internet. There’s no avoiding that. And despite all that built-in reserve, I’ve found their mocking, slightly nasty shots invigorating. They make me stop and think, “Yeah, we’re kinda being hypocritical there” or “You’re right, I wish we didn’t do that”.

So I find them slightly embarrassing and at the same time I really wouldn’t want them to stop. Does that make sense?

IC: Well, yes. At times they really seem to be saying something that’s on-point. For example, sometimes they hit atheism right where it needs to be hit, as in this one. At other times, they use humour to provide a reminder to Christians that being hypocritical, insincere, legalistic, superficially religious, or practically disobedient to God is never okay for us. Not a bad message. Those are things we need to hear often. We need to be reminded that our faith must always be deep, sincere and committed. That’s edifying.

Politics and Personal Insults

But at other times, I can’t help feeling that the contributors to Babylon Bee are doing what you fear — just airing our dirty laundry instead of doing anything to clean it up — or worse, playing politics, invoking sexual misdeeds, or floating personal insults to genuine Christians, and all that in a tone of ironic superiority.

So it’s a mixed bag, don’t you think?

Tom: It may well be. That’s certainly my feeling. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, but I definitely have … concerns. Can we reserve final judgment while we see how their particular strain of service to the Body of Christ pans out? Or should we reflexively disclaim them?

IC: Maybe we ought to judge ourselves as to what we are willing to participate in, but reserve judgment on them. I do think there’s some value in irony, and it can be done right; whether they are doing it right, or will come to do it right — or not — is up to them and the Lord, I think. I don’t feel ready to conclude, except as it pertains to myself. As I say, I find it a mixed bag at the moment.

You?

Watch Those Endorsements

Tom: Yeah, I’m kind of feeling like “the one who is not against us is for us” while reminding myself that “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves”. In other words, “Be careful with those endorsements”. So I’m not ready to rave about it to strangers, but I’ve gotten some positive things from it myself.

It’s certainly a non-traditional approach, and I like that they’re thinking outside the box and getting truth out in a different way. Can it be sustained over weeks and months without turning into an excuse to “bite and devour one another”? I guess we’ll find out.

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