Monday, September 17, 2007
There's an interesting conversation going on that started at Scot McKnight's blog and has also spread to Bob Hyatt's blog about whether satire is ever a good thing, or whether it's generally spiritually harmful. (The question was in reference to a satirical website poking fun at D.A. Carson.) This is what Scot had to say about it:
A steady diet of satire is soul-destroying, especially when one remains anonymous and especially when it goes on indefinitely about the same person. Satire turns the human gaze against others, even if at first in fun, and learns to hold Eikons up for ridicule and insult. It has its own way of becoming a cancer of cynicism, eventually eating the soul...

You cannot possibly live by the Jesus Creed and turn your focus to satire, especially anonymous satire. Impossible.
While I agree that satire can be spiritually dangerous if taken in excess, I think it serves a useful and necessary function at times as well. At it's best, satire is a means of speaking truth to power in a way that disarms the powerful and blunts their wrath (i.e. through humor). As such, satire has a long tradition, from the medieval court jesters (think of the "fools" from Shakespeare's plays) who were officially sanctioned to mock the king himself, to writers like Dante who lampooned the powerful of his day in the Inferno, to more recent humorists like Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Such people use humor to point out the follies and injustices of the powerful and to speak truths in a way that make others less hostile and more receptive.

The "speaking truth to power" part of the formula is important too. In a comment, Bob Hyatt makes the point that satire seems to work best when it flows "upwards", i.e. from the powerless to the powerful. It rarely works in reverse. He points out that:
It is wholly inappropriate for the rich to "satirize" the poor or those in power to satirize those on the fringes.
And indeed, just a moments reflection on how such "top-to-bottom" satire comes across when it is practiced reveals that this is in fact that case. Satire is a tool of empowerment for those who have little ability to otherwise be heard. When the powerful take it up themselves, it turns into simple bigotry and dehumanizing mockery (for example, think of the portrayals of comical and subservient African-Americans played by black-faced white actors in the old pre-Civil Rights era movies).

Of course, even legitimate satire can quickly devolve into mean-spirited mockery as well. It is always a fine line, and one that is easily and sometimes unintentionally crossed (as a regular viewing of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report will soon reveal). Satire is an effective tool, but a dangerous one, and must be handled with care. Even Jesus used it at times (many of his parables could be interpreted as satire) but Scot is right that steady diet of it is quite unhealthy. Nonetheless, it's too important a tool for empowering the powerless to just throw out entirely.
posted by Mike Clawson at 11:57 AM | Permalink |


At 9/17/2007 06:41:00 PM, Blogger Derek Berner

I'm often guilty of this myself. Some of it is a backlash against my Evangelical upbringing. I mean, I don't set out to speak satirically but sometimes I end up feeling like it gets points across that it would be harder to address otherwise, but I often seem to come across as more harsh than I intended. And indeed it seems to get people riled up and defensive.


At 9/17/2007 07:06:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

The best satire is the type that allows even those who are being lampooned to chuckle. When people get "riled-up and defensive" you're probably doing it wrong. It's such a fine line to walk. I think people like Stewart and Colbert usually do it well. I know many fairly conservative people who still find them funny. I'd hold someone like Al Franken up in contrast. His satire is far more cutting and malicious, and he generally just makes people angry.

Personally I don't do satire very well either. If I try to be funny I'll usually just wind up offending people. Frankly, I think satire is dangerous ground for pastors to tread on and is best left to the comedians. (Though I'll occasionally quote the ones who do a good job of it!)


At 9/17/2007 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

John Frame and Douglas Wilson have a somewhat lengthy exchange about Christian satire here (Frame is reviewing a book on satire by Wilson):

I'm glad the defensiveness issue came up because I was going to mention it. If the point really is to get the attention of those in power, then it is certainly self-defeating to get them riled up.

Actually I've never thought of satire that way. I think of it as a way to encourage those who are already on your side or to convince the fence-sitters that your side is better. Your target's reaction is irrelevant. But I like the idea of using humor to win over one's opponents, or at least to get them to lower their walls.

Here's another (long) treatment of satire from the standpoint of ancient culture:


At 9/17/2007 08:58:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Granted, satire is probably most effective with fence-sitters. However I keep coming back to the idea of the medieval court fool, whose sanctioned job it was to lampoon and make fun of those in power. The kings and rulers would keep such people around deliberately, as kind of an opposing viewpoint. The value was that since it was so comical, a king could simply dismiss it as nonsense if he wanted, but at the same time, it was a rare opportunity for him to hear an opposing viewpoint without having to threaten the person with negative repercussions for sedition.

So yeah, I think one of the crucial roles of satire ought to be this ability to speak truth to power in a disarming way.


At 9/18/2007 06:07:00 PM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

Yes, although one difference is that the kings were inviting the jesters' criticism, so they were committing themselves to be open to it at least some of the time. If we offer satire to those in power uninvited, they're less likely to be receptive. But if it's done right, like you said, they might get the point anyway.


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