Christian Satire in Babylon

1.

The Babylon Bee–“Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire”–publishes a piece on a famous pastor, an author, a Christian basketball player. It takes shots at the average mini-van driving mega-church family, at Mormon missionaries, at porn-addicted Redditors.  There is a piece about Minnesota preacher John Piper punching himself, Jen Hatmaker’s supposed lack of clarity. There is a piece about TD Jakes–a heretic, the Bee insinuates. The sarcasm is thick, the writing a shade of clever, deprecating, perhaps even irreverent. Everyone in the Christian family is fair game; no one is spared from the Bee’s falling anvils of irony.

The clickbaity headlines are bookended by ads for Compassion International and Eternity Bible College. A penny a click? A flat fee? Who knows whether the dollars pile up in the office of the Bee, but the message is sent–this is Christian-sponsored mockery. Welcome to the new Church.

2.

If you ask Google to define the term satire, she will tell you it is “the the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” (Emphasis added.) The satirist is the ironic hit man, the exploiter of the people for personal gain. And sometimes, I suppose, it’s all in good humor. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s good comedy. Maybe I’ve used satire in the past. Perhaps I’ll use it in the future.

Sometimes, though, it feels cheap. Sometimes, it feels smarmy. What’s the difference between good satire and arrogant mockery? As Justice Potter Stewart once wrote about hard-core pornography, “…I know it when I see it.” And let me be more to the point: Christian satire feels more like mockery when it stands in opposition to the guiding ethics of the Christ.

3.

The Christ swung by Earth, stepped out of eternity and into humanity. He gathered all manner of folks to himself–tax collectors, fishermen, perhaps a graduate or two from Eternity Bible College–and he taught them the by-God way. Satire was not the primary language of the by-God way (though Christ occasionally painted in redder shades). Instead, Jesus instructed his followers in the ways of love and mercy.

Do to others what you’d have them do to you.

Do good to your enemies.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

These were all things the good preacher preached. But then he upped the ante. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” he said, “if you love one another.”

Loving our neighbors, treating each other well, being kind–these are the evidences of spiritual transformation. And sure, there were times that Jesus took issue with the teachers of the day, but did he take issue by way of satirical teachings? Did his teachings drip with sarcasm and irony?

4.

I’ve searched the words of Jesus, the writings of Paul and the other apostles. I find little proof that satire is a spiritual fruit or a Christian virtue. (Granted, I’m not a first century Jew and the satire and irony might be lost in translation.) I find little evidence that the God-way entails commodifying others for personal gain. And when the satire is against Christians, for Christians, by Christians, it sends mixed message to a world that longs for path to peace and love.

We are a people of peace and love. Watch us roast each other to a crisp!

What’s peaceful about satirizing your brothers and sisters? What’s loving about it? Really. This is not a rhetorical question.

5.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, saying “please, for the love of God, stop taking yourself so seriously.” Fair enough. But ask yourself this question: aren’t love and peace things to be taken seriously?

This, too, is not a rhetorical question.

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  • Aundi K

    I appreciate this piece, Seth. I have felt uncomfortable at times reading the Babylon Bee and I think you are touching on why. Thanks for writing.

    • sethhaines

      Thanks for stopping in, Aundi.

  • I followed here from Twitter and also read the conversation on Twitter yesterday about BB. I actually wrote a piece for BB in the early days (about how not measuring up can itself become something to measure up to) but I share your discomfort with some of the pieces. I think it’s great to poke fun at our own foibles, our catch phrases and cliches. It’s good not to take ourselves too seriously. But the personal attacks — especially against people who are humble and would never do the same to someone else — make me very uncomfortable. The first one that really stung me was about Ann Voskamp’s supposedly incomprehensible writing style; many of the the FB responses were very unfair and contemptuous. I couldn’t help thinking that Jesus would probably say, like he did to his disciples, “Leave her alone … she has done a beautiful thing to me.”

    I think satire is great when it makes us laugh at ourselves or takes a poke at power, but it’s pretty basic that we shouldn’t be treating people in a way we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves.

    • sethhaines

      I agree with your last paragraph 100%. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  • I’m in agreement on a lot of this, but there’s a part of me that’s thinking of two things I haven’t been able to fully flesh out. One is the fact that satire can be a form of critique of people in power who are disengaged from dialogue. Do those conditions make it more legitimate? While I personally prefer the modeling of something better that undermines it, you could argue that Paul used satire as a way of delivering a dose of reality to the Corinthians when he imitated their foolishness by boasting of his achievements. There can be a disarming power to satire that makes me hesitant to write it off, even if I think most times modeling an alternative is better.

    I also wonder if there’s a place for the kind of satire where we all laugh together. For instance, I often joke about the evangelical obsession with the book of Romans that robs us of the riches in the prophets, Psalms, etc. I think there’s a place for using a bit of humor/satire if you’re a part of the community saying, “hey, look at how unbalanced we can be!” This is a fine line, but it’s at least worth discussing how we can laugh at ourselves a bit and open up other conversations–provided the joke leaves room for a conversation!

    • sethhaines

      I think these are both fair points. In both examples, though, there is a give and take within the community. Paul gives directly to the Corinthians, speaks to their reality in relationship (and without hiding behind a false entity). In the second example, the community is employing a sort of self-deprecating humor, and I’m okay with that, also. An Anglican can poke fun at Anglicans all day long. A Baptist at Baptists. But when the Baptist pokes fun at the Anglican for smells and bells, or the Anglican at the Baptist for hyper-literal interpretations of Scripture, it just looks like bickering. You know?

      • Agreed. The key word seems to be community.

  • Amy Liebmann Gant

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? These are the questions I ask my children to ponder before they speak or write. I tell them that if they can’t answer yes to all three questions, it is better left unsaid or unwritten. I believe this is how Jesus lived. It makes me cringe to see a site use His name while tearing others down. I love this piece. Thank you for writing it.

  • Michael Hicks

    I think that in the same way that the water-cooler conversation of a squad of cops or EMT’s sounds callous and macabre to people who don’t chase or bandage people every day, the frank talk of people who wrestle full-time with theological, political, or philosophical conflict can sound callous to people who don’t. That’s not a justification for being mean, of course. But mean is often in the eye of the beholder. “You brood of vipers!” wasn’t too nice. Neither was “You stupid Galatians! Who has deceived you?”