And just when I thought I had nothing to post Brian Mattson rushed to my aid with an interesting third part in his, “unplanned series on Christian conduct in the public square.” Which means I will do a second piece in so many weeks on Christians and comedy. First things first here are the links to the articles in the background. Mattson’s The Seat of Mockers over on The Square Inch. And my musings last week on why Christians need to fill the market opportunity for good humor.
But for those of you unwilling to go do your homework I’ll sum up below.
Things That Have Done Been Said
Mattson’s piece should really be read, in it’s entirety. It gives a lot of examples of what is thrown into the current junk drawer of humor from “Christians” and he is repulsed by a lot of what he sees. Rightly so. He covers biting social media posts, Pulpit & Pen hot garbage, Wilson’s The Serrated Edge, and the pitfalls of Not the Bee. Mattson ends with this:
“If this is the kind of thing the “serrated edge” means, and if Facebook posts that launch a dozen personal insults is the new mode of discourse that’s really going to turn the cultural tides, we’re just doomed. Teaching this “theology” of mockery (such as it is) to impatient, immature, arrogant hotheads is like giving a live hand grenade to a toddler. I say it’s better to just stick to the commandments.” – Brian Mattson, The Seat of Mockers
There is a lot going on here and all of it is good.
In my last post, I pointed out that there is a dearth of good comedy. This includes liberals, and conservatives; atheists, and christians; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of good jokes. Therefore there is a huge opening for Christians to be winsomely hilarious. And the job is easier than it has ever been. The godless left has twisted themselves into such a pretzel the jokes practically write themselves. I also pointed out that this should not be a new concept to Christians. good comedy always, “punches up” and with a few brief exceptions history constantly shows Christians as a minority. We have used humor before to great effect, we need to figure out how to use it again, the tool may be rusty but with a little elbow grease we can shine that thing up and use it to fix things. The final part is joy, Christians should be good at comedy because we have every reason to be good at comedy. We live in a joyless age, part of how joy is spread is through being joyful, a distinct part of which is fun:
“Comedy works on surprise, we have been told how we are allowed to speak, the law has been carefully fenced, it’s time for some gleeful Christ-esque trespassing and frolicking in those gated communities of language. But things do not even have to be “topical,” “political,” or “culture war-ish” it just needs to be fun.” – Me, last week
On the face of it things look as if I should disagree with Mattson quite a bit. But if I understand him rightly, his objection is to Christians mocking people, not Christians having a sense of humor and using it well and wisely. For the purposes of discussion let us say that mocking is exactly the kind of truckload of hot garbage headed to the dump with all the flies circling included. This includes ad hominem attacks on people, cruel jokes, straight up insults, veiled insults, character assassination, and anything else said with an obvious sneer. Things that are not so much punching up as slicing up.
However, humor should be rooted in joy, it (largely) will follow the rules of comedy, it operates like Muhammad Ali to its targets “floats like a butterfly stings like a bee.” When it works it is a thing of beauty and highly effective to reveal the truth in a way that sticks with people. But more than that the joy and fun of comedy is that sometimes it is senseless, it is fun for the sake of fun, it doesn’t always have to have a point or a moral, it is a release of tension in a productive way that looks pointless.
My guess would be that this kind of, admittedly sloppy, distinction Mattson could agree with. But he might point out that he and I differ on where the line between the two are. And since this is my blog, I’ll lay out where I think it should be.
Comedy is a funny thing in that there are rules but it is still highly subjective. This means that there is room for one mans good natured joke is another mans outrageous insult. See Dave Chapelle getting attacked on stage for straying to close to the sacred tranny line. Was his joke funny and based in truth? Yes, the audience loved it, except for one guy, or girl, or whatever it was, who ironically considered themselves a comedy fan… My point being, there will always be someone willing to take offense, the question is does that one person get to dictate what is and isn’t funny for the larger group? Or should the person making the joke, as part of making the joke, do the math involved of factoring in that there will be few taking umbrage but that they are wrong and the joke lands on them the way it is supposed to.
Consider even the language comedians use about successful comedy, “It killed” “the joke landed”* ”punching up.” There is a fighty element to comedy, it is as if they come into a place and overturn some tables leaving chaos in their wake but some problems cleans out for the time being… So just because a few determine a joke to be out of bounds, or hurtful, does not necessarily mean it it actually was. It may have landed exactly how it was supposed to, on them. As Aslan might point out, they are the joke.
Secondly, and you should have seen this one coming, Wilson’s book should be addressed. It needs a re-write. It’s dated for one thing. As fun as the chapter torching the idol of Thomas Kinkade was, that era is over. As an exercise in application of principal I suppose that might be useful, but again, it’s over, the targets have moved, update and go after those. So there is that. Also, I think that what Mattson is really disturbed by is the justification idiots are drawing from Wilson’s well intended work. And again I agree. I keep quoting Piper on Wilson but I think he nailed it, “Doug Wilson is a very smart guy, but he is surrounded by idiots.” I know this to be true, I have met some of them.
One of the best things to come out of the expansion of Wilson’s publisher, Cannon Press, is that they now have him reading, on video his incendiary blog posts. And suddenly it became easier for the world to see the Wilson that many of us have known for a while now. The jolly, witty, wordsmith, who delights in prodding and poking sins out into the harsh light, but never with malice or cruelty, one could say, downright pastorally. Wilson writes like he talks, you have to hear his voice in your head, and see him in your minds eye to get that his salty style is not vindictive but provocative. Compare that over and against his disciples, who just somehow have not seemed to fully, “get it” the Cross-politic guys. They try they really do, and I think a couple of them are getting there, but they still stray into shock jock, or blowhard territory. It is obnoxious, and frankly, not helpful. And downstream of them are the kind of people that Mattson is rightly indigent of posting on social media cruel mocking things. If we are talking about serrated edges, we have a ton of people wielding meat cleavers, and Wilson over in the corner expertly using a pairing knife, one is destructive and the other is a surgeon.
Third, and related to the Serrated Edge, Mattson objects to people mocking like John the Baptist or Jesus because none of us are them. He thinks that Wilson failed to answer that objection. With all due respect, I deem this to be a weak objection. It seems to be predicated on the fact that professed Christians have in recent years used humor so badly and then justified it with Jesus and John mocked the Pharisees that they should stop altogether. Well, Abusus Non Tollit Usum and all that jazz. But more importantly Just because you are not Jesus does not negate you trying to be more like Jesus. Yes Jesus wielded humor perfectly, for us sanctification is progressive, and that includes our humor. More about this in the conclusion, but to give the answer I think Wilson would put forward I would use an extension of his argument for why we as Christians should be creative, that he put forward in his lecture on Lewis, Undragoned.
Wilson posits that the natural obvious extension of the create and cultivate mandate is creativity. God creates first ex nihilo and then turns around and says to man, who has been provided all of the resources necessary to be creative on a much smaller scale, “Now you try it.” The universe is given as a canvas on which God delights to see the his children emulating him in billions of different ways. We are obedient to create, emulating the creator, but it should be understood that all of our work is derivative, we will never approach that first original. To be creative is to imitate God, Wilson then says, “It would be arrogance to think that we could. It is humility to think that we should.” Downstream of this is how Christians use humor. Just because we can never pray like Christ does not mean we should stop praying, just because we can’t preach like Christ doesn’t mean we stop preaching. We will never bat a thousand like Christ in our use of humor, and it would be arrogant to think that we could, but it is like Christ to joke, and joke in an acerbic manner when necessary, it is humility to think that we should try.
Growing in the sanctification of our humor is a slow process. Comedy is hard enough work on its own, it is even harder when Christ calls you to avoid the cheap easy laugh. There is a time in every young boy’s life where he discovers the pleasure of making people laugh. Inevitably he figures out sarcasm first,** this is a prolonged stage in his life that is formative, but highly obnoxious. Anything said by anyone is greeted with a sarcastic response, heavy dripping sarcasm, usually followed by a look that pleads with you, “please laugh, please say I was funny.” And every once in a while it is, he lands one. Over time he develops, he grows, and his sense of humor grows. This is what I think is happening in Evangelical Christian circles, we are like a bunch of pre teen boys who have just discovered sarcasm. Currently our jokes miss more than they hit, they can be obnoxious, but they are the baby steps to real Godly humor. The project should not be abandoned because the process is slow. Mattson, points to what he sees as a swing and a miss from Not the Bee. And I would say that is par for the course on that site, there is a strong sense of immature partizan arrogance that crops up and it plays out in mocking.*** But there are also times when they land one, really land one, and that kind of actual humor should be encouraged.
But let us not forget that underlying all of this should be joy. Why do I say Wilson is more effective than those following him, he is overflowing with joy. He makes jokes sometimes to pop absurd balloons, and sometimes he does it just for the fun of it. There is a time for the Weekend Update kind of humor and there is a time for the Fish Slapping Dance. And in our increasingly censorious day simply exercising the freedom of joyful fun is effective enough to bring the delightful aroma of the gospel to people’s attention.****
These are all things I hope Mattson would agree with. He has provided an excellent critique, hopefully this article complements his work in giving some direction of where to go from there.
*This means like landing a punch, not an aircraft.
**This period is usually followed by plagiarism where he steals jokes he has seen work on TV and prays that no one else saw.
***There is also a fairly pessimistic streak and habit of exaggerating. As I was writing this piece Wikipedia had an online discussion on wether Not the Bee and Babylon Bee should be considered as citable sources for articles. And honestly the discussion was pretty boring. The Onion is not citable so Babylon Bee shouldn’t be either. Not the Bee is aggregating news, and editorializing with humorous opinion. I can see why there would be discussion. This wasn’t an attack on them, but an issue that had been raised and needed to be resolved by editors on Wikipedia. It wasn’t the overblown thing that needed such a long article that fits entirely with the definition of mocking given above. I really do see where Mattson is making his point and it is a good one that the bee people would do well to pay attention to.
**** Consider that all of the “freedoms” the left offers can be easily done in an 8×8 foot cell, drugs, porn, sexuality, everything provided by the government that knows best… Actual freedom is found in Christ and throws off the shackles of man that limit, “for your own good” It wasn’t the Church forcing children off of playgrounds and onto screens for their health and safety. Homeschools are a threat because they have the potential to teach students how to think not just to obey. Churches were shutdown because their gathering would have strengthened communities in a time of crisis rather than commanding drone like existence. Speech is policed because the risk of finding out you are not alone and others agree with you is dangerous to group control. Christians living freely in Christ are making Christ desirable to those who are enslaved, we must not forget that is an enormous part of our witness.