Three Rules of Christian Satire
By Jonathan Acuff
May 14, 2010
"Personally, I think you should kill yourself.”
That’s the harshest comment someone ever left on the blog I write, StuffChristiansLike.net. No one likes to hear that something you’ve written warrants a suicide request. But that’s not the worst comment I’ve received. Here’s what someone wrote after reading the introduction to my book:
“I struggled to laugh feeling God’s sadness at how ugly the bride of Christ (the Church) is looking for her wedding day.”
When you start a blog exploring satire and faith, no one tells you what to do when you’re accused of uglying up the bride of Christ.
But after two years of writing it, here are the three rules I’ve learned about Christian satire. [Editor's note: for some examples of Jonathan's satire, check out yesterday's feature.]
If you’re a Christian and want to be funny, you have two options. 1) You can be cheesy. 2) You can be hurtful. The first one involves a lot of humor with kittens and rainbows. You have to tell gobs of limericks or send mass forwarded emails that end with a little kid doing something all “rascally.” Your other option is to become cynical and critical of Christianity. You pick on Carman and Facing the Giants and slam everything with a vicious tongue of poison. The problem with this approach is that no one in the history of mankind ever said: “You know, the way you rip into Christianity on your blog really helped me begin a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. Thank you for using your cynicism for the Lord.” The third, often unacceptable, option is satire. But how is that different from cynicism? Let’s review the second rule.
Mockery is not the same thing as satire. Mockery always has a victim. Satire doesn’t. Mockery is about wounding someone and leaving a bruise. Satire isn’t that way at all. I define satire as “humor with a purpose.” My purpose is to clear away the clutter of Christianity so we can see the beauty of Christ. I do that with satire, which is a tremendous vehicle for truth. It’s like a big mirror: You take an issue and you blow it up so it’s big enough and obvious enough for everyone to see. Then you stand next to it and ask: “Is that us? Are we OK with that? Is this what it means to be the Church?” The other big difference is that God hates mockery. Satire? I feel He actually exhibits a bit of satire in the Bible. In Psalm 1:1, we’re told “Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers” (TNIV). Do you see that? Mockers are related to the wicked. But satire gets a shoutout. In Numbers 11:23, God says to Moses: “Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” I don’t speak Hebrew, but I can’t believe God was asking Moses the length of His arm because He didn’t know. I think He was satirically pointing out to Moses that He could take care of him.
To use satire, you have to know how to surprise people. In the book Accidental Magic, author Roy Williams writes about something called “Broca.” Broca is the part of your brain that filters the new ideas you hear. The brain likes to associate new information with old information so it can stop trying so hard to concentrate on the new ideas. So when you see a red ball, you automatically place it in the “red ball” bucket in your brain and think about something else. The challenge then for communicators is to get around Broca. The best way is to surprise people and satire is fantastic at that. For instance, there’s a radio station in Atlanta that plays what they call an “Inspirational Vitamin” every morning. It’s an uplifting gospel song and Bible verse reading moment, but it’s sandwiched between their normal programming, which is hip-hop. In essence, they go “Booty, God, Booty.” I’ve noticed this is also, unfortunately, how a lot of my weekends go, too. On a Saturday night, it’s all about me. Sunday morning? Me and God are BFF. But come Monday? God’s back in the car with my Bible.
Now if I say to a crowd, “Tonight I want to talk about the ways we fracture our lives and don’t live consistent walks of faith,” Broca will step in and file that idea away because we’ve all heard that before. If I say, “Tonight, let’s talk about ‘Booty, God, Booty,’” you can’t categorize it. No one says: “Jeez, again? Billy Graham has talked about ‘Booty, God, Booty’ a million times.”
Satire is a critical communication tool. Last November I watched the StuffChristiansLike.net community prove that by raising $30,000 in 18 hours to build a kindergarten in Vietnam. Did we laugh? Without a doubt. Every time we reached a certain goal, an accoutrement like a white belt was added to our metrosexual worship leader mascot. Did we do serious good without being somber Christians? Without a doubt. We ended up raising $60,000 and building two kindergartens.
Satire is a tricky thing. It’s hard not to slip into mockery. But when you walk that thin line, even when someone suggests you kill yourself, you’ll be able to laugh it off.