The Rise of the Ironic Class
By Brett McCracken
February 15, 2010
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.
It's no secret: Our generation—letʼs very roughly say those of us currently between college age and 40—is very, very ironic. That is, we look at the world, especially pop culture, through a highly sarcastic, “youʼve got to be joking, right?” lens. More self-aware and media savvy than ever, we are a growing class of ironists who speak in terms of pastiche, Internet bits and pop culture bites, film quotes and song lyrics, and “oh no she didnʼt!” tabloid tomfoolery. We look the stupidity of culture in the face and kiss it—embracing Gossip Girl and drinking swill like PBR because, well, no one expects it, and it doesnʼt mean anything anyway.
There are reasons for our embrace of irony. We grew up in a world where earnestness failed us. Cold Wars were waged very sincerely, ideologies were bandied about with the best of intentions. Our parents married and divorced in all earnestness, and wide swaths of American homes were devastated by the sort of domestic disharmony that shattered any pretension of white-picket-fence perfection. Meanwhile, we grew up in a constant flux of advertising and brand messaging. The conglomerates cornered the markets, the ad agencies figured us out and MTV sucked our souls dry. But we also became savvy, and with the Internet and all the wiki-democratization it offered, it became easier to see through the charades of various culture industries and power-wielding hegemonies. Flaws were exposed, seedy schemes revealed amid the formerly shrouded machinations of “the man.” Nothing was sacred anymore, and all was ridiculous.
Irony, then, became a fun, subversive response to pop cultureʼs increasingly desperate power grab. It became a defense mechanism of sorts—a way for us to exert some sort of autonomy over a machine that thinks it has us figured out. Realizing that mainstream culture was by-and-large one massive ruse, hipsters decided to ironically embrace it at the lowest common denominator level.
At its core, irony is a way of working through absurdity—in the world, and in ourselves. Itʼs a method of channeling cynicism and lampooning (or guardedly hoping for) the sort of naïve idealism that believes things can get better. And itʼs a communal activity—a sort of “group therapy” where we can bond with others who are similarly numbed and strangely entranced by the weirdness of the world. Itʼs this need for generational solidarity that has made irony into a veritable industry in recent years, spawning cynical superstars like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
And, wouldnʼt you know it, there has also arisen a Christian irony industry! For example, there is Lark News—a fake news rag with headlines like “Denominations reach non-compete agreement” and “Missionaries maintain obesity against long odds.” Then there is the Stuff Christians Like blog, the Christian version of Stuff White People Like —the runaway success that revels in smarmy self-loathing and the purging of white bourgeois guilt.
One of the poster boys of this sort of Christian irony is Matthew Paul Turner, former editor of CCM magazine. For Turner, whose 2008 book, Churched, is his comedic memoir of growing up amid Barbie burnings and evangelical mayhem, irony is a defense mechanism and a way to work through insecurity about Christians, faith and the whole shebang.
“I think so many of us Christians have become cynical and ironic because itʼs something safe to hide behind,” he says. “Most of us have been burned by the idea of ʻChristian relationshipʼ— weʼve been hurt or backstabbed or have been honest in an unsafe environment—so we have a reason to be cynical.”But even as it is totally understandable why we become cynical and ironic, is it necessarily the best place to be for a Christian? Is there a point at which we need to put away our irony hats, stop making fun of our ridiculous and damaging pasts, and start thinking about taking things seriously and making the world better?
Turner thinks so. “We need to remember that if we keep poking holes in our Christian faith, sooner or later, what will we have left?” he says. “We have work to do, and itʼs easy to simply sit back and poke fun at everything, but itʼs more difficult to actually stand up and be an agent for change.”
In addition to perhaps keeping us from the work we have to do, our romance with irony has other questionable effects on day-to-day living. What does irony do to our interpersonal relationships, for example? Does constantly being ironic hinder our ability to ever have a serious and safe conversation with anyone else? Does irony ultimately prove to be mostly just an alienating factor in relationships?
It depends. We need levity in relationships. But on the other hand, wouldnʼt you eventually want to get to a point where you could talk earnestly and seriously about things with people? Itʼs fun to bond with people over shared senses of snark, but this is just an outer-layer-of-the-onion sort of thing. In every relationship, we have to be able to go deeper and get serious.
This is to say nothing of how irony impacts our relationships in a Christian context. Itʼs even more important for Christians to be able to take a critical and careful approach to irony—to think about when and where it is appropriate, and when and where it behooves us to be irony-free. Church, for instance, should probably be (for the most part) earnest to a fault. But, irony can be a healthy way to keep our encroaching pride and self-seriousness in check.
Of course, irony can also exacerbate our pride, making us more detached, aloof and elitist—when we start thinking that we have some sort of privileged knowledge of cultural inanities and can recognize the silliness of things even when most people do not.
If a healthy dose of irony—one that keeps us real and exposed rather than lofty and detached—can help us live humbler, more grounded lives, Iʼm all for it. But if our irony proves to be more self-serving and alienating to our community and witness, it should be toned down or abandoned. And if irony depreciates our sense of the importance of life—of the immortality of people and the awesome wonder of things—it cannot be helpful. People will say, “we shouldnʼt take ourselves so seriously,” which to some extent is true. But itʼs also important to remember, as the ever-direct (but occasionally ironic) C.S. Lewis famously noted: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Existence is inescapably serious.
As stupid as people can be, and as silly as this world sometimes seems, we cannot forsake the truth of the matter: that creation is Godʼs workmanship, that people are holy beings who will eternally exist—for better or worse. If our generation will realize this—that not everything can be made light of and that irony has its limits—perhaps there is hope for us yet.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of RELEVANT magazine.