There’s a scene in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons where the writers showed how a comedy series—meant to satirize the sitcom format itself—could actually create characters with emotional depth who are capable of genuine sentimentalism.
Early in the episode, Homer’s comically villainous boss, Mr. Burns, hangs demotivational posters around the power plant where they work, reminding workers “Don’t Forget, You’re Here Forever.” Later, Homer’s son, Bart, asks his father why he doesn’t have any pictures of the baby, Maggie, displayed at their house. Homer explains that he keeps the photos “where he needs them the most.” The next shot cuts away to reveal that Homer has covered his work space in pictures of his baby daughter, arranging the photos so that Mr. Burn’s sign now reads, “Do It For Her.”
It’s a genuinely touching scene, the kind that made The Simpsons so great. In one moment, the series was sharp satire and biting parody, in the next, it was a moving family comedy. At times, the show could grab your heartstrings and pull them without any winks into the camera or tongues in cheeks.
This scene was a brilliant, iconic moment. One that might not be possible in 2015 primetime.
Now, 20 years later, in an era obsessed with irony, there’s a spiritual lesson that pop culture needs to hear.
Isn’t It Ironic?
The fact that so many millennials are obsessed with irony isn’t a new observation. It’s been written about, critiqued, debated and even praised for years.
The Internet has given twentysomethings the ability to be the most transparent generation in history. We can literally document our every thought, meal, outfit, song choice, idea and observation. A huge part of our lives are now consumed with either presenting ourselves online—through selfies, tweets, Snapchats and Facebook posts—or scrolling through infinite feeds of other people’s lives.
This double-edged sword of social media creates a conflict: On one hand, we are constantly making judgements about what other people post online, and on the other, we constantly feel the pressure to make sure our own contributions won’t be judged too harshly.
When you know that there is a likelihood that (at least) dozens of people will read your tweet, see your picture or comment on the post you are about to make, you run the risk of being too vulnerable. Being too honest can backfire. We literally filter our own pictures so they look the way we are comfortable with people perceiving them. We do the same things with our thoughts every time when we click the “Post” or “Tweet” button.
The result is a device we can use to be “honest” but still shielded from the harshest judgements: irony.
We know that if almost everything we do, post, photograph or publicly think is only partially serious, we only have to take criticism partly seriously.
If a friend makes fun of our duck-face selfies, it’s OK, because it was kind of a joke anyway, right? If we accompany real thoughts with semi-serious self-deprecating hashtags (#allthefeels, #thestruggleisreal, #firstworldproblems), our ideas are above criticism because they’re not actually how we think or talk. Liking a sugary pop song is OK if we’re doing it ironically, because no one can think we really have bad taste.
Irony has long been a staple of hipster fashion, so much so that the line between ironic and serious has almost completely faded with things like mustaches, man-buns, statement T-shirts, hair flowers, lumberjack gear, wolf graphics, retro shades and florescent accessories.
Currently, there aren’t too many TV shows even capable of being sharp, important and biting, and still pulling off an irony-free “Do It for Her” Hallmark moment. And it’s not just because the sitcom medium has evolved—something has changed with audiences, too. Prestige comedies like Always Sunny, Broad City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, 30 Rock and Community couldn’t pull it off, because everything is coated in a layer of ironic wit.
But shielding ourselves from real emotion—even when it’s uncomfortable or at the risk of being “too” vulnerable—can cause us to miss out on real truths.
An Authentic Life
In James, the early church is instructed on how to deal with infighting. But after opening with the context of “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”, James makes the question a personal one: “ Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” He starts to address issues like envy, improper motives, worldly acceptance and, eventually, pride.
God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.
Change in behavior and in our lives comes from not only our ability to recognize flaws, but to respond in sincere humility. James says, “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom,” not because he is against joy and happiness, but because change and repentance requires us to be vulnerable before God.
That means removing any of the shields—like detached irony—so that we have the ability to experience and express sincere emotion and authentic relationship.
In mourning, wailing and grieving, we present ourselves in the most unguarded way, because it shows that we trust God isn’t going to hurt us or humiliate us—He’s going to redeem and heal us.
Irony alone isn’t bad or wrong. It can be funny, poignant and appropriate. But when it becomes a default safety mechanism to protect our real selves from being criticized by other people, we begin to lay the foundations of a wall that prevents us from experiencing a God who longs for authenticity.
It’s not about eliminating irony from personalities or relationships. It’s about keeping it in check, so we don’t forget what sincerity feels like.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.