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The Seat of Mockers
No.120: August 12, 2022
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the link at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy all my offerings!
Hopefully I’m not beating a dead horse. And I also hadn’t realized before just now how creepy that phrase is. Who would beat a dead horse? The kind of person who would beat a live horse, I guess, and then just keep on going. A monster.
It seems that I am writing an unplanned “series” on Christian conduct in the public square, and it needs one more installment. “Precedented Times” emerged out of a lengthy dinner conversation with a few very close friends, and when I got to the end of that already lengthy essay I realized I hadn’t said anything about the “fear factor.” So I followed up with “Reign of Terror.” And now it occurs to me there are a few more things that I need to say, and hopefully that will wrap all this up into a somewhat cohesive three-part commentary.
Recently on Facebook I came across a public post written by a pastor targeting—well, I’m not exactly sure. Broad-brush impressionism doesn’t really “target” anything; it sort of just sets a mood. In this case he was writing about squishy evangelicals, egalitarians, and other specific people who don’t, as he sees it, adequately perceive the various threats facing the church and who are unwilling to do what is necessary to fight back. All of which is fair game for discussion.
In the course of this single Facebook post I counted at least twelve personal insults directed at others. Name-calling, attempts at “hardy-har, yukkity-yuk” humor at the expense of others, and it was remarkable how the author had some kind of clairvoyant access into the secret motivations of his subjects. They do what they do because they, (unlike him, we are left to presume) love the world, want to be liked, or are just plain sell-outs and compromisers. It was, shall we say, rather muscular and bombastic rhetoric. And this is not some kind of aberration or oversight or heat-of-the-moment outburst. This kind of writing is by careful design.
Boy, is there a market for that. There’s no arguing but that it gets the clicks. Andrew Sandlin and I frequently lament to each other that there is, alas, only one sure-fire way to make sure that our audience triples or quadruples for any particular post: criticize some Christian public figure. Even mildly. People crave it. Watching someone go hammer and tongs against some perceived enemy or sellout stimulates all the pleasure centers of the brain. It is, I believe, an actual addiction. It provides some kind of sweet, sweet hit of dopamine. This is a pleasure of the flesh, I think Paul would say. And maybe he isn’t talking figuratively; maybe it is literally a pleasure of the gray matter between our ears.
There’s a website that used to be called Pulpit & Pen. Their brand has apparently become so toxic they’ve finally had to change the name. I can’t remember what it’s called and I won’t do them the honor of looking it up. Anyway, for years I’ve been bewildered how anyone could read it. It is a raw sewage pipeline backing up straight out of the abyss. A few self-appointed watchdogs and heresy-hunters maligning, mocking, twisting, and sometimes outright making up lies about Christian leaders they don’t like. And people love it. They’d share this garbage on my Facebook feed constantly. (They don’t anymore because I unfriended them.) Pulpit & Pen is an extreme example, but they are part of a wider phenomenon.
Here’s a data point that isn’t so on the extreme fringe. Almost twenty years ago Douglas Wilson wrote a book called The Serrated Edge, which was a defense of Christian satire and—I’m not sure what to call it—“godly” trash talking. Enough of this winsome, effeminate, squishy Christian “niceness”! We need a strong, manly, muscular, take-no-prisoners approach. The book made a big splash and it produced a lot of good conversation and debate. I wasn’t really persuaded, mainly for the same reasons John Frame wasn’t persuaded. And even if I were to have bought the theory, in actual practice I have rarely, if ever, seen the “serrated edge” used as anything other than as a license to be a jackass. And that’s including all the times I’ve used it, I freely admit.
I bring this up because it appears that Wilson’s book is having a little boomlet or perhaps full-blown renaissance. And I am very interested as to why. And why now? Could it be that this renewed interest in sharp tongues isn’t so much the fruits of a careful theological study of rhetoric, but rather a sociological reflection of our times (see my previous two installments)? What if this is not some rediscovery of biblical or theological principle? What if this is not a case of the Scriptures exerting revelatory pressure on us, forcing us to change our rhetoric? What if it is the other way around: our changing rhetoric is first and finding the “Scriptural” rationale comes next?
In my view this is the great irony. The defenders and practitioners of smash-mouth incendiary rhetoric insist that we must do this so as to adequately combat the world and the infiltration of worldliness into the church. It seems to me that in reality, it is the world and the infiltration of worldliness into the church.
If you are stricken with a severe case of amnesia, we’ve just witnessed the phenomenon of a critical mass of people so fed up with political correctness and “niceness” that they demanded, and got, a new kind of politician. He “fights.” He will not put up with this crap anymore. He will break all the norms. He will mock, insult, call names, and even lie. And people love him. I mean, they really love him. It is an addiction apparently without cure. It’s about time they got a nickname, too: ForeverTrumpers.
Many Christians now demand from pulpits what America got in politics. Just as “the times” supposedly required a politician with a reckless, incendiary mouth, so now “the times” demand the same from pastors and Christian leaders. It seems to me that this uptick in interest for serrated edges is explainable as a purely sociological and cultural phenomenon, and not at all as the product of genuine or legitimate theological conviction. We want in on some of that action. Why can’t we be like all the other nations, Lord? It’s … fun.
I did get a few “whattabouts” after last week’s newsletter. Whattabout Jesus and John the Baptist and the prophets? This is pretty simple. I highlighted a few of the commands—the imperatives—of what the Bible requires of our manner in the public square. Here’s a few more: “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22b). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). “But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (Col. 3:8). No amount of piling up indicative historical examples (usually selectively curated) lessens the weight of those imperatives. I have some theological suggestions of how this sort of tension might be resolved, but it is not my burden to explain it. If you want to talk like John the Baptist with his “brood of vipers” smackdowns (and if you think you are John the Baptist you have other issues), it is incumbent upon you to explain and to defend exactly how it is you are exempt from, again, those commands. If you read John Frame’s review of The Serrated Edge, you will see that this is a question that Wilson himself didn’t or couldn’t really answer. I don’t think it’s any clearer twenty years later.
Part of the problem, of course, is that people are always confusing matter with manner, substance with style. Does speaking with “gentleness and respect” mean that we cannot speak with boldness or that we cannot denounce idolatry? By no means. I recently wrote that the legal abortion regime in America is the literal worship of the ancient demon Moloch. (Spineless me, unwilling to take a stand.) But to my recollection I don’t think I personally attacked anyone or make a remark (as Charlie Kirk recently did) about how “most women who want abortions are the least likely to ever get pregnant.” Hardy-har.
It is possible, if difficult, believe it or not, to speak very strongly and persuasively without ad hominem insults, childish jokes, and mean-spiritedness. In fact, I’d argue none of that is actual cultural engagement at all; it is fan service for dopamine-addicted sycophants who click-click-click-share-share-share and lap up that kind of thing. The world—presumably the audience to which such rhetoric is being aimed—isn’t listening very attentively, or at all. And why should they? Even if it is the most pure Truth™ the ears have ever heard—the “tongue of angels”—if it doesn’t exhibit charity or love, it is what Paul calls “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13).
You know who I think has been one of the most stalwart and effective public figures on critical cultural issues like the right to life, religious liberty, and a biblical sexuality? Princeton professor Robert P. George. I have my differences with the man (he’s a Roman Catholic and a big natural law guy), but I can say this: if he has ever uttered or written an unkind word, it would be news to everyone. He is the epitome of a gentleman. He debates all comers, radical leftists and progressives and all. He’s rigorously committed to respectful rational argument and logic. He’s also witty and sharp. You know that logical conundrum of the self-contradiction, like trying to imagine a square circle or a married bachelor or, to use Ron Weasley’s example, “a stupid Hermione”? Here’s another one: a cocky, arrogant, or insulting Robby George.
You can tell me that mockery is the very best way to engage and influence culture when you have one tenth of Robby George’s accomplishments. Or Tim Keller’s, for that matter. I’m sure there are countless good examples.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with wit. Or strong personalities. Or cleverness. Or prose with pointy ends. Sarcasm is useful, too. So is parody. I’m assuming just now that these are not conjoined to or an outflow of malice, bitterness, personal insults, and other similar sins, and the danger is that sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference; this stuff is “handle with care.” But these things are not a substitute for good faith, charitable argument. They are seasoning or a garnish (Col. 4:6), not the entrée. Just as you would not care to eat an entire plate of salt and pepper, so your media diet—or worse, your media output—should not consist of mockery of people and ideas you hate.
I’ve been a big fan of The Babylon Bee (I do, in fact, have a sense of humor) and their non-satire site Not The Bee, but you’d better not get all your cultural commentary from those guys. Because sometimes they have very poor taste, and sometimes they’re just mean-spirited. Here’s a recent post on Not The Bee commenting on a body cam video of two cops arresting a federal ATF agent. I’ve got opinions about the ATF and policing and that video, but leave them aside. The video is a tense standoff in which the agent comes within an eyelash of getting shot, and the police officers wrestle him to the ground and use a taser on him. Here—and I am not kidding—is Not The Bee’s entire “commentary.”
Dude was crying like a baby!
Don't tase me, bro!!
Wow. Insightful and enriching. It’s gets the “own the libs” fanboys to click and share, but it’s disgraceful. Mock and laugh at a man in obvious distress. Just what Jesus and John the Baptist would’ve done, I’m sure.
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.
“Sitting in the seat of mockers” is what the blessed man of Psalm 1 very conspicuously refuses to do. And the sudden popularity of muscular macho-man mockery among Christians does not spell some kind of coming revival or cultural renewal; it’s perhaps a sign that God is just handing us over to our worldly depravity. And maybe in the end we will be “like the chaff that the wind blows away.”
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