And Wilson, Almost Suitably Abashed, Responds

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When my friend John Armstrong suggested that this publication run a critical review of my book A Serrated Edge, and give me an opportunity to respond to that review, I agreed happily. I really do believe we ought to talk more about this stuff. Then when the package with the review arrived and I opened it, I saw that the review was written by John Frame. “Oh, great,” I thought to myself. “How am I supposed to debate with John Frame?” My dismay was short-lived, however, for on reading his criticisms of the book, I found that I agreed with the most important of them. And although some might think that such a capitulating agreement on my part will make for a tedious riposte, I will labor manfully to keep this interesting.

I want to spend the bulk of my response in correcting a deficiency that John rightly identified in my book, but let me first begin by answering a few points where we probably do disagree. This will create the illusion of controversy, and the reader might be tricked into reading the irenic second part of my response. With this in mind, it is telling that most of the points of difference come from John’s footnotes, meaning that our disagreements really are on the periphery.

John suggests in his first footnote that it could be suggested that my “classicism run amok” is responsible for the fact that there is no Arabic numeral 1 anywhere in the book. It is all Roman numeral I, everywhere you look, as in Eph. 4:3I-32. But this is just a function of the font we picked (Centaur) and is just how centaurs write. John was right to anticipate a good explanation.

In another place, John appears to think we differ where we actually do not. He assumes that I make a sharp distinction between modern evangelicals (whom I described as my central target) and those in the Reformed world (his eighth footnote). But I actually regard the contemporary Reformed world as a peculiar ghetto in the broader Evangelical world, and I was not intending to exempt Reformed foibles from my critique at all. Issues that are unique to the Reformed world I have addressed elsewhere, often in the same manner.

In the ninth footnote, John wonders “if Wilson can take what he dishes out. A satirist could have a field day with the elitism of Credenda, with all its Latin titles and such, the adulation of past ages in the classical education movement, the thees and thous in his KJV references, and Wilson’s view of worship, which apparently lacks any interest in making the liturgy intelligible to ordinary people.”

The response here should be divided into two categories. The first is that John is quite right that there is a very real sense where we need to be quite prepared to take what we dish out, and I really believe we are. One of the CREC churches where I visit regularly has put together a very funny collection of faux-covers from what they call Canonball Press for use in their church newsletter. In fact, John’s point here (that “a satirist could have a field day” with us) is so obviously right that a question arises. Why hasn’t a satirist had a field day with us? I believe a big part of the reason is that we fully understand the vulnerabilities of stuffed-shirt classicism, Latin hoity-titles in the magazine, our formal liturgy, etc. and have already made a good deal of fun of these things ourselves. The thunder is already stolen.

One of the central reasons I write in the earthy way I do is to counterbalance the innate tendency toward pomposity in much of what we are doing. Our satire and sense of humor (which are different things, incidentally), far from presenting a problem for John in this circumstance, should actually be seen as an important firewall that we have built to resist what he correctly identifies as a very real temptation. The Rev. Mr. Kinosling in Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories is incapable of a gut chuckle himself, although he is quite capable of provoking them in others. We have spent a great deal of time seeking to avoid this pitfall, and my chapter on “dearlybelovedism” in the book is directed at this particular problem. That is why we are more than prepared to laugh at ourselves, and frequently do.

I want to return to high cultural standards without encouraging supercilious blowhards, and the best way I know for doing this is to write and act like an Elizabethan Puritan, only without the collar. I don’t want classical Christian schools to graduate a generation of prigs and show-poodles, even though some are trying to. I have joked that our worship services are “seeker-hostile”—even though John will be pleased to find out the services are readily accessible to all the ordinary four-year-olds in our congregation. So on almost all these things, I would say, “point taken, and anticipated.” But when John takes on the KJV, he has gone way too far. What goeth on with that, he wots not.

But what if the problem or conflict is more serious? The second category is illustrated this way. When Jesus makes fun of a pharisaical double-wide phylactery, it would not be to the point for one of the Pharisees to respond with, “Oh, yeah? Well, you have funny sandals!” This is because the clash here was between the seed of the woman and the brood of vipers. It was not a neutral “game” where various penalties and prohibited holds applied equally to both sides. In short, Jesus got to call them white-washed sepulchers and they did not get to call Him a demon-possessed drunkard in return, even though some modern neutrality-mongers might want to say that fairness required it. But the polemical exchange between Christ and the Pharisees was not a neutral game. This means that because of certain unwieldy personal realities like righteousness and unrighteousness, Jesus had an unfair advantage over them. I know that John and I agree here.

And now to John’s central objection (as I read it), and with which I heartily agree. John objects to the fact that when it comes to supplying principles for identifying what is appropriate for a Christian in satire, and what is not, the book is thin soup. Throughout the book, I repeatedly state that there is a difference between good satire and bad satire. And John responds with this observation:

“Great question, but again Wilson fails to answer it. All he says here is that this question should not deflect us from godly satire.”

A little later, John says this:

“‘Excellent!’ I exclaim at age 67, recalling a number of specific novices, firebrands, and zealots who I pray will read Wilson’s admonition. But how and what are they to be taught? Is a biblical balance here something that comes automatically with experience? Are there no principles for distinguishing good mockery from bad?” (p. 5).

Some of what I am going to set out here is found in scattered places within the book, but John is exactly right that it was not showcased the way it ought to have been. So let us imagine a potential satirist who is wondering if he ought to develop this particular “spiritual gift.” What questions should he ask and answer? What principles should he follow to help him distinguish satire that will be (in the long run) edifying in the Church from that which will be destructive to the Church? The following list is not exhaustive, but I do believe it answers the questions John raised in his review. Checklists should never be employed in a mechanical and quantitative way, but if that is kept in mind I think these principles should be helpful, especially since they are geared more to the character of the satirist than to an abstraction like “good satire.”

1. A godly satirist should be a member of a worshiping community of orthodox and faithful Christians, and he should live in such a way as to be accountable to others for his words and actions. He should not be the sole judge and arbiter of the words that come from his mouth and keyboard. He should be one who knows how to live fruitfully in community with other Christians (Eph. 5:21).

2. A godly satirist should be steeped in the language and categories of Scripture. This should be done through constant reading and rereading, and/or listening repeatedly to Scripture on audio. Spurgeon said of Bunyan that if you pricked him anywhere, his blood would run bibline. It should be the same here (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

3. A godly satirist should have a warm and affectionate relationship with his wife, sons, daughters, mother, and father. No close member of his family should flinch when he walks into the room (Col. 3:19, 21).

4. A godly satirist should be well-educated, well-read in the kind of literature that he is seeking to contribute to. A good ear comes not only from practice, but also from listening long and thoughtfully to those who are gifted and have practiced the same art. The list would include individuals who are not worthy of imitation in every respect (e.g. Swift, Mencken) and it should include those who are genuine exemplars (e.g. Spurgeon, Chesterton).

5. A godly satirist should study to learn the quantitative boundary between satire and scurrility, knowing from the outset that there is such a boundary. It is easy to pretend that there is no “logical” difference whatever between 37 lashes (sorry! xxxvii lashes) and 42 lashes, but the Scriptures say that the former is not necessarily degrading and the latter necessarily is (Dt. 25:1-3).

6. A godly satirist should study the qualitative difference between satire and scurrility. This is a matter of timbre and tone. No mechanical rules can be set down for it, but it is a very important distinction to make (Heb. 5:14). It is the shrillness or “screech” test. The ability to tell the difference between right and wrong in this kind of thing is a matter of long practice and godly maturity.

7. A godly satirist should not be too young. Paul tells Timothy not to ordain a neophyte, what Tyndale translated as “young scholar” (1 Tim. 3:6). The reason for this is to avoid the snare of the devil. An acid tongue is frequently a diabolical tongue. In his Table Talk, Martin Luther once quoted an old instructor of his who had long wondered how St. Jerome, God’s grouch, had ever gotten saved. But old and crotchety men come from somewhere, and where they come from are young men who were promoted too soon and too rapidly (usually because of native intellectual ability) to positions that then go to their heads. Because satire assumes a stance of rhetorical superiority, there is a real snare in it for certain young men. So native ability is no substitute for seasoned experience. And if I may speak autobiographically here, I was in my thirties before I began using satire in any kind of consistent way, and I was well into my forties before anybody noticed.

8. A godly satirist should target lack of proportion, not exhibit lack of proportion (Matt. 23:24).

9. A godly satirist should look carefully (and regularly) at the effect he is having on younger Christians who know him and desire to imitate him (2 Cor. 11:1). Does their imitation of him lead regularly to relational disasters in their lives? Does their imitation cause one firestorm after another in the church? Or do they, using wisdom, imitate more than just the fact that their mentor occasionally uses satire, and go on to make appropriate distinctions having to do with objects, levels, occasions, warrant, and so on? If the imitator is becoming more and more like the satirist, is this a matter that causes dismay in all godly observers? Or is it something that encourages them?

10. A godly satirist should have long experience in letting love cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). He should not be the kind of man who consistently gets bad service in restaurants. One of his chief characteristics in his day-to-day living should be his patience (Gal. 5:22). Road rage should be an alien temptation for him.

11. A godly satirist should be courageous. Lawful satire is leveled at targets that know how to defend themselves, and that will defend themselves. As King Lune of Archenland put it, “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.” Lawful satire is a challenge to engage; nothing is more unbecoming than to act surprised when the challenge is received and answered. Don’t start what you are not prepared to finish.

12. A godly satirist should be a man who knows how to humble himself in order to seek forgiveness from others for sins he has committed (Jas. 5:16). If he is too proud to humble himself when he has sinned, then he is too proud for this calling.

13. A godly satirist should not be an angry man. His demeanor should generally be jolly, not angry. Man’s anger does not advance God’s righteousness (Jas. 1:20). Anger, even when it is righteous (Eph. 4:26), is like manna and goes bad overnight (Eph. 4:27). Occasions of anger are appropriate (as Christ’s example shows in Mk. 3:5), but if it is an accurate description of a man’s general demeanor, he should not even think about satire.

14. A godly satirist should not have “little man syndrome,” meaning that he should not employ satire because he has something deep inside to prove, usually to his father. If he is trying to make the little voices in his head go away, he should be aware that the use of satire only enflames them.

15. A godly satirist must be free of all envy. James tells us that truly destructive battles occur within the church because of envy (Jas. 4:1-6). This means that a satirist must be sure in his heart that he is not in any envious way dazzled or bewildered by that which he is attacking. The history of polemical exchanges has seen more than a few moralistic denouncers of immorality whose real beef was that they were not getting any. Envy operates on the philosophy that if “I can’t have it, nobody should have it,” and this can easily be expressed through moralistic denunciations. But the prophet Nathan would not have been able to deal with David rightly if Nathan had been secretly desiring Bathsheba for himself. Envious satire is brittle satire, and not very effective.

16. A godly satirist should know the difference between weakness and arrogance, and, as far as possible, reserve his arrows for the latter. No doubt sometimes the former are caught in the crossfire—some simple widow in Israel probably thought that the gold sanctified the altar because her rabbi had told her that. Christ’s words of rebuke were directed at the rabbi, but His words still had a relationship to her. In the same way, if I were to attack some huckster televangelist for telling people to send ten dollars to get an anointed cloth to put on the top of their television in order to juice up the healing power of his weekly show, this attack does affect those simple souls who are getting fleeced. And some of them may indeed take offense because their spiritual master is being insulted. But this is not the intent—the main target needs to be those who know better.

17. A godly satirist needs to read widely in church history, particularly in ancient disputes. This will dislodge the very provincial notion that the current rules of academic etiquette are somehow binding on all generations of the Church. Scripture is the norm, not our current traditions. A good way to check ourselves is by looking at how Scripture was applied by other generations of the Church. C.S. Lewis’s essay on the reading of old books in God in the Dock is apropos here. Other generations are not the authority—Scripture is. But getting to know others who read and apply the same passages you know, but in a very different way, is a healthy spiritual exercise.

18. A godly satirist must love to sing all the psalms that God has given us (Eph. 5:19). Nothing serves like the psalms if the goal is to nurture and restore a vertebrate church. In these days of the invertebrate church, the satirist is thought to be the pestilent fellow, and he is the one who has to be put out in order to restore peace. The object of his satirical observations might be the lesbian bishop who thinks the central message of Romans is about global warming, but the more he says or writes anything about it, the more it is his behavior that is thought to be clearly “unscriptural.” Right—like, who cares about that anymore?

19. A godly satirist should not be stuck on one speed (Ecc. 3:1-8). All satire, all the time, would be tolerable for about forty-five minutes. We are to weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh, encourage the downcast, rebuke the arrogant and powerful, comfort the afflicted, and (here is where satire can come in) afflict the comfortable. This means that we cannot have a “one-response-fits-all-situations” approach. If I might be permitted one more personal reference, satire is just a tiny fraction of our ministry here. In other words, I have written not only A Serrated Edge but also My Life For Yours. Satire is just a small portion of what goes on in the pages of Credenda—I suspect that for many, turning to the Cave of Adullam first is a guilty pleasure, and if they don’t read further, they might come to assume that this is all we do. But the principle is that satiric response needs to be held in balance and tension with all the other appropriate responses that Scripture calls us to. And that balance means that satire occupies a clear minority position.

20. A godly satirist should hate what is evil. The fear of God is not only the beginning of knowledge, but it is also defined as the hatred of evil. “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:14, KJV).

21. A godly satirist should love what is good (Tit. 2:14). He should be motivated by a love that seeks to defend what is noble and right, or weak and defenseless, and not be motivated by a bitterness that seeks to bite and tear (Gal. 5:13-15).

In his review, John says, “One should not have to make such an obvious point, but gentleness is mentioned seven times in the New Testament as a Christian virtue, though it seems to be the forgotten virtue in Reformed circles today.” This is absolutely right, but the point has to be made again that there is no virtue or vice in a transitive verb. If a policeman is gentle with the rapist, he is harsh with the rapist’s victim. If a shepherd is gentle with wolves, he is being harsh with the sheep. We must learn when and how we are to be gentle (for we are to be gentle people), and we must also learn when and how we are to be hard (and as pointed) as nails.

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Jeremy Larson
10 years ago

Entirely appropriate that the RefTagger mistake (due to the letter I) yields a reference of Ephesians 4:3.