The Nail Can of Bitterness

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Once a British politician was running for office, and he was confronted by a heckler who shouted out that he would not vote for him if he were the archangel Gabriel. “Ah,” the politician replied. “But if I were the archangel Gabriel, you would not be in my constituency.”

Now they were both speaking “negatively” of one another, in equal measure, but there is also no question that the politician got by far the best of the exchange. And this illustrates a common feature that characterizes complaints about the “serrated edge.”

Over the years I have been asked numerous times about my sense of humor, and the way I employ it in debates and various polemical exchanges. I have been asked about it so often that I wrote A Serrated Edge to put the answers in one place, where they could be easily found. In that book I marshalled a number of biblical arguments and examples of the kind of thing I believe that scriptural satirists are called to emulate. Thus far the only thing that most of my critics can demonstrate that they took from the book was the title — critics now regularly refer to the “serrated edge,” and they do so with disdain. But for the rest of the book, the only answer people feel compelled to give is a broad and dismissive “I am not convinced,” leaving it at that.

I know of only one person who has attempted seriously to interact with the arguments in the book. All the others just wave the hand, and say that they don’t really “agree with” the serrated edge approach. Do I raise this point because my feelings are hurt? Do I bring it up because I am standing on my dignity and think that people don’t take me seriously enough? Not at all. I bring it up because I intend to make fun of it in a minute.

The reason arguments are not employed by critics of the serrated edge is that they feel they can play to the nickel seats without the trouble of developing and advancing arguments. Their target audience belongs to the feelings-oriented effeminized church, and all that needs to be done is point out that somebody is misbehaving, and won’t say he is sorry. Arguments are not necessary when you are appealing to what everybody thinks he knows. And everybody knows that to call respected theologians snakes is not a very Christ-like thing to do, the synoptics notwithstanding.

But there is some sleight of hand here. We are not talking about Christians who use this approach and Christians who do not. In this debate and discussion, the contrast is not between one guy (me) cutting with a steak knife of satire and another guy (him) dabbing with a sponge filled with love and maple syrup. In the exchanges on this subject that I have been in, the contrast is really between a humorous, adept and biblical use of the serrated edge, and a humorless, maladroit, and unscriptural use of it. Not to toot my own horn here, but I am not trying to place myself in the second category.

The difference is between a clean steak knife, hot out of the dishwasher of Truth, and a steak knife that was left on the lawn over the winter after a picnic, rusted up nicely, and then got moved to the tool bench in the garage and is now sitting jauntily in the old nail can of Bitterness.

One time Bill London (one of our local intolerista mafia dons) was invited to speak at New St. Andrews to our weekly disputatio. One of the items he included in his list of criticisms was something that he had apparently picked up from some of our Christian critics — supposed mean-spiritedness on our part, etc. This sham was revealed for what it was when Doug Jones asked him in the question time what he thought of Michael Moore. Of course, he liked him bunches, and when asked why Moore was not counted among the mean-spirited, Bill honestly answered, to his credit, that this was because he agreed with Moore. Mean-spiritedness is often in the eye of the partisan.

And this brings us back to the story of the politician I told at the beginning, and it falls under the heading of what happens when you get into a battle of wits with an unarmed man. When there is a duel, and both guys bring their guns, the thing that distinguishes them is who is the better shot, not which of them has a gun. When one guy sprays the landscape with his bullets, coming nowhere near his target, he cannot then raise his objection that the other fellow has a gun. What he now objects to is the possibility that his opponent is a better shot than he is, and not to the fact of the gun. He has a gun too, still smoking there in his hand, only he used his gun as a random scatterplot device.

In virtually all of the disagreements I have had with Christians who objected to what they thought was the “serrated” edge, I have frequently seen them employ their serrated edge, straight out of the nail can. The reason they are frustrated, though, is that their serrated edge never gets anywhere near the meat. I think I have way too many metaphors going here. Almost time to quit.

In polemical exchanges, good humor trumps pursed lips. The dour countenence gives way before the gut chuckle. Cavalier Puritans gallop in circles around the prissy puritans, falsely so-called, along with their stick horses of legalism. Whenever these two approaches clash, the contest is unequal. And that is a central reason that objections are raised to a weapon that one side knows how to use and the other doesn’t. There is a mystery here. The reason good satire works is that it is driven by affection and love. The reason that bad-humored-eat-your-spinach admonitions are no fun is that they are driven by bitterness, envy, and a gnawing fear that somebody out there might have discovered that Jesus Christ was not a schoolmarm.

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