Foundations: No.77 Autumn 2019

The Use of Satire in the Book of Isaiah and in Christian Ministry

I. Introduction

As I write, it is being reported that Spitting Image, the brutal puppet-based political satire, synonymous with late-80s topical comedy, is coming back to British terrestrial television after a 23-year hiatus. The programme is to be resurrected, its co-creator Roger Law avers, as a “public service satire” necessitated by the “chaotic” state of political culture in these Trumpian, Brexity times. One of the new iteration’s producers claims a return is suited because, “today’s world does seem to have an especially large number of evil goofballs who deserve taking down”.[1] Earlier in the year, Steve Coogan reprised his character Alan Partridge for a television series for the first time in seventeen years, also for reasons of particular cultural moment.[2] In Britain today the time is ripe, it seems, for satire.

Sometime in the mid-eighth century BC in the Kingdom of Judah, the prophet Isaiah likewise discerned that the times were ripe for satire. In this paper, I will briefly rehearse what satire is, catalogue and categorise some twenty likely instances of satire in Isaiah, and make some observations about the significance of this for interpreting and preaching the book. Finally, I will draw some conclusions about the legitimacy and utility of the satiric form in Christian discourse.

II. What is satire?

Broadly conceived, as Ryken et al. summarise, “satire is the exposure of human vice or folly through rebuke or ridicule”.[3] Formally, satire is commonly held to consist of four identifiable elements:

1. Object of attack – normally a historical particular.

2. Satiric vehicle – the literary form; narrative, pen-portrait, single metaphor or direct vituperation.

3. Satiric tone – one of two types named after their pre-eminent Latin practitioners:

  • Horatian (“light, urbane and subtle”, aiming to “laugh vice or folly out of existence”)
  • Juvenalian (“biting, bitter and angry”, aiming to “lash [vice or folly] out of existence”)

4. Norm – the “stated or implied standard by which the criticism is being conducted”.[4]

This basic paradigm is embellished and nuanced by a range of further descriptors, and there is no absolute demarcation between satire on the one hand and taunt, wit, irony and sarcasm on the other.[5] Stylistically, satire has a propensity to exaggeration, oversimplification, the grotesque and absurd.[6] Popularly, of course, satire is associated with humour. It indeed does often involve “an aggressive laughter” that is inherently adversarial and necessarily offensive, but can be distinguished from “comedy” proper by the latter’s containing within itself the redemptive hope of a “happy ending”.[7]

Wayne C. Booth explains that a designation of satire is appropriate when a reader (or hearer) (i) is confronted by a seeming incongruity presented by a literal reading of the text, (ii) satisfies themselves that the author is aware of, and shares their perspective on, this incongruity; and therefore, (iii) locates a new meaning to the text behind its face value which they believe they share with the author. In so doing, “satire establishes both a ‘them’ and an ‘us’; ‘them’ mocked as ridiculous and stupid, ‘us’ drawn into a self-congratulatory frame of mind arising from the delight in having caught the speaker’s satire.”[8]

III. Satire in Isaiah

There are two problems that confront the exegete who wishes to identify satirical passages in the book of Isaiah. First, it is not easy to prove that a text is satirical: satire depends in part upon reading a text with a certain “knowing” or sarcastic tone. The overt presence of such a norm, however, that a “straight” reading of a given text is incongruous, will often strongly suggest, if not demand, the identification of a satiric tone.

More problematic, however, is the charge of anachronism. As Thomas Jemielty writes, “The scholarly consensus [is] that the Romans invented satire in the first century BC.”[9] This consensus is fracturing: Richard Patterson has shown that “satire was not unknown in the ancient Near East”, providing examples from ancient Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, the Hittite Kingdom and in Urgaritic (Levantine) literature,[10] while David Baker finds cause to compare an Eighteenth Dynasty (C13-16 BCE) Egyptian “Satire of the Trades” to Isaiah 44.[11] Isaiah’s satire is surely, therefore, no anachronism, but part of the historicised mode of God’s revelation,[12] particularly suited to the “shame cultures” of the ancient near east.[13]

Satire is widely held to permeate the Old Testament – in isolated pericopes in narrative, satirical speeches (such as Elijah’s taunt of Baal in 1 Kings 18), proverbs and songs,[14] and even whole books (Amos, Jonah). The prophetic corpus is held to contain the most frequent and best examples of satire. Patterson supplies examples of satire from each of the sixteen writing prophets in the canon.[15] Jemielity’s monograph is devoted to demonstrating the substantial organic overlap between prophecy and satire; cataloguing their common aim, vision, targets, imagery and tenor as well as the strikingly similar projected personae of prophet and satirist. The linguistic arsenal of satire and prophecy are so similar, writes Jemielty, because “the wierd, grotesque, misshapen, half-shapen, parodied, borrowed, altered, and abused forms used by the prophets and the satirists embody the formless, anarchic, moral dysentery each chastises and exposes.”[16]

Isaiah specifically is commonly believed to be the most satirical of the prophets.[17] R. P. Carroll claims that “satire and kaleidoscopic irony” are “the dominant thrusts of the book,” while Reed Lessing notes the so-called “sarcastic imperative” is one of the prophet’s favourite literary devices. [18] What is debated, therefore, tends not to be the presence of satire in Isaiah (every commentator describes at least two or three passages as satirical), but the extent.

Below, I provide a summary of twenty possible instances of satire in the book of Isaiah. In light of the discussion above, I will provide brief notes that identify the object, vehicle, tone and norm as well as the incongruity that I believe demands a satiric tone.

Isaiah 2:6-11

The object of Isaiah’s first satiric expression is the proudly syncretistic, idol-worshipping Judahites. First, as Alec Motyer detected, there is an amusing and pregnant silence in verse 8.[19] Twice in verse 7, Isaiah describes how “their land is filled with…” (silver and gold, horses respectively), with the bicolon completed with “and there is no end to their…” (treasures, chariots respectively). Verse 8, in contrast, describes a land filled with idols (cf. 7aα and 7bα), but then the line abruptly breaks off. The bicolon is left (incongruously) incomplete and a new begins: the preponderance of idols is of no beneficial effect. Isaiah next mocks the idolaters through a wordplay (vv8-9 – those who prostrate themselves [יִשׁתַּחֲווּ] to the idols they have made will be prostrated [וַיִּשַּׁח] to the earth in judgment), before a pair of Juvenalian sarcastic imperatives (to hide from the Lord in the rock and the dust, v10). The incongruity of the latter consists in the futility of seeking to hide from the omnipresent Lord’s certain coming judgment. Gary Smith detects a further irony in the image of the hapless proud digging into the rock and earth to hide themselves from a visitation of God’s wrath: by such an action they would, in fact, be expediting judgment by digging their own graves.[20]

Isaiah 3:14-4:1

In Isaiah 3:14-4:1, the satiric object is the Jerusalemite women, bedecked in idolatrous finery amid the oppressed poor, standing representatively for the princes of the people. The vehicle is one of sardonic description, with the women suffering ironic reversals, delivered with a Juvenalian tone of mockery. The norm against which standard the criticism is measured is the imperative to care for the poor (explicit, 3:13-15) and to carry oneself with fitting deportment (implied). There is an incongruity in the impossibly over-ornamented women. Allan Harman prosaically flattens the satirical nature of this image by “resolving” the incongruity instead of indulging it: “Clearly not all this jewellery and clothing were worn at the same time.”[21] The women’s jewellery is typological of their judgment: their sashes become ropes; their fine clothing, sackcloth.

Isaiah 5:18-23

Isaiah applies language of celebrated, vanquishing military conquerors incongruously to describe presumptuous sinners (v18) and corrupt drunks (v22). The norm of the Lord’s  justice, holiness, and righteousness hangs over these satiric, sarcastic inversions from verse 16. The object is the morally dissolute covenant people.

Isaiah 7:20-22

Those trusting in alliances with foreign nations, through first a crude and then a subtle image, are ridiculed for their failure to trust in the Lord for deliverance and provision. The razor that was “hired” by Judah for protection is actually “hired” by God for Judah’s humiliation (the shaving of the head and of the genital region). Those under judgment will eat like kings (v22) – not because they are blessed, but because there will be so few survivors relative to the cattle.

Isaiah 10:15

Proverbial, pithy, rhetorical questions are the vehicle for Isaiah’s sarcastic, satirical takedown of the proud king of Assyria (10:12). The Lord alone is sovereign with authority and power to judge. The proverbs themselves are deliberately absurd: inanimate instruments cannot wield themselves against their user – nor can the king of Assyria be proud when he is used as the Lord’s instrument of judgment.

Isaiah 14:4-21

The hubris of the king of Babylon is the object of this Juvenalian mocking satire, delivered through the vehicle of a taunt song, replete with cartoonish imagery and ironic reversals. The norm is the Lord’s providential control of history – it is he alone who lays nations low. The incongruity consists in the king of Babylon being received with the pomp and ceremony of a “state reception” – but to the realm of the mocking dead (vv9-11). Addressed in flighty terms as the “Morning star, son of the dawn” (v12), he is actually despised. The one who felled the cedars of Lebanon (v8) is himself discarded like a rotten branch (v19).

Isaiah 23:1-18

Proud, complacent and licentious Tyre is addressed through this gleeful mock-lament, replete with ironic imperatives and sarcastic epithets. A ruined pagan city is “celebrated” for her indulgence and pretentions to power (vv7-8); an infamous, insatiable prostitute (v17) ridiculed as a “virgin daughter” (v12). The norm appears at the end of the chapter: those dwelling “before the Lord” find their wealth in him (v18).

Isaiah 28:1-13

The drunken, corrupt and impious priests and prophets of Israel are lampooned in what Jemielity calls a “scandal scene”, paradigmatic of satire.[22] The incongruity is in drunken “prophets” apparently “seeing visions” and uttering “divine pronouncements” that are actually nothing but gibberish (v10). Those who swallow up wine are in fact swallowed up by wine (v7). A leader who dispenses judgment with strength and a spirit of justice (v6) norms the crude, acerbic description and ironic reversals.

Isaiah 28:14-19

The second half of the same chapter employs a different satiric vehicle: a derisive boast song, with a cutting Juvenalian tone. This time, “scoffers” who claim to have secured deliverance by alliances are the object; the incongruity is the “boasts” to have made a covenant with death and to have taken refuge in lies and falsehood (v15). The Lord’s laying a “precious cornerstone”, tried and sure (v16), is the norm against which the scoffers’ absurd pride is measured.

Isaiah 30:7

Egypt’s title, “Rahab-the-Do-Nothing” (NIV), incongruously combines the image of a raging chaos monster with inertia and inaction. This oxymoron serves to pour scorn on those autonomously considering an Egyptian alliance, when the Lord alone should be the seat of their counsel and trust (vv1-2).

Isaiah 34:11-17

Edom is ridiculed through this angry, vitriolic image. The Lord, the sovereign judge of all the nations (34:1-2, 5), apportions the land by measure and lot to wild birds and creatures as an eternal inheritance – parodying how the land was assigned to the tribes of Israel in Joshua.

Isaiah 37:21-29

A Juvenalian-toned taunt song, punctuated with rhetorical questions, targets the king of Assyria for his blasphemous ridiculing of and raging against the Lord; who is, of course, the only true God. Sennacherib had “lifted [his] eyes in pride” (v23) and claimed to have ascended to the heights (v24) but the Lord has to cast down a hook to fish for this lowly worm (v29). Patterson adds that “the nations so criticized are also denounced in accordance with a satiric norm based on accepted international protocol”.[23]

Isaiah 40:18-25

This satire directed against idolaters through a description of their work is of a wittier, subtler, Horatian kind. The norm is the truth that the true God fashions and establishes the earth (v21). In contrast, idol-makers have carefully to select a hard wood for the base of an idol so that that in which they are trusting will not topple! Smith notices a further irony: “the person wanting a god has to ‘choose’ the wood used to make the god, a clear reversal of the biblical pattern where God ‘chose’ Israel to be his own people.”[24]

Isaiah 41:5-10

Gentiles trying to resist God’s anointed by fashioning idols (41:2) are the object of another amusing, Horatian satire. Normed by the truth that it is the Lord who fashions a people for himself; it is he who stabilises and strengthens them (vv8-10), this description of idol-smiths at work is dripping with scorn and pathos: trembling under the threat of judgment (v5), idolaters place their confidence in something that needs to be nailed down so that it does not fall over (v7)!

Isaiah 44:9-20

This extended prose satire is another Horatian example – subtle, amusing, pathetic – albeit bookended with Juvenalian direct, bitter assaults (vv9, 18-20). Once again, those who make and trust in idols are the object; the Lord’s being the only God and proper repository of trust the norm. The incongruity consists in the very fashioning of something designed to provide strength and stability causing its maker faintness (v12), and the same material “used for burning” being worshipped and invoked for salvation (vv15-17).

Isaiah 46:1-7

It is a description of idols being transported that is sent up in this satire against idolaters. There are elements of both Horatian subtlety (vv1-4) and Juvenalian scorn (vv5-7). The norm is that the Lord is God, and there is no other (v9). He carries his people (vv3-4) and brings his salvation. Against this is set the absurd image of “gods” falling off carts into the dust (vv1-2). Those which are meant to rescue, burden (v1); those meant to bring salvation are brought into foreign captivity (v1, cf. vv11-13). There are further ironies: the same gold used to pay metalworkers is then worshipped (v6). A god carried to a place of honour can itself not move; a god whose worshippers cry out to it cannot speak (v7). Smith also notes that one of the gods so mocked, Nebo, was believed to possess the “Tablets of Destiny” that foretold the coming year: “Ironically, in this message God announces that he himself will determine the destiny of these two gods.”[25]

Isaiah 47:1-15

Isaiah returns to biting, angry, Juvenalian sarcasm in this taunt song for Babylon. Babylon’s hubris, decadence and complacency (vv8-10) are ridiculed through incongruous images of a “Virginal” “queen city” being described in terms fitting for a common whore (vv1-2) and through sarcastic imperatives to indulge in magic and astrology for future success and deliverance (vv12-13). The Lord’s true claim to be the “I am”, with none beside him is the norm assumed and implied by Babylon’s blasphemous boasts (v8).

Isaiah 56:9-12

Israel’s depraved leaders (v10) are jeered at through this extended metaphor, conveyed through language Motyer describes as “savagery”, “harshness” and “irony”.[26] There are incongruities in those who are watchmen being blind; guard dogs that cannot bark (v10); and in sarcastic imperative for the beasts of the field to come and devour the flock (v9). There is also the disingenuous claim that getting drunk will lead to a better tomorrow (v12). The command of the Lord in verse 1 to “keep justice and do righteousness” is the norm that hangs over this image later in the chapter.

Isaiah 58:5

Seemingly pious behaviour (fasting, bowing down) is ruthlessly scorned in this short, metaphorical, rhetorical question that derides religious insincerity. Brevard Childs summarises how “the prophet satirizes with utter disdain the pious bowing of the head like a weed”.[27] The norm of true worship involves fighting injustice (vv6-7).

IV. Observations

A number of summary observations can be made:

1. Satire pervades the entire book

The examples given above demonstrate that a highly satirical tone is weaved throughout Isaiah, featuring prominently – and consistently – in both “First” (chs. 1-39) and “Second” Isaiah (chs. 40-66), suggesting another potential avenue for exploring and defending the literary and authorial unity of the book.

2. A Juvenalian tone dominates

 Although the satire in a few passages could fairly be described as urbane and subtle, where the criticism is implied rather than explicit, the vast majority of the passages are Juvenalian (stark, biting, sarcastic) in tone.

3. Satire corresponds to Isaiah’s commission

Isaiah was called to harden hard hearts and close blind eyes with a message that would be heard but not understood (6:9-10). Curiously, there is a remarkable synergy with satire at precisely this point. Satire has a power, more than any other style of discourse, to widen the gulf between two parties. Those subject to ridicule on the one hand, and those “in” on the satiric joke at their expense on the other, are polarised by their reaction to the mockery: indignation, or mirthful scorn.[28] Satire, therefore, is well-suited to Isaiah’s commission to call out a faithful remnant from an increasingly hardened, idolatrous Judah.

4. The predominant satiric norm and object accord with the overall message of the book

Although other things are satirised in Isaiah (such as social injustice and debauchery), the majority of the clear examples of satire orbit around the issue of misplaced trust – either in idol (e.g. 44:12-20) or alliance (e.g. 28:14-19), and thereby proceed from (and aim at) the norm of trusting in the Lord – the only true God, the Holy One of Israel. The satire in Isaiah, then, is fully integrated into the overall theological and ethical thrust of the whole book.

5. Detecting satire is vital for understanding Isaiah

A failure to appreciate when satire is being employed leads to a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of the prophet’s argument. Archie Lee castigates Isaiah’s description of idol worship as a “misunderstanding of the religious sentiment expressed in the practice of bowing down in homage and reverence before an idol”.[29] Lee has made a category mistake: engaged in satire, Isaiah seeks precisely by means of caricature and affected naivety to uncover the sheer folly of idolatry underneath its pious bluster. His attack on idolatry is based on what Christopher Wright describes as “penetrating insight” into idolaters’ sophisticated theology,[30] but aims squarely at what Jemielity eloquently describes as, “the shattering effect of ‘But mamma, the King is naked.’”[31]

6. Detecting the satirical in Isaiah affects how we preach it

Closely related to the point above, deciding whether a given passage is satirical or not will affect the content and tone of our own preaching. It is vital, therefore, that we are not predisposed against Juvenalian satire on the basis of our own taste when trying to discern authorial intent. Gary Smith argues against a satirical reading of the laments in chapter 14 on the basis, it seems, of a prejudice against satire as an appropriate and effective means of communication:

If he wanted his audience in Judah to rejoice, why use a lament about death? Why would he not use a salvation oracle? Where in this poem is the call for the Israelites to rejoice? A hymn of thanksgiving and praise would express this attitude more fully.[32]

Why use a lament about death? Why would he not use a salvation oracle? A perfectly valid (and likely) reason is because Isaiah enjoyed satire, and used it to communicate his message.

V. Satire in Christian ministry

Despite its prominence in Isaiah and the other prophets, satire is rare in contemporary Christian discourse. The ascent to some prominence (within conservative Christian anglophone circles) of online satirical news site, The Babylon Bee, is a notable exception, but the controversy that often attends it both within and without the church shows how instinctively uneasy we are with the notion of Christians employing satire.

Christian dis-ease with satire is attributed to a number of factors: fear in a politically-correct climate of causing offence,[33] surrender to false notions of “neutrality” in academic discourse and debate, [34] and, perhaps most regrettably of all, loss of belief in the power of words to curse and bless.[35] Some argue, however, that the renouncing of satire is demanded by Christian principle. Williams and Williams, in a piece ostensibly calling for the recovery of humour in Christian discourse, identify modern political satire as the prime example of the post-lapsarian perversion of the created good of humour: it lacks compassion, love and humility; caricatures, and is “cynical and devastating at heart”. Christians, they aver, should aim at humour that is “redemptive in orientation, part of the comic family and full of hope”.[36] Zack Eswine similarly argues that Christian humour must be of a very different kind to political satire: “Do not ridicule people”, he appeals. “Our humor must differ… from the political banter between differing parties. We are ambassadors for Jesus. Let humor arise from what is human and self-effacing.”[37] He further bemoans preachers who “make sweeping judgments where nuance and discernment is required.”[38]

Although some satire is proud and hate-filled, many of the criticisms the Williamses and Eswine make of the political satire they deplore would, on the face of it, apply equally to Isaiah’s. He, too, ridicules, caricatures and aims precisely to be “devastating at heart.” Neither Williams’ paradigm of “good” Christian humour (“of course richer than mockery”)[39] nor Eswine’s (self-effacing, nuanced and composed) seems to have a place for the jeering satirical laments of Isaiah, let alone the “straw men” and gross generalisations of Jesus (in, for example, Matthew 7:1-6).

Had the New Testament employed no satirical forms then Meredith Kline’s thesis that the imprecations in the Psalms are “intruded” from the eschat-ological judgment as an inspired “divine abrogation, limited and in advance, of the ethical requirements normally in force during the course of Common Grace” might be applied similarly to the prophet’s use of satire.[40] The prevalence of satire on the lips of Jesus (of even a Juvenalian kind, Matthew 23:23-28) and the pens of his apostles (e.g. 1 Corinthians 4:8), however, precludes this avenue for objecting to Christian deployment of satire.[41]

Plenary verbal revelation requires that biblical style, as well as content, is inspired. Scripture’s inclusion of satire surely vindicates its prima facie legitimacy in Christian discourse. Moreover, as Doug Wilson argues, a scripturally-derived standard of modes of discourse will surely precipitate a scripturally-reflective range of speaking and writing, including – therefore – a proportion of the Juvenalian-satirical “verbal pummelings” attested in Isaiah.[42] Ruling satire out of court on the grounds of taste limits the potential mode of our speaking and writing, contributing to the phenomenon of, in Chris Green’s memorable phrase, “sermon soup” where despite the rich variety of literary textures that go in (from Scripture) to our exegesis, it seems all too often to come out of the “blender” of our preparation in the same homiletic consistency.[43]

The argument, moreover, that while Juvenalian, caustic satire may be allowable for the inspired authors of Scripture but is forbidden of contemporary preachers on account of their being unqualified by their sin to imitate the prophets’ and apostles’ insulting, acerbic discourse cannot stand. Our imitation in every area will be imperfect, yet we are still allowed (commanded!) to imitate. Doug Wilson sarcastically writes,

We will be imperfect as we imitate love, grace, forgiveness, kindness, rebuke, sarcasm, gentleness, and so on. Therefore we ought not to strive to be godly at all. We must remain in our ungodliness for fear that an attempt to be godly may result in ungodly failure.[44]

Beyond its attestation in Scripture, the legitimacy of biblical, and therefore Christian, satire stems from the convictions that God and those who stand on his word owe sinners nothing – least of all “a fair fight”, that sometimes the “central point” in religious controversy “is to give offense” [45] and that a satirical reductio ad absurdum is no logical fallacy: sin is absurd!

What delegitimises some forms of satire but legitimises others is not, in the final analysis, tone, vehicle, nor even – necessarily – object of attack, but norm. If Have I Got News For You is, as the Williamses argue,  an expression of sinful humour (and I am not convinced that it is), it will not be because of the reasons of vehicle and tone that the Williamses give – but because the norm against which the object of satirical attack is measured is out of step with the Bible. If, however, our norm is firmly and faithfully established as Scripture – the inerrantly and perspicuously revealed will of God – then the full range of satiric object, vehicle and tone attested therein is surely fair game.

Beyond defending its mere legitimacy, there are a number of positive reasons to commend satire’s employment:

1. Satire punctures pride

Satire is particularly suited to exposing the silliness of sin – especially the pomposity of pride and the self-deceit of hypocrisy.[46] For Wilson, satire is the God-given “needle” to pierce the “overextended latex” of our puffed-up faux-piety.[47]

2. Satire suits our creatureliness

Humour in general, and satire in particular, corresponds to the contours of humanity’s created nature – as those made uniquely in the image of a God with a sense of humour,[48] and as those composites of dust-and-ashes who have a propensity to take themselves too seriously.

3. Satire engages, teaches and persuades 

Satire is, as Christian satirical cartoonist (and founder of The Babylon Bee) Adam Ford writes, “a powerful medium of communication… to articulate a worldview and contend for its legitimacy”.[49] Satire is punchy and memorable, vigorous and fresh. Moreover, biblical pedagogy is as much about refuting the wrong as it is commending the right. The men behind the vlog Lutheran Satire justify their approach in precisely these terms:

Lutheran Satire is a project intended to teach the faith through silly videos… By holding false doctrine up to ridicule, we reveal the rock solid foundation of the Lutheran confession of faith.[50]

Satire is best placed to commend God’s truth and wisdom precisely by exposing the absurdity of satanic lies and human folly. Andrew Wilson’s blog post, “The Case for Idolatry: Why Evangelical Christians Can Worship Idols”, is an excellent example of this – an hilarious and merciless parody of the “affirming evangelical” line on sexual ethics.[51]

There is cause for caution, however, concerning the propriety of satire in apologetics. Although satire certainly promises a fresh way to make a spiritually deaf generation at least notice our message, and may chime with and subvert the postmodern penchant for image and story, we are instructed to give our Christian apologia with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:16). Isaiah’s satires (and, it can be argued, Jesus’ too), do not afford the same precedent here: although their object was often ostensibly those outside the covenant community (though most often the real target was syncretists within), his audience was invariably those who at least claimed to be God’s people and gave lip-service to the validity of the satiric norm. Wilson’s observation that satire “turns off” a certain kind of unbeliever but attracts another is just that – an observation – and does not provide biblical warrant for a satirical mode of apologetics.[52]

4. Satire delineates and builds community

 Lessing writes, “satire draws in a wider circle of assenting auditors than a non-satiric statement”.[53] Its very nature, as mentioned above, serves to identify and distance an “in” group and “out” group. This power (like every other mode of communication) can certainly be abused; but it has a legitimate use – to strengthen bonds in the covenant community and clarify the boundaries of belief and conduct that the antithesis necessitates but compromise clouds. Wilson argues that the antithesis means ridicule is inevitable:

It is not whether we will ridicule a group, it is which group we will ridicule… Everyone in the world receives the protections of a certain society or group. That group defends itself, necessarily, by means of ridicule, satire, and so forth, defining itself over against the other groups by these means.[54]

A refusal to deride in strong and offensive terms, therefore, might not be godly humility, but gutless assimilation.

In the end, of course, the deployment of satire in Christian discourse is a wisdom issue: it is the question of whether or not it is wise to answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4-5).[55] In posing this question, however, we must be prepared to accept that there are seasons in which it is not only legitimate, but wise to use satire.


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