Tag Archives: satire

Christians and Satire: What Does the Bible Say?

My last post was my first attempt at using satire here on this blog. I received quite a bit of positive feedback, but also a few expressions of concern. Is satire a suitable genre for a Christian writer? In particular, is it fitting to rewrite the words of Scripture as I did?

Satire can be defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues” (The New Oxford American Dictionary). My use of satire was not intended to involve “ridicule,” and it was aimed at unbiblical thinking more than at “stupidity or vices.” But the rest of the definition generally matches my post. I definitely was intending to employ “humor,” “irony,” and “exaggeration,” and I did mean for my words to “expose” and “criticize” (in the sense of indicating weaknesses, not in the sense of sentencing someone to punishment).

While I have written satire before (in a university context), I do not have a well-developed theology of satire. I think this is one of those gray areas where it is unlikely all Christians will agree. Our varied backgrounds shape the way we read, so we each tend to hear the same words differently. Where one person feels a brotherly elbow to the ribs—good-natured, timely, and instructive—another may feel he is stumbling over an ill-placed rock in the path.

This calls for graciousness and discernment—on the part of both writer and reader. As I write, I want to honor you by writing in a way that will tend to produce good fruit. Your feedback will help me do so. Thank you!

Meanwhile, a few thoughts about satire in the Bible.

Elijah, wielding sword and satire for God.
Elijah, wielding sword and scatological satire for God. Photo Credit: Christyn via Compfight cc

Is satire found in the Bible? Yes, it most definitely is.

Many students of biblical literature see much satire in the prophets, for example. Jonah is a humorous example of exactly how not to be a prophet. Children to this day naturally smile over his story. Who wouldn’t— with his naive attempt to run from God, his surprising fish ride that ends in a spit, and his all-out-of-measure suicidal whining over a withered plant?

Amos is another book where satire is often noted. For example, there is certainly humor, irony, exaggeration, and even ridicule behind these biting words:

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
    who are on the mountain of Samaria
Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days…
“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
    and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
(Amos 4:1, 4, 6)

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
    as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him. (Amos 5:18-19)

Or consider Elijah’s words on Mount Carmel, descending even to bathroom humor as he ridicules Baal:

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)

Biblical satire is not limited to the Old Testament. Paul used satire when addressing his opponents at Corinth:

 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! (1 Cor. 4:8; cf. 2 Cor. 12:11-13)

Why did he use such language?

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. (1 Cor. 4:14)

Jesus, too, used satire. (He also used a lot of more general hyperbole—exaggeration—a fact that provides interpretive challenges for us who believe, with Dean Taylor, that Jesus “meant every word he said.”) Ask yourself: Can you really imagine no one snickering at least a little when Jesus spoke the following words?

You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!… You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matt. 23:24, 27)

And the mixture of humor, exaggeration, and biting attack in the following words is brilliant!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. (Matt. 23:29-32)

There is no way those words would pass the inspection of Logic 101. But they function absolutely perfectly on the level of emotionally-moving rhetoric. And they are certainly satire.

More biblical examples could easily be given. The topic deserves at least a full essay!

I get the sense that the ancient Jewish world (much like the modern Jewish world) was much more used to this kind of powerful and confrontational use of language than what we are, especially in our Anabaptist subculture. I do notice that the strongest use of satire in the Bible seems to be reserved for those who are furthest from God. Rebukes of fellow believers tend to be more gentle—yet even there Paul used some satire, as noted above.

What about rewriting God’s words? Do we find any positive examples of that sort of thing in Scripture? Yes, I think we do.

In Kings we read about wicked King Ahab convincing his friend King Jehoshaphat to join him in a military campaign. Jehoshaphat wants to have some prophets inquire of the Lord before they head into battle. So Ahab gathers 400 false prophets together. They all predict success. Jehoshaphat, however, isn’t satisfied. So Ahab begrudgingly invites Micaiah, a true prophet of God, to add his word. What sort of word does Micaiah bring? Let’s listen:

And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” (1 Kings 23:13-14)

That sounds clear enough, doesn’t it? But continue listening:

And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” (1 Kings 22:15-17)

Notice Micaiah’s prophetic strategy: The first time he spoke, he intentionally misrepresented the words of God. Only when pressed to clarify did he present God’s words accurately.

Why did Micaiah do this? What did Micaiah achieve through satire that he would not have achieved if he had spoken God’s word accurately and directly the first time?

I can think of at least two good answers. First, Micaiah’s satirical approach forced Ahab to work harder to learn the truth. This is consistent with the pattern of God’s dealings with humanity; he often withholds truth from those who seek it only casually. Sometimes he does this to leave rebellious souls in the dark. Other times he withholds light in order to make sincere seekers seek it more earnestly. Effective communication—including some forms of satire—can make the listener or reader work harder. If they work harder, they can learn more. The same is true of biblical proverbs and parables; just enough light is given to make the earnest seeker scratch his head, asking questions that uncover much more truth—and lodge it deeper in his heart–than if facts were handed to him without any effort on his part.

Second, Micaiah’s satirical approach effectively exposed Ahab’s heart. His words uncovered Ahab’s ruse; Ahab had no real desire to hear God’s word, despite his pious religious pretending. Sarcasm pricked his pretensions in a powerful way. It triggered what was virtually a confession: “I know that God doesn’t have good things to say about me.”

So, as surprising as it may sound, we have positive precedent for intentionally misrepresenting God’s word! Notice, of course, that Micaiah didn’t leave anyone deceived longterm about God’s word. His misrepresentation was limited and brief. And it was followed up by a true proclamation of God’s word. (Similarly, my RAT “translation” was accompanied by links directing the reader to an accurate translation of Scripture. I hope at least a few readers took time to ponder the differences.)

Believe it or not, there are also plenty of biblical examples of God himself deliberately deceiving people! In this same passage, for example, we read the following:

And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.” (1 Kings 22:19-23)

There are more passages about God deceiving humans—telling Samuel how to save his life by practicing deception (1 Sam. 16:2), deceiving prophets who are consulted by those with idolatrous hearts (Ez. 14:9), and sending a strong delusion on those who take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess. 2:11). In addition, there are various passages where God’s people practice deceit and are rewarded. Consider the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:15-21), Rahab (Josh. 2:5; James 2:25), Jael (Judg. 4:18-22; 5:24), and Elijah (2 Kings 6:19). Jesus deliberately left some people in the dark about his teachings (Mark 4:10-12), and even apparently intentionally mislead others about his intentions (John 7:8-10; while many commentators suggest ways to understand that Jesus was not directly lying here, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he deliberately led his brothers to believe something that was not true).

These passages are beyond the scope of this post, but they are nevertheless worthy of our consideration.

So, what tentative conclusions can we draw about Christians and satire from the biblical texts I have shared? Here are a number:

  • Satire is an important, though secondary, form of Christian proclamation.
  • Satire can be an effective way to get attention, so that people actually hear (and remember) your words.
  • Satire can stir sincere seekers to a more diligent search for truth.
  • Satire can effectively expose people’s hearts—their false motives and bad thinking.
  • The strongest satire (sarcasm) is usually best reserved for false teachers who need to be publicly exposed in order to protect others from their influence.
  • Gentle satire is sometimes an expression of familial love and care.
  • The humor in satire should invite us to laugh at human folly or at surprising imagery, but not at God himself.
  • Satirical misrepresentation of God’s words must be purposeful, limited, and temporary—never letting people walk away with confusion about what God has said.

In addition to these tentative conclusions, we should also remember the repeated call of Scripture to be gentle and loving in our speech. Our words should never be hurtful merely for our own pleasure. Yes, “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). On the other hand: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).

Don’t worry—I don’t plan to start an Anabaptist version of the Onion, despite several readers encouraging me to do so! As a Christian communicator, I want my words to be nutritious. Flavorful, yes, but not overwhelmed with the spice of satire.

What do you think? Have you pondered the place of satire in the Bible? When is it right for Christians to imitate the satirical words of Elijah, Amos, Paul, and Jesus? Is satire more fitting for some cultures than for others? And what do we make of Micaiah’s satirical misrepresentation of God’s word? Can you help me think of any similar biblical examples? Share your insights in the comments below. And thank you!

The RAT: A New Bible Translation for Anabaptists

Anabaptists have not yet come to a consensus on the thorny problem of Bible translations. Now there is another option they will need to consider. A new translation is underway that may be of special interest to some readers of this blog. In this post I am sharing excerpts from translation efforts so far.

The translation team would appreciate your feedback. You don’t have to know Hebrew or Greek to help. As you read over these excerpts, simply compare them with your favorite translation. (Links to the ESV translation have also been provided–just hover over the references at the end of each passage and the ESV text will appear.)

Two kinds of feedback are most welcome: (1) Improvements on the passages shared here. (2) Suggestions for translating your other favorite Bible passages.

Without further ado, here are some excerpts from the new RAT:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the city that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not buy from any store in the country’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may buy the produce of the bulk food stores in the country, but God said, ‘You shall not buy the products of the store that is in the midst of the city (lo, Macy’s in Manhattan), neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you buy of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw in the window display that the products were good quality, and that they were a delight to the eyes, and that the store was to be desired to make one cool, she took of its products and bought, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he bought. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed Spandex together and made themselves loincloths. (See Gen. 3:1-7)

And when they were in the subway, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (See Gen. 4:8)

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the city of Sodom was prosperous, like New York City, the banking capital of America… So Lot chose for himself all the city of Sodom, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. (See Genesis 13:10-11)

 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into Waterloo County, then you shall select farms to be farms of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. (See Num. 35:9-11)

“Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess farmers greater and mightier than you, croplands great and growing up to heaven.” (See Deut. 9:1)

“Cursed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.” (See Deut. 28:3)

And no portion was given to the Levites in the cities, but only farms to dwell in, with their pasturelands for their livestock and their substance. (See Joshua 14:4)

The people of Israel gave an inheritance among them to Joshua the son of Nun. By command of the Lord they gave him the farm that he asked, in Elkhart County. And he rebuilt the farm and settled in it. (See Josh. 19:49-50)

And David lived in the Shenandoah valley and called it the farm of David. And David plowed the farm all around from Harrisonburg northward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him. (See 2 Sam. 5:9-10)

“To his son I will give one tribe, that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Holmes County, the farmland where I have chosen to put my name.” (See 1 Kings 11:36)

“I will deliver you and this farm out of the hand of the urban developers, and I will defend this farm for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” (See 2 Kings 20:6)

Jehoshaphat lived near Gap. And he went out again among the people… and brought them back to the LORD, the God of their fathers. He appointed judges in the land in all the farming communities of Pennsylvania, farm by farm. (See 2 Chron. 19:4-5)

I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the farm, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its fences have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Intercourse, to the farm of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” (See Neh. 2:3-6)

There is a river whose streams make glad the woodland of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. (See Ps. 46:4)

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the farmland of our God!
His holy plain, beautiful in flatness,
is the joy of all the earth,
Kansas, in the west,
the farmland of the great King.
Upon her grasslands God
has made himself known as a farmer. (See Ps. 48:1-3)

Some wandered in urban alleys,
finding no way to a farm to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
till they reached a farm to dwell in.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man! (See Ps. 107:4-8)

But seek the judgment of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord against it, for in its judgment you will find your welfare. (See Jer. 29:7)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the city to be tempted by the devil. (See Matt. 4:1)

“You are the light of the world. A farm set in a valley cannot be hidden.” (See Matt. 5:14)

Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his row house apartment, another to his college class. (See Matt. 22:4-5)

“For unto you is born this day on the farm of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (See Luke 2:11)

“And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten getaway cabins.’” (See Luke 19:17)

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the countryside until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and convinced them to join him in leaving the city for a safer rural environment. (See Acts 17:16-17)

“I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this wilderness who are my people.” (See Acts 18:10)

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Chicago... And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him to rural places like Chambersburg, Lansing, Elnora, Hartwell, Guys Mills, Carbon Hill, and Mountain View, reasoning daily in the halls of the Bible schools. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of America heard the word of the Lord, both Anabaptists and everyone else. (See Acts 19:1, 8-10)

But I say, walk on a nature trail, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (See Gal. 5:16)

Put on the whole hunter’s outfit, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (See Eph. 6:11)

And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the city? (See Heb. 3:17)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love our farming lifestyle, not neglecting to meet together to discuss pesticides and soil run-off, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another to increase our yield per acre, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (See Heb. 10:24-25)

He was looking forward to the farm that has drainage tiles, whose designer and builder is God. (See Heb. 11:10)

For here we have no lasting farm, but we seek the farm that is to come. (See Heb. 13:14)

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with Carhartts, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (See 1 Pet. 5:5)

And I saw the holy farmland, new Lancaster County, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (See Rev. 21:2)

I could share more excerpts from this fine new translation, but hopefully that is enough for you to get a feel for how it sounds. As you can tell, it tends toward the functional equivalence end of the translation philosophy spectrum, rather than being strictly word-for-word.

In the traditional Anabaptist spirit of the brotherhood principle, the translation committee welcomes your help with their work. Feel free to critique the above excerpts, or suggest more in the comments below.

And oh! I almost forgot to tell you: “RAT” stands for “Rural Anabaptist Translation.” Proving that rats live in grain bins, too, and not only subway tunnels.

Reverend Rat reading from his new favorite translation. Photo Credit: janjaromirhorak via Compfight cc

Disclaimer: Perhaps it would be the part of wisdom for me to clarify that the above post is a work of satire. [Update: See my post “Christians and Satire: What Does the Bible Say?” if you have questions about this style of writing.] As with all good pieces of satire, it is intended to be both entertaining and educational. (If you find it neither—or even if you do—please feel free to write a parallel post proposing a CAT–a “City Anabaptist Translation.” I will enjoy the entertainment.)

The educational bit in this piece is simple: It is an attempt to remind us that rural does not always equal good and city does not always equal bad in the text of the sacred writings—despite our cultural tendency to conveniently miss much of the evidence challenging our rural values.

It is possible that this satire transgresses one or two rules of good exegesis or logic. I hope, God willing, to sometime write a post that gives better evidence. It would answer this question: “Can (Anabaptist) Faith Survive in the City?” That is a serious question that deserves serious answers. Meanwhile, you may wish to read my three posts answering the following question: “Why Should You Care about the City?” Each post discusses one answer:

  1. Because God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

Well, it’s time to sign off. Gotta go feed them calves. Wonder where they’re at?