Saturday, August 10, 2013

Christian Satire: Is Sarcasm a Sin?

No. Sarcasm is not a sin. I’m pretty sure of this for a lot of ethical reasons, but it’s also worth noting that Elijah, Isaiah, and others used sarcasm pretty heavily sometimes (Elijah decides the reason Baal isn’t showing up is probably because he’s on the toilet, Isaiah 44 makes fun of people who take a block of wood and worship half of it and use the other half to cook dinner).

Can you sin by using sarcasm? Yep. You certainly can. Since I’m a writer, I’m going to approach this from the angle of satire, a written form of sarcasm used to make a point. But you can apply it to just about anything, from Facebook posts to witty comebacks. You see, the danger of satire or sarcasm isn’t really that people might misunderstand you.

The real danger is that you might start caring more about your image than other people.

Well, that escalated quickly.

It's your lucky day!
Let me explain why being good at satire can feed a writer's (or, you know, just a normal human being's) already-well-developed narcissism. (Keep in mind that this is a few days after I posted a satire post on the evils of letter-writing. So I can say things like that.)

True satire works with extremes, ever since 1729, when Jonathan Swift told us to deal with the bad economy and overpopulation by eating babies. The argument you make can’t say, “On the other hand” or “A more moderate example might give us a different perspective,” because then it wouldn’t be pure satire. In a culture of extremes, sometimes it’s good to avoid stereotypes, show grace to the other side, and portray the strongest opposing arguments. All of these are signs of humility, and all are hard to do in satire.

More importantly, real, unqualified, non-disclaimered satire is funny. That’s kind of the point. And to be funny, sometimes you make a cost-benefit decision about how many people you might accidentally offend. I’ll admit, there are times when I’d rather be witty than communicate clearly. Shock value—especially for titles and opening lines—can be fun to create. If a few people are confused or angry, but most people are laughing, I tend to consider that a good day.

And I’m not always sure this is good. Satire, like sarcasm, is tricky business, because at a certain point, you have to decide whether you want to put the entertainment of the majority above the feelings of the minority.

Here are the general rules I go by when writing satire. When it comes to things making fun of myself or a general practice like our tendency to use the Internet to be less personal, I’m okay with pure satire. I’m not attacking anyone. People might miss the humor, but they won’t say, “Hey, that is making fun of something that I care deeply about.”

So, that means when I’m talking about a group I’m not a part of, or writing about God/politics/family, I try not to go for pure satire. I also wait at least a day on any satire piece and read it over with fresh eyes, asking, “Where does my sarcasm go from good-natured to biting?” “Is this line really necessary for my point, or do I just have it here so people will laugh and think I’m cool?”

I don’t think there’s a clear answer to when sarcasm or satire is a sin. It has to do with the subject, the context (the sensitivity of the person you’re talking to, for example), and the attitude of your heart.

Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: Love people. Love people more than you love being witty.

That’s harder to do that it sounds, because it means swallowing a punchline that might be offensive, thinking through how that comment will sound to someone else, and sometimes cancelling a series of blog posts you promised because you realized the first one was too harsh (yes, that is speaking from personal experience).

Yes, attaching a disclaimer to a satire or toning down the sarcasm might be like explaining a joke after the punchline. It ruins the magic of satire.

But sometimesnot alwaysthe magic needs to be ruined.

(For more on this from a writing perspective, see The Art of Not Being a Jerk. For more on this from a hilarious perspective, read one-star reviews of Christian satire books like Stuff Christians Like.)

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