Does Satire Have a Place?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 31, 2008

twain.jpg“One can deliver a satire with telling force through the insidious medium of a travesty, if he is careful not to overwhelm the satire with the extraneous interest of the travesty.” - Mark Twain

I love this quote from Mark Twain. Twain is the father of American satire. His wit was as sharp as his creativity. Sadly, most people (even to this day) missed the point of his satire. Huck Finn, for example has been banned by school districts that felt it supported racism, even though the point of Huck Finn is to satirize racism, among other things.

Twain understood that, for satire to work, it needed to keep the “travesty” (exaggeration) at just the right level. It needed to almost believable. That is how satire ensnares.

A month or so ago, we began posting satire regularly. I enjoy satire. I have a dark sense of humor, like dry wit, and enjoy the use of sarcasm with my friends. But I have to say, satire and sarcasm are more likely to tear down than to build up.

If you write satire, and everyone knows it is blatantly satirical, it loses its teeth. But if you write satire that people think is true, it can cause confusion and pain to the person who is “duped.” But, as in the case with the writings of Mark Twain, the most provocative and influential satire has been confused with reality.

Satire is, by nature, subversive. It exposes hidden issues. It confronts societal assumptions. The Wikipedia article says it succinctly:

Satire is strictly a literary genre, although it is found in the graphic and performing arts as well as the printed word. In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, ideally with an intent to bring about improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an often quite angry attack on something the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.

I’m not sure that it has to be a “quite angry attack,” but I think the description rings true. Satire gets people’s attention. It captivates and confronts. It is a great way to exercise the prophetic voice.

But does it have a place in the Kingdom of God?

Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I enjoy writing it. I enjoy reading it. My favorite movies tend towards the satirical. And, personally speaking, I have benefited from it. The satirical posts on this site have been the most successful posts we’ve ever had. In the last month, our readership has steadily risen to about 900 visits/day (on the weekdays).

But we should be careful not to cut needlessly. And I’m wondering where to draw the line between confronting issues and being divisive.  I’d seriously love to know your thoughts. Your thoughts could influence the future of this site.

  • Can one write satire…in love?
  • Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published edified?
  • Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published been divisive?
  • Where do we draw the line between beneficial satire and unhelpful satire?

Don’t feel hemmed in by my questions: feel free to address the issue as you see fit. Let’s get a good dialog going here; I’m anxious to get a sense of where everyone is at on this.

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


10 Responses to “Does Satire Have a Place?”

  1. Jordan Peacock on January 31st, 2008 9:35 am

    I think that the key is intent; is the satire intended to shed light on a subject out of love or a desire to bring conversation to a set of assumptions, or is it intended to take joy in the destruction of other people’s ideas and beliefs?

    The key I think will be a symbiotic relationship between authoring, editing and the audience, and constantly seeking a balance; not bowing to those offended over anything, but not swinging out to the other extreme either.

  2. jazzact13 on January 31st, 2008 9:49 am

    As far as any possible uses of satire in the Bible, one that comes to mind is when Micaiah was brought to King Ahab and told him he would be successful in the coming battle, but it seemed to have been in such a way as to tip off the king that he saying that in a farcicial way.

    Perhaps as well when the one prophet (Nathan, was that his name?) told David the story of the man with the lamb in order to catch him in his sin, that may qualify.

    At any rate, concerning your questions…

    Can one write satire…in love?
    Does love ever require the use of hard words and ideas? If so, then is conveying them only in a blunt and straightforward manne always the best or even only way of doing it? I think that satire has it’s place, such as with Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

    Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published edified?
    Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published been divisive?
    I think I have read only one of your satirical posts, the one about Mohler and bad language, and really had to wonder why that was worthy of such treatment. So, I’m probably not one best qualified to give a good answer to those two.

    Where do we draw the line between beneficial satire and unhelpful satire?
    I guess we would first have to ask, what is meant by beneficial and unhelpful satires? Would ‘beneficial’ mean only those were people ‘got the point’ and agreed, and ‘unhelpful where they either didn’t get the point or disagreed? Would ‘beneficial’ mean one that riled people up and ‘unhelpful’ mean one that people basically ignored?

  3. Nathan on January 31st, 2008 11:59 am

    I really like your site.

    Into peacemaking eh? Wink, Yoder, Hauerwas…Good stuff.


  4. JoshuaEllens on January 31st, 2008 12:03 pm

    I don’t think that satire existed in ancient times in the same way as it does today, however i do think there were probably elements that performed some of the same functions as satire. I have a feeling Jesus was using some sort of Satire in Luke 20:20-26 when he said “Give to Caesar, what is Caesars. and give to God what is God’s”. kind of like ‘let that narcissistic little twerp have his stupid money.’ it seems to me that Jesus is pointing to the fact that caesar has claimed himself to be a god by printing his image on all the money. Jesus points this out and paints a picture of how silly and foolish this is by saying, oh well if he wants his stupid money he can have it, but you are members of the kingdom of God. I think he was making a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the powers of man, to some people who were trying to trap him in the economics and politics of rome. In my view he used a sort of biting Wit to shed light on that distinction, it’s folly, and to call the People of God into his kingdom. Does anyone else resonate with that?
    Ok sorry for that rather long diatribe.

    * Can one write satire…in love?
    maybe, but it needs to be in it’s proper place. this can’t be our main mode of witnessing the Kingdom. we need to exercise strong caution.

    * Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published edified?
    i think some. the Weblog of Jesus post comes to mind especially. I think it was subtle enough to provoke thought. and it gave clarity and centrality to the things Jesus’ calls us to. In general, though, i think satire pretty much only breaks down. It needs to be complimented by other edifying pieces.

    * Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published been divisive?
    though i considered it hilarious myself, the Al Moehler article was unfortunately probably more divisive.

    * Where do we draw the line between beneficial satire and unhelpful satire?
    I think the Twain quote in the beginning of this article sums it up.

    We should be careful to not write satire just to be shocking, just to create controversy and increase readership (not an accusation Mark, i know this is not your motive), or even only to show the foolishness of another. We should definitely show the foolishness of the Worldly Powers that be.
    Mostly we satire should only be a small part of what we are about, and should only be a literary tool. We shouldn’t be afraid of writing satire but we should put most of our energy into writing material that edifies.

    peace and love

  5. Chuck on January 31st, 2008 12:08 pm

    Can satire be written in love? Absolutely. My favorite satirical post on this site was the post on the “Emerging Amish Church,” which is a great example. The satire was pointed inward, the context was acceptance. It came lovingly from one member of the family to another. When the context is love and the understanding is that this is “all of us,” satire is extremely funny. For example, I work with special needs students. Some of the things these students do and say are incredibly funny, and I will laugh and make jokes about them with either the students themselves or others who know and love the student (parents, teachers, etc.) However, if the same remarks were to be made by an outsider (someone who did not know and love my students) with the intent to ostracize (further reinforce lines of “in” and “out,” putting my students down so others can feel “up,” creating division, “us” and “them,”) I get extremely angry.

    Recently, I’ve felt a few of the satirical posts here have reinforced an “us” vs “them” mentality, instead of fostering an environment of acceptance and a context of love within which jokes can be made about members of the same family. Namely, the Al Mohler and New Monasticism posts.

    For me, the line is drawn when we start drawing lines. We need to remember that we are members of the same family, and any satire that ostracizes another group or person in our family is unhelpful and should be avoided. There are so many great things happening on the Jesus Manifesto, thank you all so much for your helpful thoughts and insights, and for taking the time to reflect on those things as well.

  6. joe troyer on January 31st, 2008 12:43 pm

    i always figured satire was a lot like how jesus spoke to the religious leaders of his time. he wasnt harsh for harsh sake. he spoke strongly to them not to provoke, but illuminate.

    that is how i read your satire. not neccessarily to provoke, but illuminate. peace.

  7. Casey Ochs on January 31st, 2008 10:30 pm

    As a Christian satire is a tricky thing. The purpose of satire is to illuminate hypocrisy, prejudice or error, but as a Christian we don’t want to alienate or offend. It’s really a delicate balance. I agree with a lot of the comments so far, especially the one about intent.

    Was satire or irony used in the Bible? I think one could argue that Jesus was being ironic when he told the Apostles that they were going to be counted as criminals so they all had better sell their stuff and buy swords. This came right after Peter had pledged fealty to Jesus unto death. (Luke 22:33-38) When the Disciples came back with a couple of swords Jesus said “enough.” If Jesus was being ironic in this instance the Disciples clearly didn’t get it.

  8. Andy in Germany on February 1st, 2008 5:11 am

    I think that -used with caution- satire can be a great tool. I’m planning to use it soon with a piece I’m writing on people accepting those who don’t fit in. Being a European, and therefore not familair with Southern Baptist and Amish culture, I didn’t get the ‘Language’ satire and I thought the ‘Amish’ piece was news until I saw the title. Never mind.

    I think it can be used in love because it can show up the powerful for who they are and empower the weaker to laugh at them. It can also help us to laugh at ourselves. Perhaps I should write one about the organisation I lead here.

    Edifying? Certainly. The ‘Jesus blog’ and the ‘Dangers of New monasticism’ certainly were. The ‘New monasticism’ to me serves the dual purpose of expleaining what the movement is about, whils not taking itself too seriously.

    It’s also encouraging for me to step up and take a few risks in my own church/local community, to rock the boat a bit and perhaps show where the Emperor really has no clothes.

    If it is divisive I don’t know. In Germany we say: “Kicked dogs bark” In other words, some people get annoyed because they know it’s poking fun at their own silliness.

    I think satire is dangerous and needs to be used carefully, like a scalpel it can cut but it can also heal. Please don’t stop posting it…

  9. Maria Kirby on February 2nd, 2008 2:35 pm

    I would concur with Chuck and Andy. It’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves.

  10. Joel on February 2nd, 2008 5:55 pm

    I really enjoy satire as well. Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. I also enjoy reading some of your satirical writings. I wish that I could write satire as well as you can.

    I think satire has a place, but must be used with a bit of caution due to its ability to do damage. I felt the piece on Mohler went over the line by directly attacking someone by name. It would have been better if you had used a made up character or simply left the target of your satire to be annonymous. Jesus never really singled any one out, but he wasn’t against pointing out the flaws of certain groups (Pharisees, etc…).

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