Nevertheless, the example of the biblical writers tells us that we have the obligation to use every literary and rhetorical weapon in our arsenal to preserve the health of the gospel and the church. For us to refuse to ridicule the ridiculous is to be guilty of false modesty, and probably faithlessness.
“You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you.” (1 Cor 4:8)
“For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.” (2 Cor 11:4)
The post-modern world recognizes no truth, only perspective, no morality, only preference. Consequently the ethos of the post-modern world (in which we are immersed) frowns upon truth claims, or assertions of right and wrong, all such being seen as arrogant. As for criticism of the beliefs and practices of others, that is seen as absolutely beyond the pale. It’s bad enough that one might claim to have the truth when all right thinking people know that truth doesn’t exist. But actually to criticize, correct, and heaven forbid, mock others’ beliefs on the basis of one’s truth claims? This is the height of naiveté and bad manners, and not to be done.
Yet Jesus said that He is the truth and that we can know God and know the truth (Jn 14:6, 17:3, 8:32). The biblical writers are sharply critical of the prophets of error, both within and outside the church, on the basis of their confidence in certain, infallible, and absolute truths. At times they even employ irony, ridiculing the opposition.
Take for instance Isaiah’s scathing critique of idolatry. Idolaters take a block of wood. Part of it they use to build a fire and bake their bread, part of it they fashion into an idol and bow down and worship (Isa 44:9-20, cf. Isa 40:18-20, 41:6,7, 46:1,2). Isaiah draws out his description of the process to establish the absurdity of it, no doubt wounding the feelings of those who worshipped idols.
The New Testament joins in this critique saying that the things that the Corinthians offer to their gods they offer to demons and not to God (1 Cor 10:20)! The Bible shows little respect for the sincerely held religious beliefs of pagans.
Jesus was severe when dealing with Pharisees, the most earnest professing believers of His day. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, and a brood of vipers. He uses irony, likening them to “white washed tombs” and accuses them of straining out gnats while swallowing camels (Mt 23:13-28). These are vivid, ironic word pictures that heap scorn and derision on His critics.
The Apostle Paul is no less severe in his denunciations of error wherever it may be found. He is especially harsh when dealing with Judaizers, who were adding Mosaic ceremonial requirements to salvation. He calls their contrary gospel “accursed” (Gal 1:9). He wishes that they might “mutilate,” probably meaning “castrate” themselves (“emasculate” in the ESV, Gal 5:12). He counts a legal righteousness or self-righteousness as “rubbish” (“dung” in the ESV, Phil 3:8).
Even among those who were preaching the truth he points out their corrupt motives: “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife” (Phil1:15). Some others “cause dissentions and hindrances” and are “slaves of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Rom 16:17-18). The Apostles name names and sins. What about Diotrephes? He “loves to be preeminent” (3 Jn 9). Hymenaeus and Alexander have rejected the faith and so have been delivered over to Satan (1 Tim 1:19). Demas deserted the cause “having loved this present world” (2 Tim 4:10). Whole churches are subjected to generalized criticisms by the Apostle John in Revelation 2 and 3.
Back to irony, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “the expression of meaning using language that normally expresses the opposite;” especially “the humorous or sarcastic use of praise to imply condemnation or contempt.” Irony is a literary device that is used to strengthen one’s argument or expose the weakness of the argument of another.
The Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, “you have become kings with us” (1 Cor 4:8). Again he says, “if anyone preaches another Jesus . . . you bear this beautifully” (2 Cor 11:4). His meaning in each case is the opposite, with a touch of sarcasm and a hint of mockery. Why would he use this form of speech? Because it exposes the absurdity of his opponents views as only irony can.
Irony was elevated to high art at the time of the Reformation, all of the Reformers and their opponents employing it to ridicule, satirize, mock, and otherwise discredit their adversaries. The works of Mark Twain and Will Rogers are littered with irony, as were those of the wickedly effective columnist H.L. Mencken. Among today’s writers, Charles Krauthammer makes brilliant use of irony in his weekly column.
The church today is a slough of absurdity, faithlessness, and compromise. Post-modern sensibilities notwithstanding, there are times when harsh language, irony, sarcasm, and even ridicule are called for. Of course we must be careful about this. We are all our own bundle of contradictions and corruptions. There are too many bloggers and self-appointed prophets blasting every passerby in the name of Truth.
Nevertheless, the example of the biblical writers tells us that we have the obligation to use every literary and rhetorical weapon in our arsenal to preserve the health of the gospel and the church. For us to refuse to ridicule the ridiculous is to be guilty of false modesty, and probably faithlessness. We need to ask of our reticence to criticize, to name names, or even to mock, whether our sensibilities are those of the Bible, or those of the post-modern spirit of the age.
Terry Johnson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. This article first appeared as part of a series on the