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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sarcasm, Part 1

“My family and I don’t really like sarcasm,” a friend said to me over lunch today. “I guess we think there is enough bad in the world as it is.” That is a paraphrase, but you get the point of his statement. It stood out in our conversation like a sore thumb, and I’m still musing on what he meant by it.

My friend is from a certain section of the Reformed tradition that is sometimes called “pietistic”. Such people often talk about themselves believing in “Experimental” (meaning “experiential”) Calvinism. Experimental Calvinism tends to focus on the more relational and experiential side of the Christian life.

I think there is much to draw from this tradition. I’m Reformed, and agree with a lot that is taught by these folks. In fact, I was basically drawn into Reformed theology by these sorts of people. Unfortunately, this tradition also has an element of sentimentalism about it that sometimes keeps it from dealing honestly with the harsher aspects of this world we live in. This sentimentalism proves a barrier to a mature Christianity, preferring to live in the nursery of sectarianism rather than being challenged to grow up and engage honestly with other Christians. I am, of course, speaking in generalities. The same people who are immature in one aspect of their faith may be very mature otherwise. And this is true of my friend. I think his pietism isn’t good, but he is in many ways far more mature than I am.

At the risk of turning this into one of those blogs where the author tells you more than you want to know about him, I will admit that I’ve thought about sarcasm a fair bit myself. I’ve wavered back and forth on the issue to some degree, though sarcasm has characterized my speech in part for years. I don’t have all the answers on the subject. But I will say that to eliminate all sarcasm is to take a position that Scripture simply stands against.

There are many passages we could look at, but let’s just take one – 1 Kings 18, Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Most people are familiar with the story. The prophets of Baal and all of Israel gather to Elijah on Mount Carmel at Elijah’s command. The purpose is to demonstrate which is the true God. The prophets of Baal build an altar and begin to call on Baal to send down fire upon the altar. The verse in the passage that most concerns us is verse 27. The King James Version translates the verse this way:

And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.

Now here we have a serious case of sarcasm, and that by a prophet of God. What is even more interesting is the phrase here translated “or he is pursuing”. (I don’t know Hebrew, so I have to draw off the scholars here.) The New King James translates it as “or he is busy”. But both translations obscure the real meaning. The clearer translation is in the English Standard Version, which translates the phrase as “or he is relieving himself”. In other words, Elijah is saying “maybe your God is using the bathroom” or “sitting on the toilet”, if you will.

One thing we learn in reading Scripture, and particularly narrative, is that we aren’t told everything that is said or done. God is selective in the things he reveals to us in His word, and the gaps are often apparent. At this point we have to remind ourselves that this isn’t just the human author making a choice of what to tell us, but it is also God Who inspired the writing. God could have left the whole “mocking” aspect of this event out. He could have left out the words that Elijah used, and just told us that Elijah mocked them. He even could have just left out the statement about Baal “relieving himself”.

But he doesn’t. Why? The modern American Christian, now feeling a bit queasy, has had his nice effeminate image of God set in a tailspin. I don’t know why God chose to tell us this part of the event. There might be some great theological reason behind it, but if there is, I don’t have a clue what it is. One way or the other, here is a prophet of God who, being justified in his defense of God by God’s responding to his prayer a couple of verses later, is laying out some pretty heavy sarcasm against God’s enemies.

I could have picked out other passages. One that immediately comes to mind is God laughing mockingly at the kings of the earth in Psalm 2. But when it comes down to it, to call all sarcasm sin is contrary to the clear example of Scripture.

“Well, sure, it’s okay to mock our enemies,” some might say, “but sarcastic people often even use it on their friends. You can’t find that in Scripture.”

Yes, you can find it in Scripture. But I’ll have to address that at another time.

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