KEEPING FAITH IN SATIRE
Christianity and comedy are uneasy friends. A new relationship harnessing irony with passion is long overdue.
Steve Tomkins, a former producer of The Simpsons, says he keeps his faith in check when writing comedy because if it became a prominent feature of his writing it would be the death of his career in comedy circles. Modern comedy is preoccupied with irony. Nothing is taken seriously in this framework: everything is taken apart and laughed at and it is considered a mark of coolness and sophistication to join in. And yet irony has lost its moorings. True irony is seeing the world both as it is and as it should be and identifying its inherent hypocrisies through satire. In this way we hold up both a mirror to the world as it is and a pair of binoculars to show where it should be.
This is the kind of dark humour you find among the biblical prophets. Men like Amos were withering in their satire, burning with a passion to see injustice stamped out and demonstrating fearlessness in addressing it at risk to their own lives.
The trouble with much modern irony is that it fosters a kind of nihilism where no-one cares about anything because we’ve so picked things apart that we can’t even remember what they were supposed to look like in the first place.
The primary use of humour in the Bible is to ridicule idolatry. The prophets and the psalmists had great knock-about fun with the lifelessness of so-called gods. The implicit accusation of Elijah (at least in the original Hebrew) that the god Baal wasn’t answering the prayers of his followers because he was otherwise engaged on the toilet is a memorable example of this. The one thing tyrants despise today is humour at their expense because it is subversive of their rule. We may be free of the idolatry of tyranny in the UK but we still find other gods to worship: possessions, celebrity, power, image, alcohol. True irony is needed to puncture their gaudy balloons so we can see more clearly the majesty of the God they were inflated to obscure in the first place.
To achieve this we need to harness irony and commitment in ways we have lost touch with. We also need a dose of self-awareness. This virtue is usually injected into the humour of satirists as a way of inoculating themselves against charges of hypocrisy. For the Christian it is about gaining a sense of perspective. God is often pictured as laughing at the pomposity of human beings who think they are so big. We take ourselves far too seriously and, while I believe God cares about the intimate details of our lives, suspect he takes us far less seriously than we do when inflated with vanity and self-importance. And that, perhaps, is the greatest subversion of all.
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