Canada's Premier Hub For Faith In Common Life
 
The Bastard of IronyThe Bastard of Irony

The Bastard of Irony

Words matter—just ask Paula Dean—yet we speak them without thinking from dawn to dusk. Collectively, though, they create our world, shape our imaginations, and uplift or wound those around us. The Bible has much to say about words and their importance. From Scripture we might wonder if there is anything more powerful in the universe.

3 minute read
Print
Topics: Culture, Religion, Cultural Renewal
The Bastard of Irony September 6, 2013  |  By John Seel
Like Convivium? , our free weekly email newsletter.

Urban Dictionary: Snark (noun)—combination of "snide" and "remark." Sarcastic comment(s). Also snarky (adjective) and snarkily (adverb).

Words matter—just ask Paula Dean—yet we speak them without thinking from dawn to dusk. Collectively, though, they create our world, shape our imaginations, and uplift or wound those around us.

And so also the mediums we use to speak words matter, as they too create realities. Internet anonymous flaming and Twitter one-liners are changing the nature of our public and private discourse. They are easy targets for elitist criticism from those who prefer that the Mass be conducted in Latin and that sermons last for an hour.

The Bible has much to say about words and their importance. From Scripture we might wonder if there is anything more powerful in the universe. We're told that it was through God's speech that the universe was created—"And God said".

Words turn private thoughts into shared realities. Language is the building block of culture as depicted at the Tower of Babel. Language is the foundational sign system of human society. As goes our words, so goes our world. When we use "wicked" as a synonym for "good," "excellent," and "delightful," there is more at stake than regional linguistic distinctions.

I was asked recently whether a minister of the gospel should engage in "snarking." Frankly, I didn't know the word. I didn't have a ready answer and it has caused me to think. "Would Jesus snark?" is perhaps the clearest way to put the question. To write on snarking is to set oneself up as a target of snarking, as David Denby discovered after writing a book on the subject, Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation.

"Snarking," like many modern words, lacks definitional clarity (the same can be said of "hooking up" or "postmodernism"). It is the bastard offspring of irony, the popular meme of Twitter and Hollywood award show hosts. Ricky Gervais' comment, "The Golden Globes are just like the Oscars—but without all that esteem," combines humor and wit on the positive side with snide and sarcasm on the negative. It can be funny, cruel, and helpful. As such, the answer to what would Jesus do, is more complicated than one might initially assume.

It is only the insufferably self-righteous who take themselves too seriously. It is spiritually and emotionally healthy to be able to laugh at oneself. Humor is an aspect of humility. C.S. Lewis rightly observed, "Humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside." Our foibles have a way of putting a smile on one's face.

But snarking is most often attempted humor at the expense of another—particularly in its Internet manifestations when we say things that we would not say in good company or to the person's face with impunity. This is clearly a boundary that Jesus would not cross. He made the point about verbal put downs as plainly as he could in his Sermon on the Mount: "But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." This raises the stakes considerably for those who take their eternal destiny seriously. At its worse, snarking has been called "rhetorical napalm."

But there is also a useful function of snarking. We live in a world of spin, hyperbole, prevarication, obfuscation, and barefaced lies.  In such a setting, snarking has the function of saying however indelicately, "Cut the crap." As Adam Sternbergh notes it is an "outrage delivery device," the verbal equivalent of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple courtyard. Sternbergh goes on, "When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit, it should not be surprising when people cry out, The nation is awash in bullshit! and maybe throw in an extraneous And your mother dresses you funny!"

A lesson of cultural discernment is that reality is not a black and white rainbow but panoply of colors; proper responses to culture are complicated, not simple. Words have implicit and explicit meanings. They have contexts and histories. But we are living at a time and in a society when the power of words is typically dismissed, their corrosive use celebrated, graphic expletives common, and when technology minimizes responsibility. The cultural ethos, the patterns of civil discourse, are not in favor of using words correctly. If we are to be "people of the word," then snarking is at best a cautionary tale. Our words are to be "springs of fresh water" (James 3:11). We'd be wise to avoid polluting the fresh with the hip, cute, and clever for there is too much at stake in getting it wrong.

JOIN CONVIVIUM

Convivium means living together. Unlike many digital magazines, we haven’t put up a digital paywall. We want to keep the conversation regarding faith in our common and public life as open as possible.

Like Convivium?

, our free weekly email newsletter.