Wanted: Christian Satirists (GSOH Required)

James Williams


In that superb World War I satire Blackadder Goes Forth, Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Edmund Blackadder believes that he has discovered a spy in the British Army hospital. He crowns his unmasking speech with: ‘I asked if he’d been to one of the great universities – Oxford, Cambridge, or Hull… but you failed to spot that only two of these are great universities…’ ‘That’s right’, interrupts General Melchett (Stephen Fry), ‘Oxford’s a complete dump!’

It’s a fairly cheap joke, but it serves, I trust, to link Cambridge, Hull and humour in your minds, which will be important later.

From the political cartoons of Gerald Scarfe and Peter Brookes to the laying bare of workplace absurdities in Dilbert and The Office, we are all used to interacting with other people’s published humour in various forms. But we must not forget that good satire is part of our Christian heritage, not just something neutral out there in the world to be accepted or rejected according to how many swear words it contains or whether it mentions sex. Satire is part of the Bible, and it is part of the history of the church, so it is important to develop a Christian mind with regard to humour and satire.

There is plenty of humour and comedy in the Bible besides satire. But in that vein alone see Isaiah’s mocking of idolatry (ch. 41), Esther’s puncturing of the Persian court and its pride, Ezekiel’s brutal characterisation of apostate Israel and Judah (ch. 16), most of the minor prophets… and the list goes on. Jesus’ sevenfold denunciation of the religious authorites is brimming with satire (see Luke 11) as is Paul’s treatment of pride in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 3-4) and false apostles (2 Cor. 10-13). Neither of them could be accused of false politeness!

Augustine’s City of God is full of satirical colouring as he exposes the folly of astrology (Book V) and the plain silliness of the Romans’ divine pantheon, which even boasted a goddess of hinges (Book VI). Piers PlowmanPraise of Folly and More’s UtopiaPunch (20 March 1875).

We are not as familiar as we should be with all this. Did you know, for example, that Charles Spurgeon of all people wrote a book dedicated in part to a defence of humour and satire in Christian teaching? (Eccentric Preachers, if you are interested.) Maybe we are too inclined to take respectability to extremes, or to imagine that ‘objective’ communication will get us where we want to go. But dealing with false teaching and opposing the values of the world are too important to be done in a colourless fashion. And humour is too important a tool in many spheres, not just in terms of satire, to ignore its theological and pastoral dimensions.

One can find good Christian humour and satire, to be read and appreciated with a discerning mind (try www.shipoffools.com for starters, www.credenda.org and the excellent Doug Wilson), but not much of it. The church needs to be clearer about its message, contending for the faith and showing up the hollowness and pretensions of worldliness. ‘Simply presenting the truth of God in a computer printout fashion without the passion, life, satire, love and emotion found in Scripture is a way of being unfaithful to the content’ (Doug Wilson). And to keep us from malice and from getting carried away by showy wit, we can again look to our Christian heritage – that of Cambridge and Hull, to be precise.

Andrew Marvell MP, poet, puritan and satirist, graduated from Cambridge shortly before the English Civil War and represented the constituency of Hull for most of his adult life, through the Protectorate and well into the Restoration. He wrote long satirical works defending nonconformity and a free press (including several directed at the overbearing Bishop Parker). In his later years, as he wrestled with how to reconcile the need to speak out truthfully with the command to be charitable, and as his tone mellowed, he offered an excellent blueprint for Christian satirists. From his Mr Smirke…

‘[They must] determine whether they have any sense; for without that how can any man pretend – and yet they do – to be ingenious? Then, whether they have any modesty; for without that they can only be scurrilous and impudent. Next, whether any truth; for true jests are those that do the greatest execution. And lastly, it were not so amiss that they give some account too of their Christianity; for the world has always been so uncivil as to expect something of that from the clergy, in the design and stile even of their most uncanonical writings.’

What I am not calling for in this ‘Wanted’ ad. is inept rudeness. Biblical polemic and Christian Satire should not be carried out by those who cannot control their sharp tongues. Hesitation about Christian satire can be overcome with the cultivation of good taste and sense as we imitate our Lord in word and deed – i.e. a thoroughly biblical mind and a thoroughly biblical voice. If there are any more Christian satirists out there, will you please stand up?

JamesPortrait By James Williams
James Williams, 24/08/2006