Cynicism, Passion, and The Onion

I’ve sworn off reading The Onion. It’s not that I don’t appreciate its sardonic wit or comedic genius. On the contrary, I think its writers are often some of the most apt cultural critics currently writing. But their analysis of the world has become so acute as to blur in my mind the line between reality and fiction. I vividly remember once clicking through the website and laughing at its startlingly accurate social comedy couched in the blackest of black comedy. Shocked shame was my response when suddenly I realized that I had switched Internet browser windows from The Onion to CNN, and instead of laughing at the farcical imaginings of The Onion’s editors, I had begun to laugh at the real tragedies of the world.

Now, this resolution of mine is no Kantian, categorical imperative decision; I will neither start nor endorse a widespread boycott, and I do not think that others should necessarily stop reading satirical news. Comedy is a powerful tool that ought to be wielded. Lewis has observed that Satan hates nothing more than to be laughed at, and the same can be said for totalitarian governments.  The Onion has proved its ability to successfully poke fun at illiberal political institutions, and should be commended for that.

Nevertheless, I am cutting back on comedic reinterpretations of the news because I suspect that they stem from a deep well of cynicism. Satirical news isn’t new, but it has arguably never been more popular as it is today: Millenials consistently list Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart as their sources of news information. And the Millennial generation has a good excuse to be cynical. We have been promised much by politicians, universities, and careers, yet all those things have left us strangely unfulfilled. Globalization has allowed us to be acutely aware of the grave sufferings of the world, but faced with our apparent inability to combat those evils, we distance ourselves from them through slacktivism, sarcasm, cynicism, or black humor. This is an understandable, but ultimately unfulfilling view of life’s great drama.

Cynicism prohibits us from seeing the world as the theater in which the divine drama of redemption is played out. And if Christianity is to be believed, that drama is the central Fact of history. Authors like Marilynne Robinson work for “the re-enchantment of the ordinary,” the ability for us to train ourselves to see that the divine plan is going on routinely, right under our very noses, and a life well lived is one with some sense of God’s working in the world: “he who has ears, let him hear.”

Cynicism stunts that recognition by inclining us toward flippancy or fatalism. But as attractive as those options are, they are not viable ones for the Christian. Instead of succumbing to the numbing anodyne of cynicism which preys on our passion and is a solvent to our sincerity, the Christian’s posture toward the world ought to be one of earnestly and prayerfully desiring to see the advance of truth, goodness, and beauty in the creation that God loves so dearly.  Humans are essentially laughing creatures, but the foibles and failures of humanity must always be seen as something more than the fodder for our merriment. As Lewis has written, “it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

A scoffer must cease his sniggering before he can be enraptured with the drama unfolding before him, but the Christian who prays fervently “may Your kingdom come” is never far from being blissfully caught up in the divine drama of history.

[Image of Stephen Colbert from Wikipedia]

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  • John Holland

    “But their analysis of the world has become so acute as to blur in my mind the line between reality and fiction.”

    Realisty is found in both fiction and non-fiction. Satire exists, because sometimes it is the most effective way to make a point. Some things can’t be said ~without~ satire.

    While some dismiss it as cheap, it actually returns a great deal of truth for a minimal investment if done properly.

    Witness Stephen Colbert’s roast of George Bush at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Cynical, funny, and spot on true.

  • Matt Proctor

    The Need for Gravity

    In the 1864 Scottish fairy tale “The Light Princess” by George MacDonald a young princess is cursed by her witch aunt because of a blunder by her king father. The result of the curse is the princess goes throughout life without gravity. A mere gust of wind could send her to the heavens. A slight push in a certain direction can only be stopped by the assistance of another. But the loss of gravity goes beyond physics. The princess can take nothing serious. She laughs at the pain of others. She laughs at her own plight. Well, she laughs about everything.

    The sages of her land work hard to detect a cure. Some suspect genuine grief or
    tears might be her salvation. Others suspect true love. The narrator explains,
    however, “Perhaps the best thing for the princess would have been to fall in love. But how a princess who had no gravity could fall into anything is a difficulty—perhaps THE difficulty.”

    Even honest to goodness joy seems impossible, for the girl who laughs about everything can never really comprehend when something is truly joyous. Worse yet, the princess would have had to take a break from her frivolity in order to be shocked by intense pleasure. MacDonald explains, “Perhaps that was because a great pleasure spoils laughing.”

    Our world has lost its gravity too. We live in an environment filled with the air of cynicism–something that has no potential for keeping us grounded.

    Quotes from: MacDonald,George. The Light Princess. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

    (these are the opening lines of a short book I’m writing)

  • Good post and sounds wise Justin. I’ve gone in and out of cutting back my consumption to things like the Onion, the Simpsons and Colbert-Stewart (they are funny, but it kills me that many of my friends rely on this for their main source of news. Their commentary compliments the news, not provides it – doh!)

    I do think confronting our cynicism is an issue we all need to deal with, not because we think naivety is a virtue. We start off thinking our cynicism makes us less gullible and more informed but but much cynicsm blinds us to beauty, goodness and like you’re saying, certain elements of reality.

    Best wishes in your studies – grace and peace.