Being Dumb Is Bad; Being Mean Is Worse

2012 may have been the year of websites and Facebook pages that make Christians look stupid. Well, to be honest, Christians make themselves look stupid plenty — and it seems the more conservative or Pentecostal, the more likely they’ve posted stupid stuff on YouTube or elsewhere that other Christians and non-Christians then post to show how stupid those other Christians are.

I’m not immune. One of my biggest posts of 2012 was pointing out The Worst Church Website in the World. That drove some serious traffic my way.

But I, for one, am growing tired. Unintentionally sexual church signs are no longer humorous to me, and posting old videos of Bob Larson and new videos by William Tapley don’t make me cringe anymore. They’re just dumb.

And with 2.2 billion Christians in the world, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are a few dumb ones.

Of course, some of these bloggers and Facebookers consider themselves “watchdogs.” They’re keeping Christianity honest by exposing abuse, misogyny, and other sins. Fair enough. If that’s your role in the Kingdom (or whatever euphemism you use), that’s fine. But what’s interesting is how these watchdogs are totally or partially anonymous. We know almost nothing about them — not where they live or whether they’re married or if they have children. I’ve reached out to several watchdogs who’ve come after me, with limited success (I did once speak at length to The One Who Will Not Be Named).

There are some that I’m not talking about. When Fred Clark calls out evangelical stupidity, he does it as a loyal evangelical. And it is always — always! — accompanied by smart, incisive commentary.

Darrell Dow posts stupid things that Independent Fundamental Baptists do at Stuff Fundies Like. In a recent interview, Darrell was asked what is the point of the satire on his site. He responded,

Imagine for a moment that you’re a child who every night as he lies in bed is terrorized by a terrible monster. One day you grow up. You leave home. You don’t talk about the monster because nobody else believes that it is real. Surely you only imagined it. Then one day you find a website where someone has taken pictures of that monster you used to fear and posted them adorned by funny mustaches. The monster used to scare you but now you can laugh at it. The laughter is therapeutic. The laughter conquers your fear. And then you find that there are hundreds of other people in the world who also were terrorized for years by this monster and others like it. Now they laugh at it too and you know that finally you’re not alone.

That’s what we do here. We don’t laugh at Christ. We don’t hate the church. We just laugh at the monsters.

I happen to know Darrell. I know he’s not mean. In fact, I know for a fact that I’m a lot more mean than he is.

But each of us who uses satire and humor to point out the stupidity of Christians is walking a fine line. Satire can very easily become mean; it can even, I submit, turn into hatred.

Maybe letting some of the stupidity in the church slide for fear of becoming mean ourselves wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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  • I really think you are on to something, Tony. You have challenged me, personally, to reevaluate the way I deal with the “monsters” of my fundamentalist past. In your “post that was published than deleted,” you stunned me when you basically said, “Hey ex-fundys, it’s great you support LGBT issues, but any rational person would do that.” It really got me thinking that we are only empowering the “offensive” aspects of Christianity when we privilege our distance from it/them. Thanks for your honest thoughts!

    • Tony,

      Krista and I have talked about that post over wine and the part where you say “…but any rational person would do that” quite a bit.

      I find this line to be compelling today, “Maybe letting some of the stupidity in the church slide for fear of becoming mean ourselves wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” I think there is something to this. Maybe it’s called grace? Maybe it helps us live into this unity thing in John 17? Maybe it’s really more about us not shaming others/us?

      Grace and Peace – Jes

  • May it be so, Tony. May it be so.

  • John Ericson

    This is helpful. I would submit that the anonymity of the internet is increasing the opportunities for us to cross the boundaries from satire into mean spirited and vitriolic speech. Thanks for the helpful reminder.

  • All true and sometimes (a helluva lot more often than I like), I come off more mean that informing. I’m trying to work on that. Question, though. Is it wrong that Tapley’s videos crack me up? Especially when he sings one of his original compositions.

  • Phil Miller

    One of the few Christian songwriters I loved growing up and still do is Steve Taylor (most recently of Blue Like Jazz fame). I always loved that he was never afraid to use satire to poke at the church, but I never felt like he was mean-spirited about it. Of course, there were people who accused him of such. The problem with satire is that it’s dependent on people being able to get it. I’m still surprised when I encounter people who don’t get what is pretty transparent satire or parody.

    I think at some level, in order to properly satirize something you have to love it on some level. It’s why someone like Garrison Keillor can make a living making fun of Minnesotans. Deep down he know they’re his people, and he can actually empathize with those he’s poking fun at.

    • Yes, and I know many Minnesotans who HATE GK.

      • Patrick S

        I think most would be surprised to learn he is still around….

  • I’ve been thinking about this lately in relation to certain unnamed websites, blogs, twitter feeds, etc. that exist simply to make fun of certain things that Christians tend to do. On the one hand, it is good and healthy for people to work through their crap (in a clinical setting). But, on the other hand, at a certain point – after years of this – it is actually unhealthy to continue to do so. At a certain point, you gotta move on.

    I went through a long period of depression after I left “the church.” I had no idea what to do, what to think, how to think, and so on. During that period, I lashed out at everything I possibly could. But, after doing this for so long, I realized that I wasn’t in a good place, and I needed to get over it. Which was a primary motivation for my farewell @pastormark post.

    As Rollins says in his new book, “Even if we rebel against these stories, they still exert their control over us, for that which we oppose is that which we end up defining ourselves against.”

    Of course, moving on and getting over it doesn’t mean what happened to me is “okay.” It’s not. But, for me to continue to wade in it would not be okay, either.

    • NateW

      I thought of this from Rollins’ new book too. To enact violence against my former Christian loci of identity shows that all I have done is relocated my idolatrous quest for identity and knowledge to another. May my identity be that only of one who is loved and who is crucified with Christ, never as one who justifies himself by crucifying others.

    • NateW

      Another thought: Perhaps it could be said that we have only truly moved on when we find ourselves feeling compassion for those who have not, rather than contempt.

    • Bobby

      Rob, this is so, so true. Every once in a while there’s nothing wrong with sharing a few laughs about how goofy Christians/Evangelicals/Whoever are, but to consistently return to it…one can’t help but wonder if that’s healing or bitterness. It’s the reason people who hate Mark Driscoll or Brian McLaren or Rob Bell constantly follow them on Facebook/Twitter, buying their books, etc. They use it as fuel for their hatred. I’ve struggled with this, too.

      • Bobby

        Just FYI, and a bit off topic, I read your linked post on Farewell Driscoll, Rob. I resonate with that a lot, as a young guy who also essentially worshipped Driscoll and every utterance he spoke. Then I went to Joyful Exiles.

        • Thanks, Bobby. It is an interesting dilemma. Every once in awhile, I still feel the urge to see what the crazies are up to…but then I quickly realize that usually the problem is with me when I am not okay with myself enough to simply ignore them.

  • curtis

    Satire is one way to respond to stupidity. But there are other responses. Jesus faced stupidity at every turn. Stupidity of the disciples. Stupidity of the government. Stupidity of the church. Yet at every chance, he responded to stupidity with overwhelming love (and anger when necessary. Sometimes anger is the most honest form of love!) But Jesus never responds with meanness.

    The fact that satire is such a predominant form of criticizing Christianity is a reflection that Christians have been too unwilling to vocally criticize the church in love. We cannot silence others, but we must speak more forcefully in love.

    It reminds me of Dan Savage’s challenge to Christians: If we don’t like what others are saying about Christians, it is not helpful to criticize the critic. Rather than asking critics to quiet down, Christians must answer forcefully with our own message of Christ’s love. Why are loving Christians so silent, and relinquish the public sphere to those who only speak out of meanness and fear?

  • P.S. This also reminded me of Krista Tippett’s interview with Martin Marty, where he made the point regarding fundamentalism as the difference between mean and non-mean.

  • Nathan Shields

    I think that satire is good. And we certainly can use a good laugh at our own expense from time to time. But it is the mocking that leaves a bruise. A mean-spirited making fun of, THAT often requires therapy later. Unfortunately, I’m good at the 2nd and not so much the 1st.

  • Good point about satire potentially leading to hatred Tony. I’d also say it can lead to cynicism and apathy.

    Old Benny Franklin put it best I think: “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something.”

  • Thanks for the shout-out, Tony. I’m the first to admit that satire is a blunt instrument that only does one thing well. Sometimes it done well but you’re right that it has been done, overdone, and done to death on the Internet.

  • Keith Rowley

    Thank you for this.

    Without being mean about this I want to say I am really liking the somewhat less antagonistic tone I have seen on the blog lately. 🙂

  • Craig

    Some people are too stupid to realize they’re mean; some are too mean to do anything about their stupidity (as when their stupidity arises from ignorance about others). I say make fun of these people.

    • NateW

      So, sort of an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” sort of approach? : )

      • Craig

        Only avoid being stupid. I recommend discerning “meanness”.

  • Tracey

    Wow this is a very pertinent discussion! I love ur blog tony I find it inspiring intelligent and illuminating but often I feel a sense of superiority that we have the right theology and everyone else is dumb? Personally I disagree with a lot of evangelical theology but I believe God can use broken vessels heck he uses me. There is something to be said for they will know we are Christians by our love.

  • Sarah

    So, satire aimed at mocking abusive fundamentalist churches is mean. Satire aimed at people trying to heal from abusive fundamentalism is funny? Or did you think you could delete that post and everyone would just forget about it?

    • Gayle

      He’s just over it, Sarah. He was mean before it was cool but now everybody is doing it.

  • Kristen

    You don’t get to tell people how to heal.

  • Kathleen

    I think you’re confusing two different types of Christianity and the humor/satire/criticism they tend to engender.

    There is main line Protestantism, where you’ll find the gentle humor and the ability to laugh at oneself. (“Where two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, there will invariably be a fifth.” “The only time the name of God was heard in a Unitarian church was when the janitor fell down the steps.” “Methodists believe that you can’t get into Heaven without a covered dish.” Etc.)

    And then there is Evangelical Christianity, which appears to be the target of most of the examples of satire and “meanness” to which you point. (The rest seems to be aimed at the Roman Catholic leadership…NOT its membership, which is increasingly disillusioned and disheartened and for which I have a great deal of sympathy.) If an institution’s effect on its members is toxic and abusive, if its leaders are hypocritical, authoritarian, and overbearing, and if it presumes to be able to hold the government of a nation hostage to its unexamined, unsupportable assumptions, then, yes, it deserves all the vitriol it attracts. Satire is not necessarily “meanness.” It is an instrument of change. I would suggest that evangelicals look more closely at themselves and their churches and try to figure out what it is that has made so many people so angry at them.

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