Post-Cynical Christianity

The pope visits one of the poorest barrios in Rio.

“I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!” he said, speaking off the cuff in his native Spanish. “I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!

Those were among the comments that Pope Francis made yesterday in Brazil, as a part of [Catholic] World Youth Day. The pope continues to talk about Christianity in a way that makes it seem like a different religion than his predecessor’s. He was even more poignant in his comments while visiting one of Rio’s barrios (aka, slums):

“You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good,” Francis told the crowd. “To you and all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished.

On the complete other side of the Christian religion from the pope stands the Homebrewed Christianity Theology Nerd Throwdown podcast, which I was listening to on my bike ride home from work yesterday. In the latest episode, Tripp, Bo, Jonnie Russell, and Micky Jones talk about “post-cynical Christianity.” Micky has a related post in which she encourages Christians to drop cynicism while maintaining skepticism. On the podcast, Tripp went so far as to say that cynicism is antithetical to the practice of Christianity.

I’ve been thinking about cynicism, and wondering if I am cynical. I don’t think so. My hammering on denominational bureaucracy, for instance, is not from cynicism. It’s meant to be prophetic, to unmask powers that hold the gospel captive.

I’ve thought about it moreso since a conversation with my friend, Zach Lind. We got together this month when his band was in town, and we got to talking about the proliferation of blogs, facebook pages, and twitter accounts whose explicit purpose it is to mock Christianity, and to knock Christian leaders down a peg or two. He made a salient point: A person can’t be a satirist and a reformer. You’ve got to choose. UPDATE: It is very difficult to be a satirist and a reformer. You likely have to choose.

And it’s impossible to be a person who merely mocks others and to be a reformer. Also, mockery is not satire. Satire takes talent.

It seems that some who relentlessly mock Christianity, evangelicalism, leaders, pastors, authors, and bloggers would like to be both. They want to get big traffic and big laughs by pointing out the ludicrousness of Christians, but they also want to make the church a better, more generous, graceful, healthy place. But that’s not possible. You can either be a stand-up comedian, or you can be an agent of change. Few people can make the transition from one to the other.

My senator, Al Franken, is a notable exception. But also notable is that Franken stopped being a comedian when he became a politician. In fact, there have been many news stories about how his Senate colleagues try to get him to tell a joke or tell stories about the wild and crazy days at SNL, and he will not be baited into it. He knows that if he’s going to be taken seriously as a U.S. Senator, he doesn’t get to be a jokester anymore.

Back to Francis. It’s pretty amazing, I think, that someone can spend his life in a massive bureaucracy with as much inertia as the Roman Catholic Church — and achieve its highest level of power — and not be cynical about the machine. But Francis seems to have avoided cynicism.

I guess what I’m saying is that all of us in the Christian blogosphere can learn a lesson from this pope. 

  • Patrick O

    One cannot be cynical and be a fan of Moltmann at the same time.

    It seems Francis has that same infectious passion and encouragement, one that is not blind to the challenges but sees the possibilities as stronger and greater, something to yearn for and seek.

  • Rick Bennett

    You know I’m going to disagree a bit with you and Zach. While you can’t be a poor satirist and a reformer, you can be both.

    I only go to the greatest satirist of all time, J Swift. He was both. History has been full of others that were satirists with an eye towards reform. In fact, the prophets were both.

    As for the idea that one can either be a stand up comedian and an agent of change I disagree once more. Change of people’s minds and attitudes is important. This is what preachers and prophets do. This is what you attempt to do. And this is what comedians like Louis CK and Chris Rock do.

    False equivalency is beneath a man of your stature. There is a difference between the people that merely make fun and the people working towards change through satire or humor.

    • Zach Lind

      I think we’re both partially right. Yes, critics/satirists can help change the broader consciousness of the culture through their work (and that can help) but they don’t actually participate in the real work of reforming the institutions they mock. You can’t throw rocks over your neighbors wall and expect be invited to help restore the damage. Human beings don’t operate like that.

      I’m just as guilty of this stuff as anyone. I’ve made fun of Mark Driscoll and other christian leaders quite a bit. The difference is I’m not expecting to participate in any real reform in the lives of these folks. I’m simply echoing their toxic world views so they can suffer in the marketplace of ideas. That might help the culture at large but it doesn’t directly lead to the reform of places like Mars Hill in Seattle or other like-minded institutions.

      • jtheory

        “I’ve made fun of Mark Driscoll and other christian leaders quite a bit.
        The difference is I’m not expecting to participate in any real reform in
        the lives of these folks”

        neither is the site which i I think tony is referring to the most.

        what i mean by that is the site is more concerned with the reform of the one they posted it to, i.e. the site’s followers, the wounded people working on being healed..

        • Zach Lind

          When submitting blog posts on ideas to improve the “christian culture” (whatever that means), it’s an attempt to be a reformer to some degree. You see it play out on this very blog. The author of the blog is made fun of yet when he opens the floor to feminists, the very person making fun of him tries to explain how things would be so much better if folks, even “emergent dude bros”, understood that patriarchy, sexism still exists. It’s hard for anyone other than the author’s loyal followers to take that seriously.

          It’s fine to help those who’ve been hurt. That’s an important role. But that’s not the same as working to reform the Church.

          • jtheory

            okay, so how would you do it? Would you just censor yourself and only keep to satire and working with wounded on your page and never feel like you are allowed or should say anything anywhere else because of what you do as your ministry?

            or would you try to do both, sometimes screw up, but at least not be censored because you’re not perfect at it.

            I’m glad he allowed her to post here. I think what she said had some value. I HOPE he didn’t do it just so people would stop getting on his back about having some misogynist tendencies and now that he’s proven he’s all openminded and stuff he doesn’t actually have to deal with those tendencies.

            just some thoughts. also this is coming from a white heterosexual male who has dickish, misogynistic, homophobic, racist tendencies that deserve to be mocked and called out too sometimes, and I own those flaws and try to work on them.

            • Zach Lind

              Is SCCL a ministry? I’m really confused now? Either way, it depends on what SCCL motivation is. Based on what I see, I have a hard time believing that reforming the Church is the top priority. I could be wrong but making fun of people who have quiet times? Dad’s going on dates with their daughters? Giving kiosks? It all seems a bit like a stretch….just looking for shit to complain about to keep a blog active and interesting. I get that to some degree, but if someone is truly looking for a way to improve the conditions of the Church, to help minimize the abuses of the Church….I don’t think this is the most effective route. If improving conditions in the Church is not the goal, then cool…..flame away. And I can see how that is therapeutic for folks who’ve been hurt by their Church experience. I get that. And if that’s all this is, cool but that’s not reform.

            • Zach Lind

              Or more simply put, if you want to have an influence, don’t be an asshole to those you want to influence.

  • Rick Bennett

    I’ll also add Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver and Stephen Colbert to my list of satirist/ comedians/ agents of change.

    Look to Jon’s use of humor and mockery to make congress fund needed care of 9/11 first responders and veterans.

    Look to Colbert’s mockery of campaign laws.

    I know what you are trying to get to. Some of the “humor” that has made fun of people like you is plain mean. Some of the humor that has made fun of those in positions of hugepower with an aim towards reform is plainly God’s work.

    • Tony Jones

      OK, then let me just say this, to clarify: satire can be reformative. Mockery is decidedly not.

      Posting things that Christians earnestly blog and tweet for your followers to mock is NOT satire. It is mockery. Satire takes talent (a talent I don’t have; a talent that Rick does have). Posting things for a community to mock is not talent, and it’s not reformative.

      I thank this post for helping me see the difference:

      • S_i_m_o_n

        No more blog posts about Rick Warren tweets or John Piper blogs then?

  • jeskastkeat

    While I think there are some who have a gift of satire and reformation many others cross the line of satire into bitting comments that are really nasty. Sometimes I think I’m being funny in a gentle way and it just comes across quite mean. I wish I could do satire well in the spirit of reformation, I can’t.

    Pastor’s hat here: When I see cynical comment after cynical comment I usually think there are a lot of wounds that this person is trying to work through. We all have wounds of some sort. I think sometimes the things I view as bitting cynicism provide comfort to others who think they are alone in their wounds. I’ve tried to mentally make room for the multiple ways people interact with their spirituality. Then again, I haven’t been on end of constant berating.

    Tripp’s comment seems to sit in a place of truth for me –> “cynicism is antithetical to the practice of Christianity” Then again, I’m not dealing with a crazy amount of wounds that I would need cynicism like maybe some others do.

    This from the Pope –>”Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished” This is what I’m talking about and I love that he said this!

    • Madison McClendon

      I think the problem with Tripp’s point is a sort of sloppy Hegelianism. Christianity is not on a scale of thesis and antithesis working towards synthesis. It is more complicated than that.

    • matybigfro

      Personally I think cynicism is the blessing of those who’ve dealt with too much shit.

      Not being cynical is the blessing of the privilaged.

      It all sounds too much like when patronising believers tell me that they just don’t need to ask as many questions as I do.

  • Madison McClendon

    Martin Luther spent a goodly portion of his time drawing pictures of monks breaking wind in the Pope’s face.

    Tony, did you ever read/encounter the magazine The Wittenburg Door? It went through a period of being called just The Door. It’s out of print now, sadly, but I thought it did a good job of being a satirical/prophetic voice within the evangelical world.

  • Jakeithus

    I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but I see a lot of relevant crossover between this post and the recent “Stop Hate Watching the Church” post that created a lot of discussion. for those who haven’t read it.

    I strongly agree with you about the difficulty in being both an effective satirist and an effective reformer. I think the world needs both, in that they can often support one another, but doing both is a daunting task for any single person to undertake. I think your post helps better explain the point that was (unsuccessfully) made in the other post, being that if you truly want the church to reform, a person needs to move beyond just mockery or satire, although these can have value in and of themselves.

    • Tony Jones

      Yes, somewhat intentional. But if I would have publicly admired that post, I would have been mocked by others.

  • Thursday1

    I’ll just note here that the very best satirists tend to be ultra right wingers: Aristophanes, Juvenal, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Smollett, Waugh, maybe Bill Burr, and their juiciest targets tend to be that trifecta of loathesomeness: women, foreigners and homosexuals, though lawyers, scientists and philosophers are favourites too. Ironically, despite their social conservatism these writers tend to turn off religious conservatives, often because of how they often absolutely traffic in disgust. As Samuel Johnson, right wing Tory and devout Christian, wrote of Swift and Pope: “Too many disgusting images.”

    There are liberal satirists, but liberal satire tends to be best at two things: mocking religion (Mark Twain, Gore Vidal) and mocking one’s own (Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Portlandia).

    On the other hand, comedy, which involves laughing with someone, rather than at them, tends to be best done by liberals: Moliere, Heinrich Heine, Oscar Wilde, Louis CK. To be a great satirist you need to be absolutely convinced of the moral righteousness of your cause and really go in for the kill. That just isn’t liberals’ style. Even someone like Mark Twain who does some decent satire from a broadly liberal perspective, is really much better at evoking pathos with the friendship of Jim and Huck. If he were known just for his satire, he’d probably be considered a minor writer.

  • rick allen

    Earlier this year I re-read Erasmus’ “Laus stultitiae,” which perhaps supports your point. Erasmus (a personal hero of mine) seems truly to have believed that the religious issues of his time could be addressed by a little satire, a little scholarship, and their discussion among mutually-respectful Christians. Obviously it didn’t work out that way.
    There is a talent for tearing down, and a talent for building up, but they are two different talents, and rarely reside in one person. And though the negative is often necessary to effectuate any improvement, exposing stupidity, avarice, duplicity, and other follies among us poor inhabitants of middle earth is like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyone can do it, and a considerable portion of the blogosphere seems dedicated to such easy pickings.

  • Lausten North

    I love it that you left in “can’t be” but then crossed it out and said “it’s difficult”. All the listing of great satirists in these comments just proves the rule. They are all masters at their craft. Look into any of them early in their careers and they will tell you how difficult it is, how they failed many times before succeeding.

  • Patrick O

    I think the difficulty isn’t that there are satirists who may want reform. The key is that it is very difficult to be a satirist who actually leads towards reform. There are a lot of comedians and satirists who make interesting social commentary, we laugh, they get attention and good money, but nothing changes.

    One key issue is that satire points towards the wrong, but doesn’t often point towards what can be fixed. People are transformed not when they are fed up with the old, that just leads to cynicism, but when they are given a new way of living, a new hope, a new reality to enter into.

    • Zach Lind


  • Charles Cosimano

    Looking at this Pope, how can one not be cynical? We are just waiting for the act to come apart.

  • Elisabeth M

    Politicians in the UK don’t have to give up comedy when they become politicians. It’s not that these are mutually exclusive; it’s that our culture has judged mixing them to be inappropriate.

  • Elisabeth M

    Comedian + agent for change… what about Stewart and Colbert? They epitomize that combination.

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