I am going to use the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on Satire here:
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Wikipedia, “Satire” 02 August 2016)
I enjoy satire. One of my favorite sites on the Web is the Babylon Bee. It is a website that gently mocks (usually) the foibles of Christians who can loosely be described as Evangelical. At its best, it helps Evangelicals laugh at themselves (something they/we are oft forgetful to do). Also at its best, it can inspire reflection and, perhaps, positive change. At its worst, it is a way to attack those we disagree with, and smugly chuckle at how much more wise and holy are we than they (whoever “they” are).
Let’s consider some of the elements in the quote above:
- Exposing vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings. Commonly satire is done publicly, and there are times where some things need to be exposed. Sometimes, Christians can be quick to ignore or cover-up that which needs to be exposed and challenged. However, it can easily drift into malicious language and pointing out the splinter in another’s eye while ignoring the log in one’s own.
- Intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. In some societies such as “Western nations,” at least theoretically, repudiate the idea of shaming. However, shame is simply one method of social control. Every society has both tacit and explicit methods to encourage people to behave in line with social norms. While many are uncomfortable with shame (especially in societies that are more guilt-oriented) it is, often, a gentler and more flexible method of social control than some. For example, in more open societies, criminalizing behavior substitutes for shame. And even in societies where shaming is thought to be rejected, individuals often feel good when those whose behavior we deplore get “put in their place.” But that also is part of the problem with shaming. It is often tied to a bit of schadenfreude– a malicious glee that others get harmed socially. The less we can relate to the beliefs or actions of the target of satire, the more likely our motives in satire are unloving.
- It is meant to be humorous, even though its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism. At its best, it can certainly accomplish this, even if only on small-scale. I believe it is normally a rare thing that humor has a broad effect. An article from the Babylon Bee actually notes this— satirically. That article “Witty Church Sign Sparks Revival” humorously points out the limitations of humor to spark major social or spiritual response. In the article, a bit of humor on a church sign supposedly led to a big number of converts to Christ. Most reading it would recognize it as satire, since it is nearly inconceivable that the sign would have any such effect. And that can actually draw into question why we as Christians put such things on our church signs or bumper stickers in the first place. That is the problem often. Humor is commonly embraced as entertainment only. Like reading 9GAG— you read it, you laugh (perhaps), and you move on. Humor, unfortunately, often also becomes more of a locator of social boundaries– as a determiner of social status as one who is one of us (one who “gets” the joke) or one of them (one who does NOT “get it”). Years ago, I was attending Surface Warfare Officer School in the US Navy. One of our instructors liked to have a “joke time,” welcoming students to share their best jokes. One day, the guy who sat next to me raised his hand and said that he had a joke. When he got before the class, he began to talk about how bad jokes are, and how humor is always harmful. We all ridiculed him. However, it is also true that the vast majority of the jokes told in that class would be today viewed as hurtful to some social or cultural grouping. He may have overstated it, but he had a point. Humor is like the Force in Star Wars. It can be used for both good and evil. Yet, also like the Force, it SEEMS like it is more effective in doing evil than good.
- Utilizes exaggeration. Exaggeration or accentuating certain characteristics while ignoring others has its place. The Bible utilizes such exaggeration to separate between the Wise and the Fool, between Godly and Ungodly, and Children of Light and Children of Darkness. But if not handled thoughtfully, exaggeration can become stereotyping or even dehumanization.
- Often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. One could see this as deceptive, but it is a key element of many effective stories, such as the parable of the ewe lamb, where the story starts out innocent enough, but than switches around to challenge the hearer. But, of course, satire must be identified as satire to be effective. If it isn’t, it can have the opposite effect. It is disturbing and amazing how many people on Facebook will share ridiculous clickbait or satirical articles as if they are serious and inspiring. Some of those who share them are religious leaders WHO REALLY SHOULD KNOW BETTER. Either they share it as humor even though there is the reasonable likelihood that some will mistakenly take it seriously, or they share it believing it themselves to be serious.
Let me give an example of one I feel crossed a line or two: I really enjoyed, I must admit, the Babylon Bee satirical op-ed article jokingly ascribed to Benny Hinn, “I Honestly Can Not Believe I’m Still Getting Away With This.” The article was written as if Hinn was himself surprised and delighted at how he has been able to fool people for over 20 years, benefiting from their gullibility. Now personally, I am not a fan of Benny Hinn. I don’t believe that he does have the supernaturally-given gift of physical healing. As such, he should not misrepresent himself. And if, unlikely as it may seem, he really does have such a gift, he should be ashamed that he has used it for his own wealth and self-promotion. HOWEVER, the article has a rather mocking or belittling tone. I also don’t like the idea of misquoting even if the article is not meant to be taken seriously. We have enough problems with false attribution on the Internet. Additionally, the goal does not seem to be so much to promote constructive social change as to attack.
On the other hand, one where the satire appears to work, in my mind, is Babylon Bee’s “Pastor to Take Three Month Sabbatical to Discern John Piper’s Will for His Life.” The story is, I guess, about a made up person… meaning it points to an exaggerated type of person, rather than targeting a specific individual. Additionally, it handled the character in the article with a light touch, like one was “ribbing” a friend, rather than an outsider. Additionally, it does seem to use humor to point towards social change— suggesting that we should avoid the over-reliance on alleged Christian “super-stars” for divine guidance, but, rather, going to God, the source.
So I like Satire, but I generally prefer parables. Both challenge the culture, but one does so resonantly and offers a direct response and alternative. Satire can do that as well… but it takes a deft hand to do it well. Otherwise, it can be hurtful, misunderstood, or misapplied. For those interested a bit more in different types of stories… consider reading: Story Wheel, and utilize the image below: