[Touchstone, December 2004]
Recently a friend drew my attention to an exchange of letters between a mid-twentieth-century novelist and a lady. The lady thought the novelist was naughty and proceeded to lecture him about the unseemly content of his books. The novelist - and we can imagine bright, eager eyes over a mischievous grin - replied by thanking the woman profusely for rescuing him from error, and concluded by begging her to send a photo so he could see what true Christian charity looks like. A very satisfying put-down, in my friend’s opinion.
It got me thinking, though. For one thing, this wasn’t a fair fight. Your average moralizing citizen is no match for a guy who writes comic novels for a living. If the playing field was to be level he should have voluntarily adopted some kind of handicap, for example, removing the letter E from his typewriter. (Someone made a similar observation when Antioch College instituted its student rule that all sexual encounters must be conducted with permission explicitly requested and conferred at every stage. For the first time in romance history, the verbal nerds had an advantage over the lummoxy jocks.)
But I was also concerned by the author’s clear enjoyment of putting the lady down so adeptly, the same enjoyment my friend and many others felt in reading the story. I don’t think we should get so much pleasure out of causing each other pain. When Jesus tells us not to even say "You fool!" to another, when he links malicious anger to the spirit of Murder, we glimpse the darker side of this pleasure. It is deliciously gratifying to see idiots roundly put down, but that sense of gratification is not really one of our better points.
And maybe idiots deserve more mercy than that, since that company includes all of us sooner or later. I think of this whenever I hear a Christian smugly say that he or she does not "suffer fools gladly." Well, I think, Jesus suffers you.
I ventured these hesitations about the author-biddy exchange, probably sounding like a moralistic biddy myself, and my friends challenged me right back. What about "You brood of vipers"? What about "whitewashed sepulchers"? Don’t Jesus and the Baptist give us clear examples of speaking out in chastening anger, without minced words?
I had to think about this. What I concluded was that it was the biddy, not the author, who was John the Baptist. She saw what she thought was gross immorality propounded in the author’s works, and took it on herself to challenge him directly. He, in contrast, had no desire to improve her taste in literature, but only to enjoy insulting her.
Maybe she was a literary philistine, maybe she was a priss, but the outline of her action is surely permissible. The biblical examples show that we may rebuke another person, in gentle or stinging words as the person’s intransigence requires, as long as our goal is their soul’s health. In fact, the example we have in Matthew 18 is of giving an initial rebuke in private, so that the person has a chance to consider it without the added thrill of public humiliation. The lady wrote the author privately and stated her concerns; she is not the one who released the entire exchange to the public.
We’re unlikely to write such a letter today, even to an author we think is egregious in his literary perversity. We see the obvious futility of rebuking someone who has overstepped moral boundaries, and know that any attempt would only fill our target with glee and allow him to posture as a misunderstood, even oppressed, rebel. But rebuking, in itself, never goes out of style. It’s just that, instead of "panderer!" people are more likely to yell "homophobe!" or "racist!" There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed rebuke. The guidelines it seems are that it be directed toward the individual’s soul-health, and that it be initially attempted directly and in private.
The lady, right or wrong, intended her message to lead the author to insights that would improve his life. The author, however, does not appear to have any such positive intentions for the lady. He’s just having fun parading his literary gifts at her expense. And my friends ask, What’s wrong with that? Can’t we have fun? Wouldn’t ruling out this kind of response mean giving up humor writing and satire?
But humor doesn’t have to hurt. You can poke fun at people, even satirize and parody them, without adding the unmistakable element that takes delight in kicking another person down. What a Christian must not do is present raw ridicule - humor primarily designed to scratch our itch to hurt another person. We use wit to defeat, cleverness to demolish, and bask in showers of applause after partnering with Murder. The outraged, and perhaps sputtering and inarticulate, target rightly recognizes that your wish for him is destruction. No wonder, then, is it when he responds in kind.
Sarcasm just breeds more of the same - self-defending sarcasm, bitterness and retaliation. But good humor, even satire, protects the target’s dignity and invites him to laugh along. Well-done humor stimulates reflection and reconsideration. The best-honed humor, deft and well-targeted, can nudge a change in the course of the world.