Toward a Christian Conception of Satire

I have more questions than answers in today’s post, I’m afraid, so I’m counting on your comments to help move me through this topic. It came about through a simultaneous reading of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt and the late stages of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy (1961-1990). The attitude these two authors take toward their characters could not be more different. Babbitt is a pretty funny book, but it leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth because of Lewis’s clear disdain for his characters. The novel’s moral center, it seems, exists outside the novel itself, in Sinclair Lewis’s head–which may in the final analysis be the same thing as saying that Babbitt has no character because of its status as a satire.

That same result, this lack of a moral center, comes from different means in Updike’s work. He said in 1968 that he was not “conscious of any piece of fiction of mine which has even the slightest taint of satirical attempt. You can’t be satirical at the expense of fictional characters, because they’re your creatures. You must only love them.” This certainly explains my distaste for Babbitt, which is a satire through and through, but the problem is that Updike’s own refusal to “be satirical at the expense of fictional characters”–really, perhaps, a refusal to judge them in any way–accounts for what many critics deem Updike’s moral or ethical quietism, a charge with which I largely sympathize. One combs through the Rabbit Angstrom books starving for a moral judgment of any sort, some kind of guidepost. Obviously, Updike’s refusal to erect one creates an artistically useful dialectical tension–but the effectiveness of this technique is worn to a nub after reading Updike in any substantial quantity. One wants more; one wants cosmos made from the ethical chaos of his fiction. One wants satire–or at least judgment.

So on the one hand, you have Lewis, who seems to detest his characters and put himself far above them; on the other, you have Updike, who arguably loves them too much or at least too uncritically. One side’s humor becomes rigid, even vicious; the other side’s is too forgiving to be satire. This dichotomy got me thinking about the function and methods of satire itself. Is there a spot in the middle? Can we possibly formulate a Christian theory of satire? Or–to operate from an even broader base–is there room in the Christian worldview for humor at the expense of others?

I should note that I haven’t read Jonathan Swift since high school (and then only “A Modest Proposal” and small portions of Gulliver’s Travels). I know that Swift may be, for many of you, the Christian satirist extraordinaire, but I need you to tell me how such a thing as “Christian satire” works. How can you write something that cuts like a knife while still obeying the Christian commitment to forgiveness, gentleness, and humility?

There’s a reason, I think, that the Christian music industry never really had its own version of Randy Newman. (Before he wrote mostly film scores and children’s music, Newman was once the best satirist pop music had ever known. His song “Rednecks” [NSFW] is a perfect piece of satire because it ends up cutting everyone who listens to it–the Southern bigots from whose mouth he claims to speak, and the Northern liberals who would dare to look down on them.) There was Steve Taylor for most of the 1980s, and he did indeed attempt satire, but I’m not sure there was much that was particularly Christian about it–the angrier and uglier he gets, particularly on his first few records, the harder they are to listen to today. (Exhibit A: “Whatever Happened to Sin?”) In the 1990s, he turned his finger in on himself and got much more interesting. (Exhibit B: “Jesus Is for Losers.”)

If we’re talking about literature–and particularly literature in my field–I can think of two Christian satirists, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. But Percy is attractive as a satirist to the same degree that his satire seems internal as much as external–once he devolves into mere demagoguery, he’s hard to get behind, even if he’s fun to read. I haven’t figured out what to do with O’Connor; there’s been a push in the last several years to read her as an essentially hateful author, someone who doesn’t care very much about her characters. I agree with Updike to the extent that the Christian author must love his or her characters, just as he or she has been commanded to love all of mankind. My question is: Is there room in that love for biting satire?

As I said before, I don’t have an answer yet, and anything you readers come up with will be helpful.

6 thoughts on “Toward a Christian Conception of Satire

  1. I wish I had more to offer, Michial, but here are the thoughts I’ve thought thus far.

    First, I’ve not read Gulliver’s Travels since 1994, and I’m fairly certain that I didn’t read all of it then, but as far as “A Modest Proposal” goes, the real force of the satire comes when the idiot narrator starts listing things that are just out of the question as solutions to “The Irish Problem”:

    Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

    The joke, of course, is that even an idiot like AMP’s narrator could come up with ideas that would actually improve the lot of the Irish if anyone had the discipline to implement them. (Yes, I know that the excerpt also exhibits about a dozen sorts of 18th-century bigotry. The form is still there.)

    Whether 21st-century Christian satire can do the same I won’t say dogmatically, but you know that I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the holiday satires on Middlebrow as you were.

    With regards to Steve Taylor, he was one of my favorites when I was a teenager and freshman at Milligan. What’s interesting about those eighties tunes is that, in the liner notes to the box set that I owned back then (and which I can’t find now), Taylor utterly flogs himself for being the person who wrote those songs. He’s definitely one of those people who earns my respect for having the clear vision to recognize his own garbage as garbage. (Frank Peretti has made similar comments about his own early novels.)

  2. Good stuff, Nate. In my own writing, I tend to serve story more than characters. The characters are a means of telling the story. I love my characters, but it is a “tough love.” I have to constantly remind them “you are a work of fiction. You will not allow you walk all over me!” (It makes for strange looks at the coffee shop, but that’s another story.)

    On Christian satire, though, I think the problem is more with the nature of satire itself. In small doses it is bearable (in a poem, essay or short story perhaps). But in large doses, it is simply too blunt an instrument. The nature of satire requires little depth in characters, which is grating over 100K words or so.

    There is, however, much room for sarcasm and for irony in Christian writings. These forms allow for flawed characters to be both skewered and redeemed. They allow characters to be more than one thing at a time (which satire discourages, at risk of readers missing the point). With irony, we are allowed to feel sorry and feel empathy for characters learning hard lessons brought on my their own bad choices, because we have made similar choices ourselves. Just my two cents.

    Great blob, btw.

  3. That’s okay, John. Everyone thinks that Nathan writes everything on this site. I wish he did.

    I agree with you that, for the Christian, satire must be a tool rather than a genre. Another crucial element, I think, is the degree to which it is directed inward. O’Connor’s best stories, the ones where the satire burns most cleanly, are the ones where the person being satirized clearly has a lot of O’Connor in them: stories like “Good Country People” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

    Again, I’m not sure the degree to which Swift does this, if at all. 😉

    And Nathan, yes, those liner notes are one of the many reasons to appreciate Steve Taylor.

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