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 comments for “Toward a Christian Conception of Satire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *