Ironic Christians and Wry Prophets

Today I want to ask you a question. Is it theologically acceptable to adopt ironism as your Christian stance?

Here is why I ask. My general approach to life is ironic. Thus, my Christianity is infused with ironism. And most of the time I feel guilty for this. Why? Well, my ironism, when juxtaposed with more ernest Christians, doesn't seem very constructive.

More specifically, Christianity seems to demand a level of earnestness I have difficulty mustering. Whether it is doctrine, missionary work, nationalism, or social justice, big important issues are on the table and the Christian witness seems to demand a degree of earnestness as we confront these issues.

But the trouble is that I generally find the earnestness in these conversations to be:

1. Misplaced

2. Self-serving

3. Pollyannaish

Which puts me in an ironic mood while everyone else is so serious.

It is not that I'm never in a serious/earnest frame of mind. It's just that my general tone/approach is ironic. And even if I do muster up a good dose of earnestness I often quickly find that I can't take myself seriously. So I lapse into irony again. Irony is my default.

Just to clarify, although there are lots of different uses/definitions of irony irony generally involves a gap between either the real versus ideal or the expected versus the actual or what is believed versus what is the truth. For me, irony comes from my psychological analysis of human foibles. I generally see humans as either deluded or pretentious. By pretentious I don't mean narcissistic. What I mean is how some Christians appear to believe that they speak for God. This strikes me as extraordinarily pretentious and puts me in an ironic mood. Oddly, I don't get outraged. I just wryly smile (inwardly or outwardly).

And, as you might expect, this analysis goes for my own self-evaluations (which is why I have trouble getting outraged: I find my own outrage ironic). Whenever I get earnest I look back on my long history of failed crusades, lapsed motivation, and self-serving Messiah complexes. Again, I see the gap between my ideals and my life and I find the whole display very, very ironic.

Generally, I think most would view this ironism as a bad thing. A defeatist move. But I wonder. I wonder. I think that ironic Christians might serve some function in the Kingdom.

I think ironic Christians might function as wry prophets. For example, the wry prophets, given their sensitivity to irony, do the following:

1. Comment on human, particularly religious, folly.

2. Falliblize religious pretensions.

3. Point out our epistemic limitations (i.e., point out the need for epistemic humility).

That is, whenever religious knowledge, folly, or pretentiousness get out of hand the situation grows increasingly ironic. And the wry prophets point out the growing gap, the incongruity, harming the Christian witness.

Dispositionally ironic Christians are perfectly suited to this task. They are not easily swayed by earnestness, emotion, or argument. They are skeptical about humanity and its motives. They are very sensitive to the scent of human pride. Thus, when then gap between pretension and reality grows to ironic proportions, these Christians can speak the truth to the faith community.

Let me hasten to say that a faith community cannot be made up solely of ironic Christians. They are more like seasoning than the main course. But you can't make up any healthy community with people possessing only one kind of spiritual gift, so this situation isn't unusual.

So, I think there is a place in the Kingdom for ironic Christians. They are the wry prophets among us.

(BTW, I'm assuming I'm not alone in this. Are there any ironic Christians out there?)

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16 thoughts on “Ironic Christians and Wry Prophets”

  1. I am an ironic Christian in a sense. I notice all the shallow, emotional and over blown arguments (making it hard to enjoy most sermons) but I cannot claim to simply get a wry smile as a reaction. My disposition has become a bit nasty.

    When I ran into situations like these I used to point them out. Unfortunately the reactions I got from my fellow Christians were not nice. At times my commitment to purity and holiness were questioned because I was unwilling to jump on the bandwagon. After this happened a few times my approached changed, probably for the worse.

    Now rather than point out when I think “errors” are being made I get sarcastic. I play the pure hearted but naïve Christian who does not know were to stop. I take the “errors” to there logical and (usually) horrible conclusions. For good measure I usually sprinkle in a few out of context proof-texts to make the farce complete.

    When I do this I get some funny looks but no one can accuse me of not being on the bandwagon. The discussion usually dissipates like when a practical joke is taken to far and is no longer funny. I take a disturbing amount of pleasure in this process but find myself unable to sit in silence and do nothing.

    I am a highly dysfunctional prophet at best.

    Is it just me or is formal, organized Christianity (as it exists today) horribly frustrating?

    JHR

  2. Have you heard of the "classification" of saints known as "holy fools"? This seems similar to what you're describing.

    Take this example from St. Simeon (from here):

    During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks. In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women's section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results.

  3. You're definitely not alone in this. Thanks for helping me see the positive part in this character. I sometimes wonder if my ironic view can create any spiritual substance or if it's just decreasing those of others.

    But fortunately there are some good role models for the ironical. Such as Sören Kierkegaard, who described himself very much as ironic and irony itself as the prime Socratean means to distinguish between real knowledge and pure vanity.

  4. JHR,
    It is frustrating. I used to get angry and frustrated (and, I must admit, still do). But over time I've found that most Christians genuinely have good hearts and intentions. They are, I hope this isn't too harsh, unwitting participants. Which activates my sense of irony rather than my rage.

    Arni,
    Fantastic. Let's start a support group:-)

    Anonymous,
    Now that is interesting. I plan to follow St. Simeon's lead in the following order:

    1. Throwing nuts at clergy.
    2. Develop a theatrical limp.
    3. Tripping people.

    All in the name of God!

    Seriously, and on a different note, I wonder where the theatrical/symbolic side of prophecy has gone? It seems that we are impoverished without the St. Simeons. Would we even tolerate them? Or just get them a prescription for Prozac ASAP?

    Tino,
    I hadn't made the Kierkegaard connection with Socratic irony. And it very much fits what I'm after. Thanks.

  5. in the past i have thought of myself as a "cynical christian". and i have felt varying degrees of guilt for being this way.

    but i find labeling myself an "ironic christian" to be a much more pallatable euphemism. thanks for the help dr. beck

    nolan

  6. Richard and others,

    Irony is generally the outlook of a "modernist" (in the literary sense but not the critical or theological sense). That, it seems to me, is what you are experiencing in your lives--a sense of incongruity which, for a variety of complex reasons, puts you consciously into two worlds at the same time. You are at home in one intellectually and intuitively, but belong to another in actual experience. It's like trying to discover your feminine side only to discover that you are engaged in open BFCS without shame. BFCS (shorthand for belching, farting, and crotch scratching) is generally very male and was done by the Incarnate Logos but not talked about or even regarded as one of the "necessary inferences" in Church, maybe not even in a men's retreat. Irony for women might be: never painting one's toenails while driving a car but understanding perfectly why it should be permitted if a sister wants to do it.

    Blessings,

    George Cooper

  7. Richard -

    I am in the same boat, I think.

    I can't tell you how many church committee meetings, seminars, presentations, and conventions and ached at having to withhold my sarcasm or a smile of disbelief at the totally disproportionate degree of gravitas given to the proceedings.

    The persistent arrogance and pretension of so many of us in speaking for God is a bit hard to take!

    By the way, have you read, The Ironic Christian? Not a great book, but I did find some resonance with it.

  8. I'm kind of the opposite. I grew up in a secular culture drenched in irony, but it didn't really fit my character. One thing I like about church, actually, is that it provides a space for my natural tendency to be terribly serious about everything.

    I also thought of the "holy fool" tradition when I read your post, but I think one important difference between that and modern habits of irony is in the amount of risk people take on. Holy fools can endanger themselves quite a bit because of their refusal to take power structures seriously. In the secular world, in my experience, irony is often a form of self-protection -- adopt an attitude of detached condescension towards everything, and let the people who actually care about stuff take the risks for what they believe. I'm not saying that's you, I'm just saying that's a trap I've seen ironists fall into.

  9. George,
    As always, your comments are both insightful and hilarious:-)

    Jeff,
    I had not heard of the book. Thanks for the recommendation. I guess there goes my book deal on this topic:-)

    Camassia,
    Thanks for that perspective. I agree about irony and self-defense. I worry about that in myself. I wonder sometimes, am I protecting myself from the radical call of Jesus?

    Nolan and Greg,
    I guess we could ask a different question: Can one be a cynical Christian? That is, can cynicism be an acceptable, mature, and health Christian stance? If so, how so?

    Shane,
    Was Kierkegaard using Socratic irony (playing the fool)? I can't recall.

    Matthew,
    Yes:-)

  10. I believe Paul, Moses, Deborah would be at last three Bible charactrers that would show that God deals in the ironic almost daily. I think sometimes that God is thinking regular about where his next irony will come from.

    Peace.

  11. @richard:
    kierkegaards called his dissertation: "on the concept of irony. with continual reference to socrates". and he uses that concept alot to criticize the systematic philosophers of his time like hegel or fichte.

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