Evangelical social media is an exhausting place to be sometimes.
In the hours and days after (yet another) Super Bowl halftime show that allegedly pushed the boundaries of public decency, a lot of Christians on my feeds seemed afflicted with a dour disposition, resigned to sighing at such a voyeuristic culture. Soon I started seeing blog posts and tweet threads that oscillated between a eulogy for civilization and a jeremiad against it. I couldn’t help but think this was a blown opportunity.
There’s a streak in much evangelical culture that locks us into these kinds of reactions whenever we’re slapped in the face with the ways of the world. There is indeed a proper place for lamenting the sin we see. But there’s also a place for a different kind of response: sanctified laughter.
Critique Through Laughter
Not long ago the British columnist Peter Hitchens (brother of the late Christopher) wrote what is still one of my favorite literary essays to appear in the pages of First Things. His target was D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published in 1928 in France but had its official publication in England delayed until 1960, after a highly publicized obscenity trial. Hitchens’s essay gives some helpful background for those who are not familiar with Lawrence’s infamous work; for those who are somewhat familiar, he adds some fascinating—and depressing—detail. Hitchens is a masterful essayist, and literary history geeks will get more than their money’s worth.
But that’s not quite why the review ranks so highly with me. The review is hilarious . . . laugh-out-loud, slap-your-knee funny. Hitchens writes that the expert literary class in England wanted to strike a blow against the puritanical objectors to Chatterley’s explicit sexuality, and in the process rallied around a ridiculous, juvenile, horribly written book. He quotes several passages at length, not only to show that Lawrence’s fantasies are indeed lowbrow, but that they are comically absurd and embarrassingly dumb. Hitchens observes of the book that “how terrible it was could not be admitted, for to do so would have destroyed the argument that its greatness justified its explicit crudity.”
Hitchens’s essay makes two important points. First, the artistic gatekeepers of secular culture are not and never have been above producing dreck merely to poke traditional moral sensibilities in the eye. Second, sometimes the best response we can give to this sinful pretentiousness is simply to laugh.
Masking Sin’s Absurdity
I get why the suggestion that sometimes we ought to laugh at sin sounds errant, perhaps even mildly heretical. Shouldn’t we be killing sin? Isn’t laughing at sin what millions of Americans do during primetime TV sitcom hours? There is, however, a tradition in Christian thought that goes like this: all sin is ultimately absurd, and there are occasions when the absurdity of sin is disguised as seriousness, and on these occasions one of the best things steadfast believers can do is rip off the disguise.
Sometimes the best response we can give to sinful pretentiousness is simply to laugh.
Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they uselessly called out to their false god. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.” The only biblical reference to God’s laughter occurs in Psalm 2, in which rebellion against the Lord and his anointed is met with a ridiculing mirth. Solemnity is occasionally an insufficient response to what is sinful and destructive. Sometimes the best response is to point out sin’s ridiculousness.
Hitchens argues that the literary defenses of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were not actually rooted in any artistic merit, but instead a desire for cultural moral revolution. Of course, some might disagree with Hitchens over the (de)merits of the book (though, as the best critics do, Hitchens uses extensive quotations to allow Lawrence’s silly and coarse work to review itself). Hitchens’s premise, though, is beyond dispute: the erotic often drives the aesthetic, rather than the other way around. We justify as tasteful what pleasures our own tastes, and the goalposts of artistic merit can move just as freely as our own impulses. As tastes become more depraved, art can become a cover for them. Perhaps the only effective antidote in such cases is mockery; taking the artistic pretense seriously would reinforce the delusion.
Levity and mockery may seem like odd or inappropriate responses to sin. To be sure, these attitudes are radioactive and must be handled with care. Sanctified mockery is not the same as fleshly mockery, or what Screwtape enthusiastically described as flippancy. Sanctified mockery is calculated and intentional, not a default posture, and it is directed at the right targets for the right reasons.
The other extreme of perpetual, dour solemnity, however, can be just as problematic. For years I’ve wondered if the way we talk about sexual purity and sin communicates the opposite of what we intend. A lot of evangelical teens walk away from sermons and youth events convinced that sex is a singular, awesome, life-changing, consciousness-altering experience—precisely the same message they absorb from the ambient culture on a daily basis. The difference is that in advertising and pop culture they are encouraged to pursue this incomparable experience, and at church they are warned not to.
As tastes become more depraved, art can become a cover for them. In such cases the only effective antidote is mockery; taking the artistic pretense seriously would reinforce the delusion.
Herein lies a failure in evangelical discipleship to point out that the culture’s elevation of sex to a hallowed object of worship is not just idolatrous, it’s foolish. Sex is not the utterly transporting, all-satisfying ecstasy the world says it is. It’s pleasurable, but also fleeting. The orgasm ends quickly, and after that, you’re left with either the work and burdens of loving this other person, or with the shame and psychological trauma of having your brain rewired by selfish, lonely sin (whether pornography or a casual hook-up). Sex is unworthy of worship not only because God is worthy, but because even on its own terms, sex is a disappointing idol. Its worshipers embarrass themselves and alienate others (and tend to write bad novels).
Instead of devoting hundreds of handwringing words to the next scandalous halftime show, perhaps evangelicals could simply point out the absurdity of the cultural schizophrenia being exposed: primetime exhibitionism from the same entertainment industry still reeling from the #MeToo fallout of systemic sexual abuse and the objectification of women. Such cultural schizophrenia need only be pointed out, not agonized over.
Sanctified mockery by itself is not sufficient in our war against sin or engagement with a lost world. But by stripping unbelief of its carefully constructed facade, it can help us see through its deception. Misplaced solemnity grants the spirit of the age a legitimacy it does not have. It was true during the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and it’s still true now. Christians are on the right side of history. We ought to humbly act—and laugh—accordingly.