On Satire, Moods, and What We’re Known For

On Satire, Moods, and What We’re Known For

Resist the temptation to partisanship. Just because others want to police the teachers who help you love Christ and your family and your neighbors better doesn’t mean that you need to respond in kind. Over the years, I’ve benefited greatly from a variety of Christian leaders, including both Doug Wilson and Kevin DeYoung (and John Piper and Mark Dever and Al Mohler and Tim Keller and so on). One of the most refreshing aspects of the Moscow Mood to me is the freedom to benefit from these men for what they’ve done well, and to publicly commend them without any hesitation, and to do so while disagreeing with them when appropriate and necessary. Others may regard these types of difference and disagreement as a barrier to fellowship and Christian camaraderie. But you need not. So don’t be ashamed to acknowledge the teachers that have helped you to follow Christ more closely.

One of the reasons I’ve long appreciated Kevin DeYoung is that he and I both value clarity. That’s why I was eager to read his recent critique of Doug Wilson and the “Moscow Mood.” Having done so, I understand why many folks have found it helpful. He’s raising a lot of the right issues. At the same time, I have some questions about his analysis and some important disagreements with his prescription.

DeYoung’s Critique

Let me begin with a brief summary of DeYoung’s main lines of criticism. He contends that Moscow’s appeal is largely visceral, not intellectual. People are drawn to a cultural, aesthetic, and political posture, a culture-building and culture-warring mood or vibe that says, “We are not giving up, and we are not giving in. We can do better than negotiate the terms of our surrender. The infidels have taken over our Christian laws, our Christian heritage, and our Christian lands, and we are coming to take them back.”

DeYoung acknowledges that there are aspects of this mood or vibe that are commendable, but he nevertheless foresees “serious problems” with “the long term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating the Moscow mood,” to wit, that it is too often “incompatible with Christian virtue, inconsiderate of other Christians, and ultimately inconsistent with the stated aims of Wilson’s Christendom project.”

To demonstrate these problems, DeYoung highlights two promo videos for No Quarter November (NQN), Canon Press’s annual event in which they give away lots of free books and launch new resources on the Canon+ app, all while Doug Wilson writes weekly blog posts in which he speaks pointedly, with no qualifications, nuance, or hedging. DeYoung sees the promo videos as representative of the concerning aspects of the Moscow Mood. In particular, per DeYoung, the videos display a sarcastic and edgy tone; they take cheap shots at other Christians (such as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and G3 Ministries); they explicitly encourage culture-warring and culture-building; and they are focused on Wilson himself (as rebel, gunslinger, taboo-breaker, and hero for crazy times).

According to DeYoung, NQN is selling “a carefully cultivated personality and image,” a vibe that is built on a “fundamentally oppositional framework,” “an adversarial stance toward the world” and toward cowardly Christians. “Differentiation is key,” DeYoung says, “and this can only be sustained by a mood of antagonism and sharp antithesis,” one that builds a following through negative partisanship and refuses to link arms with other networks but instead forges an unbreakable loyalty to Wilson as the Outsider-Disruptor.

Satire as Rebuke

Like I said, I have some questions. For example, what is the proper role of satire and the serrated edge? It seems to me that a number of rhetorical devices are conflated throughout DeYoung’s article–writing with Chestertonian joy and Wodehousian verve, playfully mocking other Christians through memes, derisively mocking the folly and compromise of Christian leaders, shockingly indicting sin and idolatry through carefully deployed obscenities and vulgarities. Distinguishing these different types of rhetoric and their proper use would be immensely helpful and clarifying, but is not something that DeYoung takes the time to do. He opts instead to lump all these styles and strategies together.

With that in mind, let me take a stab at clarifying a few common confusions about satire. At one level, satire is an appeal to reality over against the absurdities of sin and rebellion. It often appeals to those who live amidst corruption and hypocrisy, while provoking those who practice them. But satire is also a form of rebuke and admonition, deployed to correct and reprove someone when they’re heading down a sinful or foolish path. Like other forms of rebuke, it operates on a dimmer switch. Light satire might be used to reprove the folly of a fellow Christian who needs some prodding to knock it off. Heavier satire might be used to skewer serious compromise on the part of professing Christians, with the rebuke acting as a sifting agent–with some responding to the satirical rebuke with humility, and others hardening their hearts. And the heaviest satire might be used to expose and condemn great wickedness and rebellion.

With that rubric, let’s consider some of DeYoung’s objections to Moscow’s use of satire. At one point, he argues that satire and mockery are inappropriate when dealing with serious wickedness in the culture. To mock the evil of the world with “Wokey, McWokeface” is “silly, unnecessary, and ultimately undermines the seriousness of the issue they are trying to address.” But wouldn’t this same criticism apply to Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27), asking if their God is asleep or relieving himself? Wasn’t idolatry “serious wickedness”? Or ask yourself this question: why is it presently culturally acceptable to mock biblical marriage and traditional child rearing, but “hateful” to mock the obvious and immoral absurdities that mark the sexual revolution? Could it be that one of the ways that the world advances its rebellion, its blasphemy and heresy, is by teaching us what to laugh at and by demanding that we take its folly seriously (as this short video on the Moral Imperative of Mockery argues)? Could it be that the Bible deploys satire as a high-stakes weapon, one that is particularly suited for the trenches of a culture war?

Or what about DeYoung’s objection that the serrated edge should be deployed only against the non-Christian world, and not against fellow Christian leaders. Well, again, if satire is a form of rebuke, then wouldn’t it be appropriate to use it to correct professing Christians? The Bible clearly doesn’t limit satire to the non-believing world. The shepherds of Israel, the priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees–all of these are subject to a variety of caricature, indictment, mockery, and scorn at the hands of the prophets and the Lord himself. And this doesn’t imply that every member of these groups was unregenerate. Some members of the Sanhedrin followed Christ. Did Christ’s satirical rebuke of them as a whole have anything to do with that?

Viewing satire as a form of rebuke helps to answer the particular examples that DeYoung highlights from the video–the jab at the ERLC and the shot at G3. In the first case, the Bible uses satire to rebuke the compromise and misplaced priorities of the leaders of God’s people (think of Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees for straining gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24)). The ERLC, which DeYoung commends as an allegedly conservative Christian bulwark, has arguably demonstrated precisely those kinds of misplaced priorities and compromise, whether it’s lobbying for liberal immigration reform and gun control or opposing anti-abortion legislation in Louisiana. It has decidedly not been on the same side as conservative Christians in key cultural battles. I suspect that DeYoung’s assessment of the NQN shot at the ERLC is owing both to a mistaken view of the appropriate targets of biblical satire as well as different assessments of the fidelity of that particular institution.

As for G3, the men associated with that ministry have publicly misrepresented and attacked Moscow (and Christian Nationalists more broadly) in various ways over the last six months while steadfastly refusing to have any clarifying conversations or discussions (despite repeated invitations to do so in a variety of formats). It’s ironic for DeYoung to chide Moscow for a playful jab when it’s Moscow who have repeatedly sought to find common ground with G3 (to no avail). A playful swipe is perhaps a good way to prod them to conduct themselves with greater charity and clarity when it comes to representing the views of fellow Christians.

In a slightly different category is the use of meme-making that playfully pokes fun at fellow believers. Think of the kind of banter that groups of men regularly engage in as a part of masculine friendship. In such circumstances, you earn the respect and trust of other men by being willing to take your lumps and to give as good as you get. Such playfulness is a sign of health, humility, and camaraderie. Even insults can be a sign of affection (and no, this isn’t an excuse for “locker room talk”).

Which brings me to the heaviest kind of satire–the use of vulgarities and obscenities to expose gross rebellion. Wilson has recently responded to another reasonable criticism of his (very rare) use of such rhetoric. Some critics give the impression that Wilson casually cusses like a sailor for the fun of it. While he admittedly did do a stint in the Navy, this characterization is simply untrue. His use of obscenities and vulgarities ought to be regarded as an intentional act of translation, one that he deploys sparingly and in particular contexts. When sin, folly, and idolatry are unrecognized for the evil that they are, the use of vulgar and obscene language translates the evil into a form that is both accurate and shocking, as when Ezekiel likens the idolatry of Israel to a woman who lusts after the genitals of donkeys. To use one of the more infamous examples, when the apostate Lutheran lady pastrix gave Gloria Steinem that award, she was saying something with the statue. Wilson simply translated it into English.

In all my years of discussing the use of satire, I’ve yet to hear one of Wilson’s critics provide an example of a faithful imitation and application of this prophetic mode of speech. If Wilson is doing it so wrong, where are the examples of Christian writers and preachers doing it right? Has DeYoung (or others who share his criticism of Moscow) ever used satire, mockery, and the serrated edge to rebuke the folly and rebellion around us? Both the Old Testament and New Testament are filled with the serrated edge in various forms, from short rebukes (“you foolish Galatians”) to imprecations to caricatures to scathing indictments to derisive mockery, and all of it undergirded with a deep joy and gratitude for God’s kindness. And yet outside of Moscow and the Babylon Bee, I can’t think of anyone attempting to deploy that kind of biblical speech in confronting worldliness and rebellion.

What’s Front and Center?

But I have more questions. DeYoung contends that Moscow does not put the right things “front and center.” He claims that Wilson’s online persona is not about introducing people to Reformed creeds and confessions, or explaining the books of the Bible, or about global missions to the uttermost parts of the earth, or about liturgy, preaching, prayer, and the ordinary means of grace. Now perhaps DeYoung might respond, “Yes, those resources are available, but they are not emphasized in Doug’s online persona.” But how are we assessing that? How many times does Canon have to tweet something before it is sufficiently front and center? How many times does Doug need to feature his commentaries in the header of his blog? How many bread and butter expository sermons does Doug need to preach for that to be a defining mark of his ministry? How many global missions conferences does Christ Church need to host in order to satisfy critics like DeYoung?

DeYoung does gesture toward a means of evaluation later in that same paragraph: “If Wilson and Canon Press believe that their bread and butter is about all those things (creeds, confessions, Bible, missions), then they should devote an entire month (or even a whole year) to just those things without any snark, without any sarcasm, and without any trolling of other Christians.” There’s the rub.

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