Silliness, Irony, and Straight Talking
Humans tend to do silly things on a routine basis and Christians are not exempt from this tendency.
Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald pulling their gate crashing stunt at ‘Strange Fire’ were silly (as amply demonstrated here). I think they were trying to be ironic, but they missed it, and ended up plain silly. It was just too ironic that they were in town for another conference, titled, ‘Act Like Men’.
Christian publishing companies putting ‘PhD’ (or, even more embarrassingly, ‘MA’) after an authors name on paperback book covers is silly. Seeing this always makes me pick up such books gingerly, between thumb and forefinger, like something that smells bad. The irony is there might be good stuff in the book, but the silliness of puffing academic credentials on the cover to try and convince me of this is totally counterproductive.
I find it sadly ironic to meet with my more conservative brethren and note their undeniable commitment to the word and seriousness about preaching, yet when it comes to prayer… Let me put it this way, I hope they don’t make love to their wives like they pray. I’ve also been in meetings with some very silly charismatics where the irony lies in the fact that they seriously want to experience the immediate presence of God, but end up as odd as a box of frogs.
It is ironic that one shouldn’t answer a fool according to his folly, lest one becomes like him; yet the only way to answer a fool is according to his folly, or he’ll think he is wise. The additional irony is that the fool thinks the wise man is silly, whatever he says. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Sometimes it is wise to be silly. As Luther advised Jerome Weller when he was having a bad day,
Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage is some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, or even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles.
Of course, the key is to know when the context permits, even demands, such silliness, and when being silly is just, well, silly.
Irony can be a useful needle to puncture the balloon of silliness. The apostle Paul does this to great effect at times. (“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” 1 Cor 3:8) But too much irony, when everything is ironic, ends up in silliness too. When everything is ‘knowing’ and nothing taken at face value, irony becomes as redundant as the gift of languages at a cessationists prayer meeting.
Sometimes plain speaking is in order. A commenter asked the good question, “How much time is a pastor supposed to spend critiquing the practices of people he’s never met in places he’s never been? And on what platform are those criticisms to be made?” I think a lot of the answer is to do with proximity, and proximity varies according to the media involved. In the case of MacArthur, because ‘Strange Fire’ would have been less than a blip on the radar screen of my congregation, I won’t mention it at all in a public setting in my church – there is no proximity and it simply has no relevance. In the case of this blog, it is worth mentioning, and responding to, because those who read this blog will most likely have read other blogs speaking about ‘Strange Fire’, and because many of our readers are from North America where MacArthur is a much bigger cheese than he is in the UK. The proximity is greater, so the response is louder.
Any responsible pastor will be listening out for the proximate influences upon his congregation. When I was aware that a lot of people were reading ‘The Shack’ I felt it appropriate to make some public comments about it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t bother saying anything about Joel Osteen, even though he is a huge noise in many circles, because I am not aware that lots of my congregation are watching him on God TV. If that changes, what I say will also change.
So a good principle of plain speaking is that the closer to home a problematic theological view is, the more robust our response should be. And if irony can be used to expose a problematic view as silly, so much the better.
As Luther points out, sometimes silliness can be used as a weapon against the devil. But sometimes silliness is simply sad. To speak plainly, ‘Strange Fire’ was silly, which was sad, and I say that without irony.