Offensisensitivity Is it “un-Christian” to Engage in Satire?
“Phantaz Sunlyk” with additions by James Patrick Holding
What place does satire and the like have – what place can it have-within the defense of a religion based on a God who is Love?
Many ancient societies (and we shall see below, certain modern social groups) engage in a process known as challenge-riposte. The scene of such processes is public venues in which two persons or groups have competing honor claims: “…the game of challenge-riposte is a central phenomenon, and one that must be played out in public.”  The purpose is for each party to try to undermine the honor, or social status, of the other in an exchange that “answers in equal measures or ups the ante (and thereby challenges in return).” In the Gospels, Jesus “evidences considerable skill at riposte and thereby reveals himself to be an honorable and authoritative prophet.” Many of these challenges are clear, but some are so hidden to us that they need exposition. …
Matthew 12:5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
… “Have you not read…?” Of course they had. The Pharisees were experts in the Scriptures. They read them every day. They were the Ph. Ds in Bible in their time. They slept in pyjamas with Old Testament passages inscribed on them. To ask them, “Have you not read…?” is to essentially call them stupid, unable to read what was in front of them, not having done proper study. This is proper in the public forum and a response to the honor challenge laid down by the Pharisees, who challenge Jesus on the behavior of his disciples. Jesus ups the ante by questioning their very knowledge of the Scriptures, a trait they most cherished.
The art of insult was highly valued in antiquity. Our modern “victim culture” encourages persons to find the art offensive, but before getting too judgmental, consider that in these honor challenges, the person who ended the game by throwing a punch was considered the big loser. Losing one’s temper and throwing a punch was as much an admission that one could not keep up the battle of wits and had to resort to violence. When Jesus runs from those who pick up stones to stone him, he is not the coward, but the winner taking his spoils.
But on the other hand, who would deny the value of a ‘sanctified wit’, such as we find in the likes of G. K. Chesterton or J. P. Holding? There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit, and likewise, there are many forms of apologia, but the same Source and goal. In the final analysis, it seems to me that sarcasm and satire are certainly more likely to help people remain believers, rather than turning them into such. The satirical apologist is usually satirical in proportion to his opponent’s unfounded dogmatic certitude conjoined to an unrelenting ‘loudness’. The aim of satire is not so much to convert the opponent, but rather, to silence him, and that was indeed the case before the Pharisees, and before the opponents of the Fathers. Its occurrence is consequent upon a love of the Faith, and a desire to rebuke those who arrogantly voice an opinion contrawise. It would seem that its use is determined by both the personality of the apologist himself (for there are many who are, frankly, incapable of expressing themselves in such a manner), and the mode of expression of the opponent (ignorant, arrogant, gentle and persistent, cautious, honest and inquisitive?). As Paul said, ‘will I greet you with the whip, or with an embrace?’
Addenudum: Rhetoric in the NT World. Our source for this section is Sumney’s ‘Servants of Satan’,’False Brothers’, and Other Opponents of Paul. In a previous work against Earl Dohery we briefly noted the following with respect to 1 Thess. 2:14-16:
Within Jewish polemical circles, there were certain conventional insults delivered to rivals: Charges of deceit, blindness, blasphemy, dwelling in darkness. These charges did not necessarily serve to finally and definitively exclude the subject from the group in question. Thus, for example, even within the Qumran community, accepted members could be reckoned as being mouthpieces for Belial; likewise Jesus could one moment give Peter a good report and the next moment refer to him as Satan! Paul shows distinct signs of using polemical hyperbole of a recognized sort (notably irony) in this letter. In 2 Cor. 11:20 he refers to his opponents as “making slaves” of the Corinthians, and uses imagery associated with slavery, like being slapped in the face. Now obviously the opponents did not literally come and make slaves of the Corinthians; this is a case of polemical hyperbole. Likewise, in Paul’s lists of woes upon himself (2 Cor. 11:23-8), we see effective rhetorical amplification: Many of the sufferings he lists are duplicated within the list. Thus, we may argue, Paul’s opponents may indeed be true Christians who, because they have disagreed with him on what he considers to be a fundamental point, he describes with the utmost polemical hyperbole as false apostles. And if Jesus can call Peter Satan, why can Paul not refer to members of the Jerusalem apostolate (if he indeed goes that far!) as false apostles? Sumney’s work takes this matter a step further and performs a rhetorical examination of ALL of Paul’s attributed letters, determining based on rhetorical function what can be definitively said about Paul’s opponents. Sumney’s case is directed to a specific misuse of Paul’s letters — performed since Baur’s time, and still use by critics today — in which Paul’s word are “mirror-read” so that it is assumed that everything he says is a specific response to an opponent. Given rhetorical usages in Paul’s time, it is apparent that such mirror-readers are actualy over-readers making modernist assumptions about the text. Not all such rhetoric was meant to be taken literally, nor would readers have understood it as such.
We will begin by extensively quoting Sumney  on the context of polemic in the Greco-Roman world. Readers should note that Sumney’s use of words like “unreliable” is made within the context of critical historical study. He is not intimating that writers openly lied with intent to deceive, or that readers would be deceived about an opponent’s view. He writes:
In the Hellenistic era polemical remarks were often tendentious and partisan and included exaggerations and unsupportable charges about one’s opponents. Early Christian anti-heretical writers commonly made exaggerated claims about their opponents and often accused them of deceit or immorality.(JPH note: As did the Romans, who accused the Christians of cannibalism, among other things.) Irenaeus’ treatment of the Gnostics is a prime example. He disparages them eveyr way he can and is willing to caricature and mispresent them. Since Irenaeus was not alone in his willingness to use any means available to discredit and defeat his opponents, it seems probable that polemical contexts contain exaggerated claims about and partisan evaluations of opponents. Therefore, we must consider statements within polemical contexts to be somewhat unreliable and the more directly the opponents are mentioned, the less reliable the statements are likely to be. Sumney goes on to note that statements made in other contexts — notably didactic ones, where instruction is given to readers — is far more likely to be reliable for the modern critical historian, since they are instructions to the readers on what to do. He then evaluates each Pauline letter in turn, and identifies various passages in terms of their likelihood to be reporting what ranges from stock polemic (not to be taken literally, nor meant to be by Paul) to actual and justified criticism. If we may draw a loose parallel, the polemical portions may be taken in the same light as modern professional wrestlers, who beat the daylights out of each other and rant at each other by day, and by night laugh about it over a drink at the local bar. As with the examples of Peter and Qumran above, this is simply reflective of typical “extemist” expression of the period (see more on this here), which is only extremist from our “moderate” perspective and social world.
It will be enough for our purposes to provide two examples from Sumney of places where Paul has been falsely read literally because of misunderstanding of his polemical context. The first is Gal. 1:6-7, in which Paul speaks of a “different Gospel”. While of course this would tell us that his opponents’ message is different, his extreme language may or may not indicate that the opponents are preaching a Gospel that “does not include Christ” (137). This is rather “Paul’s ironic characterization of the other teaching” (138) and no more means with certainty that the others are not saved believers than Peter was really being called Satan. Though it is possible (as argued by Nanos, Irony of Galatians) that these persons are not believers in fact, this polemic by itself does not tell us that.
Our second example is 1 Tim. 1:3-4, 6-7. Here Paul calls his opponents’ views “myths” and this led interpreters in the past to speculate that Paul had in mind some Gnostic heresy. However, Sumney notes (257) that to call an opponent’s teachings “myths” is no more than “a stock polemical characterization,” so that the idea was “not to accurately describe the opponents’ teaching, but to denigrate them and create an unfavorable impression about them before saying anything specific.” This is one of several examples of stock accusation Sumney cites; contextually a parallel today might be when someone prefaces comments on what you say by saying, “Bull—!” or “You’re out of your mind!” There is of course no actual bovine excrement present, and the opponent in most cases is quite sane, thank you!
Thus our reading of Paul and other letters and statements of the NT of polemical nature, need to be read with the nuanced eye of social and rhetorical context. It is a mistake to assume that such accusations were meant to directly address and describe what an opponent was about.