August 19, 2009
Skye Jethani: Generation of Sarcasm
Is the church fixing or fueling the toxic cynicism of our culture?
A poll conducted by Time has revealed that The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart is the most trusted news anchor in America. He beat Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, and Katie Couric. Walter Cronkite, having just entered his grave, must already be turning over in it. Stewart won with 44 percent of the vote. Brian Williams came in a distant second with 29 percent. See the results here.
Like many others of my generation, I enjoy The Daily Show. I find Jon Stewart to be intelligent and his irreverence is often refreshing, if occasionally too snarky or foul for my palate. Still, I wonder what it says about my generation when we vote someone like Stewart to be the most trusted voice in American news—especially when The Daily Show makes no claim of being a reputable journalistic enterprise.
When Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, an argument ensued with Tucker Carlson about The Daily Show’s lack of journalistic rigor. Stewart responded, “I didn’t realize that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their queues on integrity…. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”
Indeed—what is wrong with us?
The popularity of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion reveals a core value of my generation. We thrive on sarcasm. It is our native tongue. Listen to a group of under 40s engaging in casual conversation. It’s nearly impossible for 30 seconds to elapse without a quip, a dig, or a dose of eye-rolling hyperbole. We especially like to cut down authorities—as Jon Stewart has perfected with his witty jabs at the mainstream news media and government leaders.
Sarcasm and irreverence are so popular that government officials clamor to get on The Daily Show to be mocked. They think they’ll be perceived as “good sports” for playing along, and somehow win the elusive support of sarcasm-soaked 18-35 year olds. (Silly politicians, has Rudy Giuliani’s SNL appearance in drag taught you nothing?) But they’re not alone. I have no quantifiable evidence, but my perception has been that more sarcasm is creeping into the church. I experience it more often at ministry conferences, in conversations with other church leaders, and without question on blogs. (Uh hum, are you listening, Url?)
My concern is not political integrity, the erosion of journalism in favor of amusement, or even ministry. My question is spiritual. Where does this deep reservoir of sarcasm come from? Why does it mark my generation the way a strong work ethic once marked the Greatest Generation or the way free-thinking branded the Boomers?
Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, gave a speech at Yale back in 2005 in which he unpacked the media values of our generation—the slow descent from our parents’ “dry, cocktail party wit of Johnny Carson,” to the “sarcasm and twisted humor” of David Letterman, and the emergence of the bottom-feeder humor that is “Beavis & Butthead” and “South Park.” In these shows, Vischer says, “we had found our voice. We were safe from the world, as long as everything was treated as a joke.” He continues:
Some folks believe Vietnam was the source of America’s modern cynicism. Others point to Watergate. But for me and for many others in my generation, the real root, I think, is much closer to home and much more personal. When we were very young, our parents broke their promises. Their promises to each other, and their promises to us. And millions of American kids in a very short period of time learned that the world isn’t a safe place; that there isn’t anyone who won’t let you down; that their hearts were much too fragile to leave exposed. And sarcasm, as CS Lewis put it, “builds up around a man the finest armor-plating… that I know.”
I agree with Vischer. I think the sarcasm of my generation is rooted in anger and fear. It is a socially acceptable defense mechanism; a way to vent the mountain of anger and fear we feel in a dangerous world where even the structures God has ordained for our safety (family, church, government) have failed to keep their promises.
We are the first generation born after the passage of no-fault-divorce. We are the product of broken homes.
We are the first generation born after Vietnam and Watergate. We are the product of a broken government.
We are the first generation born in the age of Consumer Christianity. We are the product of broken churches.
With no where to turn for safety, our fears ferment under the surface into anger. But this toxic brew cannot stay there. It must find a release. Some of us find very destructive ways to alleviate that pressure. The rest of us let it out by mocking things previous generations took seriously—government, work, family, relationships, leaders, and the future. We are a generation that believes nothing is sacred. And if nothing is sacred, everything becomes profane.
I’ve been much more aware of my own sarcasm lately. I’ve tried to keep it under control—especially in my preaching. (Have you noticed the way sarcasm laces even the sermons of our generation?) And I’m trying to be more reflective about where it’s coming from. Is it merely casual banter, or is there an angry truth, a hidden fear, behind that one-liner?
I don’t want to be a killjoy. I don’t believe all sarcasm is bad, and we even see biblical prophets and apostles using the rhetorical device from time to time. But given the latent anger and fear in our culture, is more sarcasm really helpful in the church? Or should we be doing more to unearth the fears and angers of our generation so that sarcasm might be pulled from our souls roots and all?
A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview Matt Chandler for a piece in the current issue of Leadership. He said something about spiritual growth that I won’t soon forget:
“We want our people to think beyond simply what’s right and wrong. We want them to fill their lives with the things that stir affections for Jesus Christ and, as best as they can, to walk away from things that rob those affections—even when they’re not immoral.”
A heavy diet of sarcasm, whether on television, the web, or even in church, may be what this generation is clamoring for, and it's not immoral, but it may also be robbing our affections for Christ. Rather then emulating the popularity of Jon Stewart, as leaders of the church let’s take up our spiritual calling to guide souls toward love rather than just levity.
As preachers of the Word, let’s put aside our impulse to be entertainers and heed our calling to nurture minds that dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is commendable.”
As shepherds of God’s flock, let’s lead the effort to drain the stagnant reservoir of fear and anger that is polluting our generation by starting with the swamp in our own souls. And let’s pray for Living Waters to flow in the church once again.