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The Power and Place of Ridicule

A post like this may seem to some like those who call evil good and good evil. Can there be anything edifying in ridicule? Is ridicule an exercise in saying what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous and praiseworthy?

Our aversion to ridicule may not be because we side so strongly with principles of biblical communication. It may be that we have not sufficiently loved what God loves, so as to hate what God hates. Perhaps our dismissal of ridicule as a lawful form of expression for a Christian represents a concession to our culture’s apathy and indifference to right and wrong, and deference to a kind of social equanimity, so visibly manifested in what is called “Minnesota Nice” in that cheerful and chilly state. Courtesy, aversion to argumentativeness or conflict, quiet and modest disagreement, and a generous opinion of all others is seen as ‘niceness’, and of course, Christians are supposed to lead the pack in niceness.

No doubt we could quickly proof-text the importance of being peace-makers, of the courtesy and benevolence contained in love, and of being winsome witnesses to Christ. Who would deny these? No Christian I know of. However, what is often denied is the plain fact that Scripture contains plenty of ridicule, some of it from the lips of the godliest men in Scripture, whose examples we are to imitate.

Elijah is doing nothing less than ridiculing the prophets of Baal when he asks if their God is on a journey or otherwise indisposed. God, through the mouth of Isaiah, mocks the man who uses one end of a piece of wood to bake his bread, and the other end to become his god. Jeremiah does the same, adding that Israel reminds one of camels and donkeys in heat. God ridicules Job’s impertinence in demanding answers from the Almighty by asking him what would be elementary on a Grade One Creator exam. Solomon mocks the sluggard as a squeaky door on its hinges, the lustful youth as a dumb animal to the slaughter, the complaining wife as an incessant dripping on a rainy day, and the fool as a vomit-lapping dog. It’s hard not to see Paul’s descriptions of the Cretans as ridicule, and what else shall we call our Lord’s descriptions of the Pharisees, when He called them blind leaders of the blind, or pictured them praying with themselves thanking God that they were not as other men?

It is the quick-and-easy response of the Niceness Police to point out that these expressions came either from God Himself or from apostles and prophets, and we have no business trying to mimic them. To which I respond, how do you know? On what basis do you place the scorn and ridicule of the Bible as off-limits to God’s people today? Did Scripture teach you that? Do Scriptures such as Ephesians 5:4 or Philippians 4:8 actually indict the verbal behavior of the prophets and the Lord Himself? It would seem we need to find a place for Scripture’s use of ridicule and scorn, not bowlderize it. We need to harmonize ridicule with principles of godly communication, not embalm it as a historical curiosity.

What does ridicule do? By making sport of the object, we laugh. When we laugh, we know that the object is not to be taken seriously. We are not to lend credibility to Baal worship, or Pharisaism. Such beliefs and behaviors are contemptuous and should be scorned. By encouraging and provoking contempt for what God hates, we may create a simultaneous piety toward what God loves.

Why should we choose ridicule over a less edgy form of expression? In the nature of things, not every opinion needs to be treated seriously, because not every opinion has been seriously considered or seriously articulated. Not every act deserves serious consideration, for not every act has been seriously contemplated for its meaning, or seriously performed. If the speakers and doers were not serious to begin with, do they merit being taken seriously? Should we unjustly lend them treatment they do not deserve? Should I listen to a nonsense rhyme with the scrutiny I give to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion? If someone is acting like a duffer and a goofball, the perfectly appropriate response is to point out that he is acting like a goofball and a duffer.

Great danger looms here, however. Scripture warns us against the reckless scoffer and the careless mocker. Ridicule is a tool like fire. The trained fireman actually knows a constructive use for fire. He knows the importance of destroying for the sake of conservation: creating fire-breaks to prevent further damage, razing a condemned structure to prevent further injury or death, or allowing fires to burn themselves out, lest they persist and spread. The eight-year-old boy is simply thrilled to see something burn. Scorn and ridicule in the hands of a youth or a novice usually does little but harm.

Before we take up the flame-thrower of ridicule, we must be deeply committed to conserving the faith. We would not want to destroy anything true, good and beautiful while torching something else. We should demonstrate our deep love for what God loves, and display how much we cherish, the true, the pure, the just, the noble, the lovely, and the virtuous. Let those careful communicators who know what is to be kept, and what is to be incinerated, use the flame of ridicule to create love for what God loves.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

4 Responses to The Power and Place of Ridicule

  1. Jon,

    It's most prominent when directed towards false teachers and idolatry, but sometimes its directed towards professing Christians or believers who are guilty of false teaching or inconsistent practices or even idolatry.

    While God is certainly challenging Job (unquestionably a pious believer), He is also ridiculing Job's demand to debate with God as an equal.

    Solomon mocks sluggards, adulterers, liars, thieves, hedonists, gossips, egotists, brawlers and money-grabbers, without respect to their profession of orthodoxy.

    Malachi ridicules the incongruity of giving half-baked service by calling on the priests (whose orthodoxy, post-exile, was probably impeccable, on paper) to present the same service to a human governor, with undoubtedly humourously disastrous results.

    The Sermon on the Mount ridicules self-righteous criticism (beam in the eye), self-righteous parading of piety (blowing a trumpet), targeting practising believers, no doubt.

    Paul was writing to professing believers when he wrote these:

    But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. (1 Co 15:35–36)

    "O foolish Galatians? Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth?" (Gal 3:1)

    For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face.To our shame I say that we were too weak for that! (2 Co 11:19–21).

    Probably more, but that's what comes to mind at the moment.

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