We are not saved by satire, but the way God has saved us satirizes the world’s method of salvation.

Is there anything like a celebrity roast going on when the shepherds hear the angels’ announcement in Bethlehem or when a group of women discovers an empty tomb outside Jerusalem? Can a little bit of Jonathan Swift and Mad magazine be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Is there anything like satire in the gospel story?

These questions come to mind as I once again approach the familiar gospel stories. In the midst of poring over the now well-worn details, I have heard something new: It is the sound of a barely muffled, mocking laughter, and its source is somewhere above the heavenlies. Could it be that the not-ready-for-prime-time players of “Saturday Night Live” fame have merely adopted a style that is actually as old as the stars—namely, satire?

For satire to be effective, it must take on something or someone really big and strong. Thus the targets of sarcasm and ridicule include presidents and corporations, mass movements and social dogmas—not refugees and the dying. It is the celebrities who are to be roasted.

Satire works by redefining the object of scorn; and, if successful, the object of redefinition never quite gets back to where it was before. For example, when Lyndon Johnson said, “Gerald Ford is so dumb he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” he redefined him. There was nothing Ford could say in rebuttal. If he were to say, “Oh, yes I can,” he would simply have looked as silly as Johnson had claimed.

Columnist Ellen Goodman described a conversation she overheard in an expensive restaurant. There were hanging plants everywhere, and the restaurant served only health food. Its wealthy patrons were dressed in overpriced jogging suits, sipping Perrier, and eating watercress sandwiches and vegetarian salads as they discussed their fitness programs and diets. She wrote, “Now I know what sets off the very affluent and the very fit from the rest of us: they don’t eat, they water and graze themselves.” This time the object, the very wealthy and the very healthy, are redefined as cattle. More bull on the barbecue grill.

The same thing occurs in the gospel. Who are the celebrities? The powers of darkness, demons, devils, evil, and death; the kings and potentates of the world; the false values and pride of the world system; the pundits and the arbiters of fashion. The gospel takes what is “powerful” and “sophisticated” and shows it to be weak and foolish.

Are you skeptical that God would laugh contemptuously, even derisively? That God would use sarcasm and irony to deal with his enemies? Consider Psalm 2:1, 4: “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?… He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.” Or Psalm 37:13: “The LORD laughs at the wicked.” Or Psalm 59:8: “Thou, O LORD, dost laugh at them; thou dost hold all the nations in derision.”

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Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord invites us to ponder those who worship idols. Incredulous in his mockery, Isaiah says, in effect, “Get this: They plant trees, then they cut them down. They use part of the wood to build a fire, and part for fuel to cook food. And what do they do with what is left over? They make it into a ‘god’ and bow down to it! The same people who planted the tree now pray to it!”

The idols were the great celebrities of the ancient world. Huge, ornate temples celebrated them; elaborate ecclesiastical, economic, and political systems supported them. With a curled lip and a sardonic smile, God redefines them—as wood.

Paul asks the Corinthians to set the wisdom of the world over against the wisdom of the Cross. Where are the intelligent, the clever, the articulate? They still do not know God through their wisdom, so-called. God’s foolishness is wiser than men, says Paul; his weakness, stronger then men. Irony of ironies! All we thought would save us has instead damned us! The Cross is a withering satire of the world’s wisdom. It holds in contempt all that we think powerful and clever.

The point is not that we are saved by satire, but that the way God has saved us satirizes the world’s “salvations.” It holds them in derision. It says, “All the politics, philosophy, science, technology, art, music, money, and military of human history have not gotten you one inch closer to salvation. By themselves, they are exercises in futility, vanity, fatuousness. They are nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes.” The gospel is the little child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. It says we are all naked, and that we have been sold a bill of goods by the Swindler. It says that the world system is naked, too—its values and goals—and that the illusion that we and it are clothed is sustained only by pride and lies.

This is never more evident than it is in the Christmas story. How does God enter history? As an infant, born to Jewish peasants. Where? In Bethlehem, the least of villages in a nation that is the least of nations. Who hears of it first? Shepherds, the bottom of the Israelite society, too busy with their sheep to keep the law, to keep clean, or to smell good. When? As the Roman Empire, the mightiest the world had yet seen, administered its oppressive tax program. That forced Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem and made it possible for the Messiah to be born where it was prophesied he would be born. Even as the wheels of human power at its zenith turned and ground down the weak, it unwittingly served God’s purposes.

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You will not find satire any more biting and scornful than in the gospel. The Lord of the Universe quietly bypasses all the world deems wise and powerful and sophisticated and beautiful to enter history to save us. And as he does so in that manger, we hear a contemptuous chuckle come out of heaven: “You are naked, World.”

The lampoon does not stop at Christmas. The greatest satire of all is enacted on the night Jesus is arrested. He is beaten by soldiers, dressed in a purple robe, crowned with a crown of thorns, and eventually nailed to a cross with a placard over his head that read, “The king of the Jews.”

But the sick joke of the soldiers backfired, says Malcolm Muggeridge. In Jesus Rediscovered he writes, “In making fun of the king of the Jews, they were mocking, not Christ, but their own Caesar, and every Caesar, king, or ruler that ever had been, or was to be. They were making power itself derisory forever. Thenceforth, for all who had eyes to see, thorns sprouted under every golden crown, and underneath every scarlet or purple robe there was stricken flesh.”

Where is the good news in all this? It is simply this: that the things that terrify and impress us are nothing! They are defeated fakes. Speaking of what Christ accomplished on the cross, Paul tells the Colossians, “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them” (2:15). Everything that would intimidate and frighten us has been defeated and made a public spectacle—in short, redefined. Even death. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great resurrection manifesto, the apostle taunts death: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (v. 55).

God’s derisive laughter should therefore free us to be the hardest people on earth to intimidate and impress, and the easiest to draw a laugh out of. We belong to the One who has defeated death and hell and all the powers that would oppress us. We should be the first to cast a gimlet eye on the follies of the world. Of all people we should be the least impressed at the foolishness and weakness that masquerade as strength and wisdom. Since we know the Devil is the “father of lies”—a paper tiger whose only real weapon is deception—we should be the first to laugh at him. For next to the truth of Scripture, the truth of satire may be our best weapon against him. As Sir Thomas More said, “The devill … the prowde spirite … cannot endure to be mocked.” And as Martin Luther recommended, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

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