Oldlife.org 201: Wit and Sarcasm

The first installment in this series about this blog was to clarify what a blog is. One aspect that I did not mention was that the more successful blogs are provocative – that is, they agitate readers and that’s why people come back. The most successful blogger in the world arguably is Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, and his blog is hardly tepid.

This leads to the second point in need of clarification. Oldlife.org is the on-line presence of the Nicotine Theological Journal. Long before provocations started at this blog, the editors and authors of the NTJ were provoking readers and library patrons in hopes of thinking through the implications of Reformed faith and practice today, with a little levity and sarcasm thrown in. The editors’ inspiration was partly Andrew Sullivan whose time at the New Republic made it one of the most thoughtful, rancorous, and witty magazines on politics and culture at the time. But Sullivan was not the only inspiration. Other authors who wrote on serious matters with wit and sarcasm that provided models for the NTJ were Richard John Neuhaus, P. J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein, H. L. Mencken, and Calvin Trillin.

None of these sources, readers may object, are Reformed. Which raises the question whether Reformed authors may engage in wit and sarcasm when pursuing their convictions. Well, the answer is yes. If you spend much time in the polemical writings of the Old School and Princeton theologians, you will find a fair amount of wit and sarcasm. Here are a couple examples, the first from Charles Hodge after a seven-round dogma fight with Edwards Amasa Park (named for Jonathan Edwards – ahem) over theological method and the nature of Calvinism:

It is a common remark that a man never writes anything well for which he has “to read up.” Professor Park has evidently labored under this disadvantage. Old-school theology is a new field to him; and though he quotes freely authors of whom we, though natives, never heard, yet he is not at home, and unavoidably falls into the mistakes which foreigners cannot fail to commit in a strange land. He does not understand the language. He find out “five meanings of imputation!” It would be wearisome work to set such a stranger right at every step. We would fain part with our author on good terms. We admire his abilities, and are ready to defer to him in his own department. But when he undertakes to teach Old-school men Old-school theology it is very much like a Frenchman teaching an Englishman how to pronounce English. With the best intentions, the amiable Gaul would be sure to make sad work with the dental aspirations.

The second comes from Benjamin Warfield in one of the last pieces he ever wrote, an article objecting to the latest proposal (1920) to unite the largest Protestant denominations in the United States:

Now it is perfectly obvious that the proposed creed contains nothing which is not believed by evangelicals. and it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Sacerdotalists – by the adherents of the church of Rome for example. And it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Rationalists – by respectable Unitarians. That is as much as to say that the creed on the basis of which we are invited to form a union for evangelizing purposes contains nothing distinctively evangelical at all; nothing at all of that body of saving truth for the possession of which the church of Christ has striven and suffered through two thousand years. It contains only “a few starved and hunger-bitten” dogmas of purely general character – of infinite importance in the context of evangelical truth, but of themselves of no saving sufficiency. So far as the conservation and propagation of evangelical religion is concerned, we might as well for a union on our common acceptance of the law of gravitation and the rule of three.

By the way, these were a couple of quotes readily available from Hodge and Warfield. If you go farther into their works, along with those of Old Schoolers like Dabney and Thornwell you will find many more examples, sometimes of laugh out loud proportions.

One last source of inspiration for Oldlife.org and the NTJ is – duh – J. Gresham Machen. He did not show a lot of wit or sarcasm in his writings. But his polemics were nonetheless blunt, so much so that many who believed charity to be the only Christian virtue considered Machen mean and beyond the pale. But it is precisely Machen’s candor and warrior spirit that is worthy of emulation. The following is from a piece he wrote for an inter-faith gathering on the relations between Christians and Jews:

The fact is that in discussing matters about which there are differences of opinion, it is really more courteous to be frank – more courteous with that deeper courtesy which is based upon the Golden Rule. For my part, I am bound to say that the kind of discussion which is irritating to me is the discussion which begins by begging the question and then pretend to be in the interests of peace. I should be guilty of such a method if I should say to a Roman Catholic, for example, that we can come together with him because forms and ceremonies like the mass and membership in a certain definite organization are, of course, matters of secondary importance – if I should say to him that he can go on being a good Catholic and I can go on being a good Protestant and yet we can unite on common Christian basis. If I should talk in that way, I should show myself guilty of the crassest narrowness of mind, for I should be showing that I had never taken the slightest trouble to understand the Roman Catholic point of view. If I had taken that trouble, I should have come to see plainly that what I should be doing is not to seek common ground between the roman Catholic and myself but simply to ask the Roman Catholic to become a Protestant and give up everything that he holds most dear.

. . . So to my mind the most inauspicious beginning for any discussion is found when the speaker utters the familiar words: “I think, brethren, that we are all agreed about this . . .” – and then proceeds to trample ruthlessly upon the things that are dearest to my heart. Far more kindly is it if the speaker says at the start that he sees a miserable narrow-minded conservative in the audience whose views he intends to ridicule and refute. After such a speaker gets through, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I regard him as just as narrow-minded as he regards me, and then having both spoken our full mind we may part, certain not as brothers (it is ridiculous to degrade that word) but at least as friends.

None of this is to suggest that Oldlife.org pulls off the wit, sarcasm, polemics, or bluntness of the writers who have inspired this endeavor. It is only to point out that the tone and style of Oldlife.org is not over the top.

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