Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A No-Touch Zone for Christian Writers?

This is going to be one of those posts that people look at and say, “Well, how about that.” I don’t imagine there will be many comments. And yet it’s on a subject that I’ve never seen discussed on a web site devoted to the craft of Christian writing.

It is the subject of sarcasm. Well, that should be a no-brainer, you might say: Sarcasm has no place in Christian writing. The very root and origin of the word means to “cut flesh.” Some milder versions of this rhetorical/literary technique include satire and irony. A familiar example of this kind of tone of writing was Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which the author suggested combating world hunger by encouraging cannibalism. And sarcasm is a staple of current television script writing.

Characters in Christian fiction say sarcastic things – the bitter, too-oft-bitten cowboy masks his pain with sarcasm. The teenager answers questions with more questions and sarcasm. A woman in a crisis of faith asks questions of God with sarcasm. Most of the time, such language is condemned because Christians shouldn’t use or promote sarcasm.

And yet…..

We find it in the Bible and people who say it aren’t struck by lightning. It comes out of the mouth of the blind man whom Jesus healed. The Pharisees hammered and hammered his parents and him about how the miracle occurred. In frustration, the man finally retorted, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” (John 9:27).

And believe it or not, even God used this kind of language. In Job, God responds to the beleaguered man’s questions with questions of His own. God describes the incomprehensible miracles of creation and nature and asks Job over and over again where he was and what part he played in these wonders. He questions Job about light and darkness and their origins, and then says, “Surely you know, since you were already born! You have lived so many years!” (Job 38:21.)

I want to write in a way that pleases God. I want to reflect His preferences and the way He thinks about things.

So – if He uses sarcasm, can I as a Christian writer use it in such a way as to show that I approve of it as well? Do you know of any examples of effective (and approving or approved) use of sarcasm by a Christian writer?

28 comments:

Mia said...

While I think sarcasm can be overdone (just like anything else), I believe it has its place in fiction. Because guess what? A lot of people really do hide their feelings/pain behind sarcasm. Many people have a sarcastic sense of humor without being mean about it. And like you mentioned, God used it in the Bible. Many times, in fact.

Just like every other character quality, I think sarcasm should be used (without over-doing it) in novels, if we want to have three-dimensional characters.

That's my two cents, anyway :)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for this post, Latayne. I found a place in John where I'd written 'sarcasm' in the margin because it surprised me. Jesus was heading back to Bethany after Lazarus died and Thomas' comment was, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." I can see him saying this under his breath to the other disciples. Jesus had almost been stoned for healing a blind man, and now he was going to raise someone from the dead which would put them all in danger again. Maybe he was the only one with the courage to voice his fear or question the wisdom of the action, even though it was masked in sarcasm. I wonder if it would have made a difference to know that his feelings were no secret to Jesus.

I used sarcasm in 'Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon' because two of the characters were teens/pre-teens. The dialogue had sarcasm but not the plot. It wouldn't have sounded natural without it.

Terri Tiffany said...

I think there is a place for it in fiction. But it can't come across too hurtful. I'm surprised you posted about this as I've never really thought about it before. But the other day, a critique partner pointed out in my story that something the woman said might hurt her feelings. I hadn't met it that way at all and made me relook at the way some of my dialogue was written.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sarcasm is on the rise in Christian non-fiction. Blogger turned book author Jon Acuff uses scathing sarcasm in Stuff Christians Like - and the church grins (even races to applaud him). Rob Stennett's novels (The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher, and The End is Now) are self-described as "satire" (however, I think this books are far too apologetic to be satire, but that's just me - I have a subscription to The Wittenburg Door, so I'm used to reading unflinching satire).

British author Adrian Plass is probably the king of Christian Sarcasm. While his novels aren't plotted on sarcasm (but have been sanitized by American publishers who erased all the supernatural elements of his novel GHOSTS and retitled it Silver Birches), it contains all of his biting wit. And his newest non-fiction, Looking Good, Being Bad, the Subtle Art of Churchmanship is a Screwtape Letter-esque "how to" book teaching Christians how to bung up the workings of the Church through bad behavior that looks, on the outside, like good behavior. The entire premise is sarcasm.

I don't really have a point or opinion - just pointing out some of the stuff that's out there.

I do think it's one thing to have God, creator of the universe using sarcasm, it's another thing for us to strike a superior poses and slap others upside the head with our oh-so-vast smarty-pantsness.

Oh, did that sound sarcastic? :)

Latayne C Scott said...

Mia, Debbie and Terri, I appreciate your comments. I think Mia is right that sarcasm can be overdone -- and though we've given some examples from Scripture they are relatively rare, right?

Debbie, I hadn't thought of how effectively you used sarcasm in Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. I think you also used it in Raising Rain?

Terri, I think that we don't realize the effect of sarcasm. You pointed out the great value of critique groups in pointing something like that out, which the author may have been unaware of.

And thank you Bonnie for all those great examples. That was very enlightening.

Nikole Hahn said...

The only problem I have with some Christian fiction is that some of it lacks some real life because we are afraid to use things like sarcasm, the occasional drink or the drunkard, the smoker, or the person who is in an immoral relationship. We touch on gossip in Christian fiction, but some of it is so sweet as to make one question how real it is. Isn't sin the same to God? People in real life are sarcastic and messy. It is how God finds them, but if the end of the story reflects a change that glorifies God I see no problem with sarcasm or anything else (well, except bedroom scenes).

Sarcasm isn't neccessarily a mask all of the time. I have a sarcastic sense of humor as does my husband. It's just who we are, but we also have the discernment to know when NOT to use it because some people are a heck of alot more sensitive than others (and sometimes I think maybe they need to acquire some thicker skin or something).

Great blog. Stories should be balanced. I'm not sarcastic 100% of the time (neither is anyone else I know) and so the story should balance out.

Latayne C Scott said...

Nikole, I agree that sarcasm is a very present aspect of conversation and that if a Christian book is to be true to life, it would have to at least acknowledge that. And of course using sarcasm is like any knife --- it can excise, trim, wound or amputate.

Latayne C Scott said...

Let me thrown another aspect into the conversation. It's apparent from Scripture that God has a range of emotions -- from tender to forthright to admonishing to anger. I wonder if it would be accurate to see sarcasm as a point on that scale. He uses sarcasm to bite but not to immolate.

Example: I know that when my mother stops talking (very rare) and raises her eyebrows, you better run for cover. It's the warning before the storm.

Could it be that sarcasm is somewhere along a scale of emotions of God? Or if you're uncomfortable with the theological issue of God's emotions--how about speaking of a range of responses? Is such a range of responses track-able? Can it be emulated in our writing?

Sharon K. Souza said...

This is a very interesting post, Latayne, and an interesting dialogue here. I love sarcasm. I love its understated humor - when it's done right - and the points that can be made in just a few crisp words. My daughters and I rarely have a conversation without sarcasm. When I meet people who don't use or understand it, I typically clam up because I don't quite know how to communicate with them. There's so much great sarcasm in Steel Magnolias, particularly on the part of Shirley McClaine. It's one of my favorite movies. I love the interaction between those women.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

This post is just one more reason why I love coming here. I feel like you ladies open the box on things many Christians seal it closed on for any given number of reasons, some of which make little to no sense to me.

Several of you stated that you use it in your writing. Makes sense to me. A character can certainly be more believable with it as an attribute. And even if they are using it to hurt someone--growth can come from hurt. Maybe the individual who was sarcastic is going to become more self-aware and sensitive by the end of the novel, or maybe even more subtly they'll learn to use it in a way that's not biting, but purely funny.

I use it.

Thanks for throwing another thought-provoking question out there.
~ Wendy

PatriciaW said...

I don't have a problem with sarcasm unless it's overdone. No one is sarcastic all the time unless the person is very unhappy, which leads me to my point.

The reason Jon Acuff's sarcasm works, I think, is because it's an opportunity to use humor and wit to make us look at and consider ourselves, and maybe take ourselves a little less seriously.

It's all about the underlying emotions. Yes, people use sarcasm to cover up pain...sometimes. Sometimes its a method of comedic delivery. Sometimes it's rhetorical. Sometime it's malicious and sometimes it's all in good fun. No matter what is beneath the sarcasm, though, it has to be balanced by other forms of communication, as Jon does with his serious blogs and other teaching moments.

Jevon Oakman Bolden said...

Sarcasm is a great way to keep readers on their toes. I find that it has its place in most Christian genres. I personally have always thought it was hilarious (in a holy way) how Jesus used sarcasm frequently when dealing with the hardheaded, sneaky ways of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. It seemed that He knew there was no other way to get them thinking. I have also noticed that using sarcasm attracts the younger Christian readers who are so engulfed by that kind of language in texting, Twitter, Facebook, IM, and blogs. BTW, lovin your blog. First time here.

Rebecca Lynn said...

I don't think that sarcasm is limited to "masking pain", especially from a character development point of view. I find Christian writing that ignores sarcasm to be un-believable. Sarcasm is not a modern invention (or a post-modern one). It's been around since creation, and it's not going to go away.

If there was one thing God wasn't worried about, it was hurting people's feelings. There's a temptation to equate "nice" with "Christian" especially when it comes to fiction, and that's not the correct assimilation. Sometimes Christianity is offensive. Sometimes it is not nice or polite. Sometimes you have to offend people to get their attention. And sometimes sarcasm is not a mask for pain, it's an attempt to wake people up or make them recognize something or even just entertain them.

I get frustrated with Christian writing, even though I am a Christian, because I feel like we have sanitized the Gospel down to this "nice", saccharine-y sweet, polite social club you can belong to where we never swear and never smoke and never do anything impolite and never have a real conversation and never laugh and never do anything fun. Instead of a place to be in the transformative and celebrator and difficult and complex presence of the creator of the universe.

Meanwhile, I'll be over at the other table, where Jesus was having a big party and turning water in to wine and joking with his friends and turning over the tables and offending all the religious elite.

**Sorry. This touches a nerve for me. I just had this conversation with someone yesterday, and it's still a little fresh. Good post, though, and good comments. I just needed to verbally-vomit a little...**

LeAnne Hardy said...

I agree with Jevon. Sarcasm is not my style, but I think it might be very effective in grabbing the attention of younger readers turned off by unrealistic Christian niceness. God calls us to be holy. Does he call us to be nice?

Bonnie Grove said...

So. Many. Great. Comments.

So hard to be reflective and respond to all of them.

You guys never cease to blow my mind, educate me, and speak the thoughts I can't conjure words for on my own. True community!

Wendy, we do love to open people's boxes. We love to point out that when it comes to the creative, there is no box. :) But you know that already.

Patricia, I always love it when you stop in and share your ideas. You always give me something to chew on. Balance. Yes.

Jevon: Wonderful that you've found us! I hope you'll find a comfortable spot here and join us often. You make two great points - Jesus was sarcastic dealing with religious leaders - not that this is permission, but it certainly demonstrates effective ways to get a point across. And another great thought about teens communicating regularly in sarcasm.

Rebecca: I'm going to scooch my chair a little closer to yours and party with you and Jesus. Girl, we need to do lunch! You and LeAnne have hit a nerve with many. Does being holy mean being nice?

Kathleen Popa said...

And here Latayne thought there wouldn't be many comments. What great thoughts here. Our readers are brilliant.

Jevon, your first time? Big huge welcomes! Please do become a regular.

Latayne C Scott said...

Whoa. I go into town to get a haircut and come back to all these wonderful comments. Wow.

Sharon, I love it that you have an "edge." It contributes to you being an authentic and compelling writer, dear friend.

Wendy, I guess it is true that we tackle the unusual here. But I really thought this was going to be too outside comfort zones to get any discussion going. Well.

Patricia, I agree that sarcasm is sometimes all in good fun. But you want to know something I found out as I was researching the meaning of the word on the Internet? Definition sources almost always give it a negative connotation. Could that be right?

Jevon, you were spot-on. In fact, I thought of how Paul was sarcastic in defending his apostleship -- and always, as you noted, wielding that sarcasm sword at religious hypocrites. Interesting! (BTW, welcome, lady! You fit right in!)

Rebecca, I think you got closer to what I was really looking for than anyone. Is sarcasm valid as an attitude? Not in a character so much, but in an expressed viewpoint? I'm thinking what you're thinking, apparently -- if God was sometimes sarcastic, maybe we out try to see what evoked that reaction from Him and not squelch it out our characters if it makes the same point!

And I think LeAnn was saying the same thing. "Nice" is often so sappy as to produce the opposite effect from what we want!

Bonnie and Katy, I cover you with kisses. You ladies are wonderful, and I love your comments.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Jenny Jones main character (I'm so Sure)is sarcastic. And she keeps apologizing to God for her attitude. But you have to love her. (And Jenny too.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I hope so. I use it. I'm pretty sarcastic.

The big thing for me is finding the root of it. Usually there's pain involved somewhere. That can be a useful tool!

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I'm not familiar with that book -- did you think the sarcasm was effective (other than making you laugh)?

And Kristin, I earnestly hope God accepts sarcasm from us humans. Or I'm in trouble.

Steve G said...

The problem with sarcasm in writing is that you don't get any tonal or body clues with the dialogue, so it can be hard to read. If I say, You can't add too much water to the nuclear reactor!" Does my character wonder if I am sarcastic and keep adding water, or think I mean literally as a warning and so dumps the heavy water resulting in an immediate meltdown?

Sarcasm has a bite, a sharp edge to it. When I am tired I can get really sarcastic - it's not pretty, and not pleasant to be around. Sarcasm is a tool that needs to be wielded with care.

Oh, and for those writing in the CBA, you can be sure they'll LOVE your sarcasm...

Word verification - APERAW: An aria written by a grade school flunkie.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Steve, I found the same thing with the wonderful folks who edited my books. Because there were few physical cues, they asked several times if I meant what I'd written literally. No, it was sarcasm, and I sometimes I had to make it a bit clearer. Humor (including sarcasm) is a tricky thing to write because everyone has a different filter.

Latayne C Scott said...

Steve, you're right about there being no visual nor tonal clues in writing.

So.... Debbie, what did you do in the rewrites that marked the sarcasm in such a way that the editors were satisfied?

Latayne C Scott said...

Did you all know that there are actually punctuation and other marks for sarcasm? For instance, you've seen carat sarcasm closing carat (sorry-- that makes it an html prompt if I actually do that and it disappears from this comment) online and sometimes it is shortened to /s. Another version is the emoticon of rolling eyes.

However, for over a hundred years people have used other devices. Karl Marx used a bracketed exclamation mark [!] in his writing, and others have proposed similar marks.

Hilarey said...

How interesting that sacrcasm means "cutting flesh." Just like circumcision.

I think it does have a place in fiction. But as Debbie said, everyone has a different filter.

I like what Rebecca-Lynn said about sarcasm sometimes being an attempt to wake people up.
Most would be shocked to imagine, but I find it a great tool for parenting. For example, when my boys started getting physical during an argument, I said "If you really want to hurt each other--use a closed fist." Then they see where their fight is headed. Our family loves to be sarcastic.

Sarcasm shows ridiculousness. Maybe what parents want seems ridiculous to a teenager. There is a section in the old testament where God sounds sarcastic to me when he describes a man cutting a tree, using a little to warm himself, a little to cook his meal and then he carves and idol out of the rest and bows to it.

Latayne C Scott said...

OOhhh... Hilarey, that is interesting about circumcision. And I had forgotten about that great passage in Isaiah. Yep, definitely really strong irony or sarcasm.

Is this your first time to comment? If so, welcome!

Hilarey said...

Yes, it is.
Thank you for a great post!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Latayne, in answer to your question about how I used physical cues to show sarcasm, I'm thinking of one instance where two old friends were talking and one threw a pillow at the other in response to her sarcasm. Her verbal response might have clarified it, too.

I think I may have lost a few minor battles over sarcasm in the editing stages if it was too hard to tell the difference. But, if the editor was confused, the reader would be, too.