The Babylon Bee reported that NYPD detectives are investigating an attack on a group of teen-aged youths who were mauled by two female grizzly bears in Central Park. According to witnesses, when pastor and author Tim Keller was on his morning run through Central Park he passed a group of young men. One of them shouted, “Hey baldy! Run, baldy, run!” Another youth echoed the sentiment before the two high-fived each other. Onlookers reported that Keller stopped jogging, closed his eyes and prayed. Immediately two massive grizzlies charged out of a nearby wood and mauled the group of boys.
The event, of course is not true. And if you are not familiar with the Babylon Bee, you would have missed the clue it gave that you were about to read a satirical piece of “news.” The back-story to the above is in 2 Kings 2:23-25, when the newly anointed prophet Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel after his predecessor, Elijah, was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. A group of forty-two young boys (The Hebrew phrase can refer to youths between the ages of twelve and thirty) came out of Bethel and jeered at him, saying, “Go on up you bald head!” In his commentary on 2 Kings, Paul House suggested their jeering seems to be a contemptuous reference to Elijah’s being taken up to heaven, with the sense of “Go away like Elijah.” Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, as their behavior was an insult directed at him as a prophet, and therefore the Lord who he represented. “And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.”
What happened in the 2 Kings passage was not an example of biblical satire, but Leland Ryken commented in How to Read the Bible as Literature, that there is more satire in the Bible than you might think. Much of the Bible’s truth and wisdom has been shaped as satire. “By framing truth as an attack on vice or folly, biblical satire drives its point home with an electric charge.” Despite the negative approach of the satirist, a positive norm emerges from biblical satire because it includes a foil to the evil it attacks. “That foil is usually the character or law of God.”
Satire, Ryken said, is “the exposure, ridicule or rebuke, of human vice or folly.” It can “appear in any literary genre (such as narrative, lyric or parable), and it may be either a minor part of a work or the main content of an entire work.” The reader’s task with satire is fourfold: to identify the object(s) of attack, the satirical vehicle that embodies the attack, the tone (either biting or laughing), and the norm or standard by which the criticism is made.
Satire usually has one main object of attack, but it could also have a number of jabs in various directions, called “satiric ripples.” When satire “is an attack on historical particulars it means that the reader of satire usually needs help in reconstructing the assumed social context—the economic, political, religious, or social conditions that the satirist attacks.”
The object of attack could be a single thing, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which attacks the love of money and the callous unconcern it encourages. Or it could be a series of objects as with Jesus’ discourse against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. There Jesus rapidly ridiculed the scribes and Pharisees, saying they tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weighty matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. They are like whitewashed tombs that outwardly appear beautiful, but are full of dead bones and uncleanness. “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
The object could be a historical particular, like the attack on the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14); or it could be about a universal vice like greed, as in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), planning to build larger barns to store all his grains and goods.
The most common satiric vehicle is story, as with Jonah or the satiric parables of Jesus. There may also be brief snatches of action, as when Isaiah 46:5-7 briefly narrates how idol worshipers first have to have a goldsmith make an image in order for them to fall down before it and worship! Or there could be a portrait or character sketch as in Isaiah 3:16: “The Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet.” Narratives and portraits are among the most artistic and sophisticated types of satiric vehicle. At the more informal end are cruder statements, as when Amos calls the wealthy women of Israel “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1); or the “woe formula” used by Jesus in Matthew 23 cited above.
Biblical satire always has one of two prevailing tones. One is gentle, smiling and subtle. “It aims to correct folly or vice by gentle laughter, on the premise that it can be laughed out of existence.” Examples of such a “soft sell” would include the story of Jonah as a whiny, pouting prophet. Or Isaiah 44:9-17, where those who fashion idols are described as taking part of a tree to build a fire in order to warm himself or bake bread, while with the rest he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down and worships it.
The second tone is biting, bitter and sharp. “It points with contempt and moral indignation at the corruptness and evil of people and institutions.” Most biblical satire is of this type, and includes a good bit of scorn, as opposed to humorous laughter.
The fourth and final aspect of satire to look for is the satiric norm; the standard by which the object of attack is being criticized. “The satiric norm is the positive model that is offered to the reader as an alternative to the negative picture that always dominates a satiric work.” In Jonah, the universal mercy of God is extended to the repentant city of Nineveh as a positive foil to Jonah’s misguided patriotism. “In the Sermon on the Mount, each of Jesus’ satiric charges against the Pharisees is accompanied by a positive command (Matt. 6:1-14).”
Satire is found throughout the Bible. The books of Jonah and Amos are entirely satirical. The orthodox comforters in Job are the ones who are rebuked. “The book of Ecclesiastes is a prolonged satiric attack against a society that is much like our own—acquisitive, materialistic, hedonistic, secular.” Many of Jesus’ parables, like the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) are satiric. Whenever a biblical narrative prominently displays a character’s flaws, as with Jacob’s greed or Haman’s pride, there is a thread of satire.
Given this discussion of satire, I’ll offer the following suggestion of why the Babylon Bee story about Tim Keller is satirical. Remember that satire is “the exposure, ridicule or rebuke, of human vice and folly.”
The object of attack is against the infighting that occurs among evangelicals when ministers are perceived to be “too liberal” because they don’t hold to certain doctrinal positions. You can Google “Tim Keller” and “critique” to see what I mean. There are articles on Tim Keller’s “false gospel,” his “disappointing” comments on homosexuality and more. He’s been roundly criticized for what he’s said with regard to evolutionary creation. There’s even a book giving “a gracious criticism of some aspects” of his theology.
The satiric vehicle is an alternate reality story that portrays Tim Keller as Elisha in a modern version of 2 Kings 2:23-25. The satiric tone is subtle and laughing. Praying for judgment against his critics is the last thing to expect from someone like Tim Keller. Note also how the Babylon Bee article said Keller “calmly closed his eyes and uttered a prayer” as opposed to Elisha calling down a curse against those who were ridiculing him.
The satiric norm for the Babylon Bee article would be to remind those critics of Keller that they are also, in a manner of speaking, being critical of the God he serves as a minister. I don’t mean that questioning the opinions of Tim Keller is tantamount to debating Paul or Moses on some of their doctrinal positions. But (to use another satirical image), I think they are straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). With all the cultural critiques they could be addressing today, they are going after Tim Keller. Really?