“A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” – G.K. Chesterton
I recently wrote a blog, suggesting that Christians should listen before condemning ideas they don’t understand. It’s called the “principle of charity.” Among other things, Adam Ford (author of Adam4d comics and the satirical news outlet, The Babylon Bee) inspired that post.
It’s no question that the rest of the world–whether accurately or not–views Christians in overwhelmingly negative terms. With Adam Ford’s success among Conservative Evangelicals, I have to wonder whether we have any hope (or intention) of turning that perception around.
I realize that it’s important not to take satire too seriously. And I occasionally even have a nice laugh when the Bee puts out a well-done satire, such as this piece about Elevation Church installing a baptism water slide to make baptisms more efficient, which made its point so well that Snopes had to investigate it.
His cartoon website, adam4d.com, isn’t so much for satire or comedy. It’s more like a blog, written in the form of a comic strip. I think it is fair and accurate to describe it as a place for him to write negative things about atheists, “Theological Liberals,” “Moral Relativists,” LGBT persons, and other not-Evangelical-Christians.
Adam and his co-authors at the Bee know their audience well, and his work features their common loves and frustrations. As a conservative Calvinist, his “satirical” pieces on leaders of that movement are essentially hagiographies (e.g., tributes to the altogether awesomeness of James White, Al Mohler, Tim Challies, David Platt, etc.). With these leaders, the satire is at its harshest in this one, where John Piper kills a fly and people get saved or this one, where John Piper Accidentally punches himself.
Adam also knows that his work will not sit well with people who are not conservative, Evangelical Christians. For instance, he received enough pushback to write a piece in which he satirizes people who critique his satire.
Now, I don’t fall neatly into the camp of the “Theological Liberal” or the “Postmodern” (Adam’s primary targets), but I have studied both of them enough to know what they are all about and I find them both compelling enough to consider and respect. So, due to my affiliation with the perspectives that Adam critiques most harshly, I have to wonder whether my frustration exists because what Adam says is libel or because it is true.
Okay, I don’t actually have to wonder. It is libel.
Satire necessarily creates a caricature of the thing it critiques, so it’s understandable that a parody might oversimplify or distort the thing it mocks. Like a political cartoon that gives Barack Obama giant ears, or Donald Trump over-puckered lips, satire takes a prominent element of an idea and makes it the defining feature and then uses it make the idea cave in on itself. Or, as Alexander Pope allegedly said,
“Good satire should not butcher a person but should, like an extremely sharp sword, slice entirely through the neck, leaving the head in place.”
In other words, the critique is precise and calculated. Most importantly, it has a thorough understanding of the thing it critiques, which gives insight into its weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
But, like a sword in the hands of a lunatic, Adam’s technique is to thrash without precision, to mock without understanding.
Rather than engaging with ideas and arguments, he instead characterizes nearly all of his enemies as one of two particular types of people:
- The angry, stubborn, intolerant “bigot” who refuses to listen, which is anyone who is gay affirming, pro-abortion, “theologically liberal” (whatever that means), politically liberal, or who advocates tolerance of non-conservative positions. (Incidentally–or maybe not–the majority of his anti-leftist work portrays women as the antagonists. In addition to those already linked, see for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here.) Taking his ad hominem into the realm of the absurd, he even associates moral relativists with Hitler. And, irony of ironies, one article from the Bee is entitled, “LGBT Advocacy Group Launches Center For Advanced Ad Hominems.”
- The dimwitted, but “open minded” intellectual whose entire worldview fall apart when the wise, conservative asks basic questions. For example, this comic portrays an “open minded” relativist, with a shirt that says “Wicked Smaht” (an indicator of Adam’s anti-intellectualism, which is also apparent here, here, and here), who claims that there is no “absolute truth.” The puny-minded relativist is stunned into silence by Adam’s logical left hook: Claiming that there is no absolute truth is an absolute statement.
Check. And. Mate. (Well, except for the fact that Adam is arguing against a position that nobody actually holds, since no educated Relativist actually argues that truth doesn’t exist. See James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism for a how a Conservative, Calvinist Christian can hold to Relativism without compromising Truth.)
In other words, Adam simply steals the tactics of the critics of Evangelicalism and throws it back, making no effort to actually understand their perspectives. “I’m not a bigot. You’re the bigot!”
I’m being sincerely charitable when I say that Adam is completely ignorant of the beliefs of the people he critiques. It’s charitable because if he has made an effort to discover the arguments of these people, his work is all the more condemnable. Mocking others from a position of ignorance is simply foolishness. Lying (by intentionally misrepresenting someone’s character) is slander.
Either way, it’s still libel. Either way, it’s still sin.
Let me talk specifically to my conservative sisters and brothers for a moment: Regardless of whether you currently agree with Adam on any particular issues, you should realize that his work explicitly condemns thoughtfulness and kindness. He encourages you, as conservative Christians, to believe that you are infallible–that you should not reconsider your beliefs. He demands that you close your minds to the possibility of being wrong.
By portraying his “enemies” as the kind of people who do not listen or understand, Adam sets the standard for his own interaction with them. And, as we know, Jesus wasn’t just making a suggestion when he said, “Treat others as you would want them to treat you” (Mt 7.12).
Adam’s own words condemn him:
“Tolerance says, ‘We hold different opinions, even on very important matters…but…we can still meet and discuss our differences without vilifying each other. But if, instead of tolerating the people with whom you disagree, you dismiss their legitimacy by dishonestly branding them…you are, in fact, being intolerant.”
So, why single out Adam Ford?
Adam, like you and me and everyone else in the world, wants his perspective to be heard, to be understood, and to be treated respectfully. He truly deserves that much. But his approach to those outside of the conservative Evangelical fold is indicative of the attitude of many within it. His popularity is evidence of that.
Adam is a caricature–a hyperbolic symbol–of the way in which Christians set up “Liberals” and “Relativists” and atheists and “the gays” as boogeymen, without actually understanding (or caring) what they say. His work re-affirms and validates the negative view of Evangelical Christianity as the rest of the world perceives it. (If you don’t believe me, read the book unChristian, which demonstrates fact that Christians are perceived in the very ways that Adam demonstrates.) In the most ironic of turns, Adam’s work truly is a satire of conservative Evangelicalism: all of its most pitiable and foolish elements made into defining features that may, inevitably, cause its destruction.
Rather than encouraging Christians to do what Jesus and James said (i.e., “treat others as you want to be treated” and “be slow to speak and quick to listen”), rather than respond to enemies with the kind of respect he desires from them, Adam responds to evil with evil, bigotry with bigotry, hate with hate.
Too often Christians engage in this kind of petty, straw-man destroying contest. We demand tolerance and respect, but dole out playground “I’m-like-rubber-you’re-like-glue” style responses. We aim not to discover truth or to create peace, but to win “culture wars” by rallying around shared fears and hatreds of Others.
Rather than perpetuating the immature and un-Christlike way of making our opponents into strawmen, we should follow the way of Christ by seeing the image of God in our ideological opponents. We should take the time to understand their beliefs even when they refuse to understand ours. We should find common ground and use that common ground to make the world a more peaceful and empathetic place. We should show those “intolerant liberals” what it means to be tolerant rather than drawing them as monstrous, angry, dimwitted trolls.