The Snark Factor (video and text)

[Preached at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA on 1/26/2014. Video available here:

“Has Christ been divided into parts?” This verse from our reading today in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was chosen as the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ended just yesterday. In this question, Paul challenges the early followers of Jesus who were fighting in the city of Corinth.

thatwewouldbeoneThis letter is Paul’s response to receiving the news that the Corinthians are fighting amongst themselves. They fought about all sorts of things:  marriage vs. celibacy; dietary laws; the ways they performed the Eucharist. They also fought about who the better religious leader was: the highly eloquent Apollos, or Paul himself, who describes himself in a state of weakness, full of “fear and trembling.” Apparently, Paul was a nervous preacher.

In this letter, Paul tells his readers to “be of the same mind” and message.

Some of the Corinthians considered themselves more “spiritual” and more “mature” than others. Paul responded to these Corinthians with strongly worded cautions, some of them sarcastic or ironic. In other words, he used snark.

“Snark” is one of those “snuh” words. It means “to be critical in a rude or sarcastic way.”  It’s like “snicker”, “snort”, “sneer”, “snide.” They all refer to speech or laughter that belittles others. One who snarks or sneers or snorts is assuming a superior position to another individual or group. Interestingly, the Greek origin of the word “sarcasm” means “to tear flesh.”

To rend flesh.

When I read about the fights among the Corinthians, I cannot help but think about the current battles between Christian camps, and the high level of snark in them. Now I admit that I love snark. I love Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, and the Onion. All of these are sources of humor rely on snark, whether in the forms of irony, sarcasm, or satire.

The thing is, I think snark becomes highly problematic in the realm of Christian discourse, whether it is when Christians are talking among themselves, or when they are representing themselves to other people. Christian discourse has become increasingly snarky with the advent of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Religious people that I know only via Facebook even compete to see who can be the snarkiest.  Like the Corinthians, we fight very publicly with other Christians, mocking each other’s views, deploring the actions of other Christian groups, and so on. But most of all, we call each other misguided or stupid. Remember, the goal of snark is to belittle someone. The only possible result of belittling someone is to exclude them and humiliate them.  It’s a divisive form of expression. Not exactly a show of Christian unity, of sameness of mind and purpose.

I had a very powerful experience of division between Christians in college. I lived in a small dorm, so all of us knew each other well. My fellow students knew that I was a Catholic who went to church nearly every Sunday. But they did not know that I secretly read the Bible by myself in my room. One day, I saw some students gathered in the dorm room across the hall from me. They were sitting on the beds with Bibles on their laps. A freshman named Jim was saying something to the young women in the room. I walked in the room, sat down on a bed, and said, “What are you discussing?” This was a typical thing for us to do.

But not that day. I got a very cold look from Jim, who was a Baptist from Illinois. He said, “We’re doing Bible study.”

I took a deep breath and admitted something kind of embarrassing to me: I also read the Bible. I asked if I could get my Bible and join them.

He said no and told me to leave the room. The young women all hung their heads as I walked out.

I couldn’t fathom it. I partied with those people all the time. I did not know why I was being excluded, and I was too embarrassed to ask. Well, I soon learned why.

A few weeks later, we had a costume party in our dorm, and we were supposed to dress as our favorite historical character. I dressed as the Virgin Mary. I brought this little icon of Mary and Jesus with me, a gift from my godfather at my first Communion, and said it was Jesus’ baby picture. People thought this was hilarious. Not Jim. He came up to me very angrily and jabbed his finger in my face and told me that it was a lie that Mary was a virgin, that this was idolatrous, and that Catholics were wrong for worshipping Mary. I told him, “I don’t worship Mary. I worship Jesus Christ, just like you.” He insisted that my religious beliefs were wrong.

That incident had a strong effect upon me. It caused me to distrust some other Christians. I had seen Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker proclaiming their Gospel on TV, and I thought, “To heck with evangelism!” I kept my religion to myself, because the LAST thing I wanted people to know about me was that I was a Christian.

Fast forward several years, and I had discovered the Episcopal Church and my vocation to the priesthood. I took every Bible study class I could, and that was when I started meeting a lot more Christians from a variety of backgrounds and finding fellowship and friendship with them. I realized that that early negative experience had caused me to avoid real engagement with people of a more evangelical bent. I also realized that it had caused me to have a pretty snarky attitude toward some Christians. You know the types. The ones who hold the signs at parades and football games. The ones who take the Bible literally. THOSE Christians.

Snark and sarcasm are defense mechanisms, as a way of hiding from some real feeling, or a way of avoiding intimacy and vulnerability with someone.  It’s a subtle form of aggression, meant as an  attack without really seeming to attack. Because it’s funny, right? Can’t you take a joke?  I have no doubt that my snark toward some Christians was due to that experience of being rejected by that group in college due to my Catholic spirituality.

So imagine my surprise many years later when I found myself in the bizarre situation of explaining conservative evangelical Christianity as sympathetically as I could to a coworker. Just before I left my teaching job a few years ago, a fellow professor and friend, a gay man, asked me, “Why do Christians hate me?” Bill is an atheist, and he could not understand the very conservative Christian students on our campus who supported Proposition 8  and did so in a vocal and virulent homophobic way. The question startled me, mainly because I just didn’t see how I could ever explain the coexistence of the words “Christians” and “hate” in the same sentence. So I said hastily, “Bill, I love you, and I’m a Christian.” But he persisted: “Okay, why do OTHER Christians hate me?”

So I explained very hesitantly and gently that there are a few sentences in the Bible that condemn homosexual acts, but that the overwhelming message of the Bible, especially the Christian Scriptures, is that we are to love one another without exception. A Christian can never justify hatred. He said, “But why do they think I care about their beliefs? I’m an atheist.”

Then I explained how Christian Scriptures encourage us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. And for some Christians, this can mean that they feel ethically bound to encourage other people to become Christians or to avoid sin so that their souls will be saved from hell. He said, “But I don’t believe in hell. I don’t care what they believe.” I reiterated that I did not agree with these Christians, and neither did most of the Christians I hung out with. But I added that conservative Christians really believed that their actions toward him were loving and caring. I wasn’t trying to justify what they were doing. I hated what they were doing. But I was trying to explain their motivations, as misguided as I considered them, in the best possible light to a man who truly needed to understand the forces that were confronting him. And I suddenly felt compassion for them.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say that in that moment, I was experiencing  transcendence in my experience of being for the other, an other that is the enemy to me and my friend Bill.  In his most popular book, Totality and Infinity, Levinas argues that transcendence and goodness come from an encounter with difference in pluralism. It does not come from totality, or totalitarianism, or an insistence that we are all one by conforming to some overarching, anonymous collectivity. Our goal is not to erase otherness through some other-worldly inclusion, but rather to be confronted by the other, and to reach out to the confrontational other with love and a desire for goodness. He says that we must maintain our individual personhoods without egoism. He calls these encounters “the epiphany of the face.” It leads to a reorientation of our inner life, a life that is “called to infinite possibilities.” He says that this epiphany is a “traumatism of astonishment” in which only the person who is absolutely foreign to us—the one who stretches us the most–can instruct us.

At first, it might seem that Paul is trying to impose a singular, overarching religion upon his readers. Paul tells his followers to “be of the same mind” in several letters, using the same Greek phrase. He intentionally addresses heterogeneous communities in Corinth, Philippi, and Rome who are having religious squabbles. However, it’s a misreading of Paul to say that he means, “Everybody should think and say the same thing.” In fact, he makes it clear in his letters to Corinth, Philippi and Rome that we should make allowances for differences in practices and beliefs and cultures. He does not want people to feel forced to follow the same religious or cultural laws.

It is true that Paul wants the followers of Jesus to bear the same message: the message of the Cross. According to Hans Conzelmann and other recent scholarship on the works of Paul, Paul’s message of the Cross is simple: we have new life in Christ through the Cross, and the Cross, a sign of humiliation and lowness, is shown to be the path to true exaltation and union with God and one another.

Paul says a great deal about the wisdom of the world vs. the foolishness of God. One of his constant themes is that Jesus took on a very lowly form, eschewing the power and wisdom of the world, to show us all that it is through humility, a denial of the world’s power, that we are drawn into new life with God. That is Paul’s theology of the cross, what he calls the central message around which all Christians should unite. So how does Paul stack up against Levinas’ claim that transcendence and infinity come through an embrace of pluralism?

I think Paul stacks up pretty well. Like Levinas, Paul emphasizes a way of living without egoism. Paul keeps talking about worldly wisdom and its foolishness because he wants Christians to stop lording it over one another. To stop thinking that some of us are wiser or more mature or sophisticated than other Christians, that some are more correct about religious practices and theological beliefs.

A lot of the snark that flies through the media between warring Christians has this same flavor of pitting wiser, urbane, wittier Christians against simple-minded fools. Consider two popular stereotypes of Christians: the sophisticated, educated, superior, progressive Christians vs. the foolish, stupid, narrow-minded evangelicals and Southern Baptists. It’s a thing, people. Look at the advertising on this wonderful book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian. It says “A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Bible.” So who are the unthinking Bible readers? Or consider Robin Williams’ famous Top Ten reasons to be an Episcopalian: One of them is “You don’t have to check your brains at the door.” There’s a clear implication there that other Christians do check their brains at the door. That’s snark. That cuts the flesh of the body of Christ.

How can we effectively proclaim the Good news of Salvation and union with God if we consider ourselves superior to others? This is not the Good News that Jesus proclaimed.

On the other hand, how can we love people, Christian or otherwise, who have been verbally and physically violent toward us and the people we love?

The only way I know is the way that Jesus loved his enemies. He confronted them, and he spoke against them, but he did not assume a position of superiority over them. On the contrary, he opposed them with love, with acceptance for who they were at that stage of their journey.

I wish I could replay that conversation with Jim, my dormmate of so many years ago. I wish I could walk back into that dorm room and say the same thing to the eighteen-year-old Jim that I said to my colleague Bill. I would say, “Jim, I love you, and I am a Christian. And I’d love to talk Bible with you.” I wish I could say that, no matter what our religious differences are, we both worship Jesus. And we both embrace Paul’s message of the cross: that God humbled himself and made herself vulnerable out of love for us to free us from our bondage to hatred and division and egoism.

Paul’s letter is a call to unity in pluralism. A call to embrace difference, not division. It’s a call to be vulnerable and honest to others, not to hide behind snark and superiority. It’s a Levinasian call to experience transcendence and epiphany and union with God in the most unlikely of places: in the faces of our enemies.

2 Thoughts

  1. Dear Janine:

    I enjoyed listening to your sermon. It is hilarious, sincere but above all it is relevant and challenging.

    Your sermon reminds me of a conversation I once had with a professor you and I know at Yale. The conversation was about the nature of the division between progressive and conservative American Christians. I believe the divisions between these camps are not situated on a “symmetrical” plain field. There is more to it than mere hermeneutical discrepancies. Despite many “snarkists” out there, the division is rooted on the very nature of doctrine itself. Therefore, I don’t think neither the Apollos-Paul controversy nor the “Euodia and Syntyche division” encompass the totality of what we are currently dealing with.

    To a certain extent, our current “impasses” are not “disagreements” but asymmetrical epistemic collision. This is where Lindbeck’s framework for cultural-linguistics conceptions of religion & doctrine becomes essential once again.

    I totally agree with you; “the snark factor” is a big contributor to the current animosity between these camps. But I think there is more at the root of this innocuous fragmentation. The question is whether “we” have the time or the stamina to dig deeper into the core of this rift. That is why “the snark factor” is so ubiquitous. It is easier “to snark” than to deal with the real issue at hand.

    In the meantime, what are we suppose to do? We are suppose to do what you are doing; challenge our own camps.

    Blessings to you my sister in Christ.

  2. Dear Samuel, thanks for this wonderful, thoughtful response. I agree that the issues we face are more epistemological in nature, and Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic theory is important to cite here to make your point. The asymmetrical epistemic collision is partly due to cultural impasses, and as one who works in and around multiple cultures in her work, I find the “unity in pluralism” thrilling and challenging at the same time. That’s why I try to maintain respect and love for people whose religious views–and behavior–I find difficult to understand or tolerate. I think this is probably even more obvious to people who have crossed substantial cultural divides due to immigration, etc.

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