Breaking Saruman’s Spell with Laughter

I have recently been in an intriguing discussion with one of my best friends over the topic of how Christian’s should use satire, humor and language when critiquing a worldview. The conversations was spurned by a video I shared on Facebook that was satirically mocking another video. My friend didn’t agree with the video and thought it was wrong. I disagreed, and thus the conversation has carried on.

Jon, totally with you on Prov. 27:17 and friends helping sharpen one another through debating.

First off it seems apparent to me that the video was not a personal attack on the individual employees at BuzzFeed, but was just a silly video criticizing an equally silly worldview. Those individuals at BuzzFeed have, indeed, bought into a faulty worldview that does need to be critiqued, but obviously the goal of the video wasn’t to leave someone walking away thinking those particular individuals are just stupid. I didn’t get the impression that fumbling on pronouncing the word “pedestal” was intentional at all, I think the voice-actor just stumbled over the word. The video was poking fun at their worldview: post-modernism, therapeutic moral deism, and the double standard of the new “tolerance”. Now, I did not make the video, so I do not know the creator’s intentions – so, I could be wrong. Maybe he made it to be nasty, I highly doubt it though, due to a presentation he gives here on why he uses satire.

And I’m sorry, but I don’t think your categories (accepting Horace, but denying Juvenal) leave room for the Bible’s full use of satire. Certainly, as Christians we should “strive to live peaceably with all, if possible” (Rom. 12:18), and like you said, should use our satire sparingly and carefully. However, there are critical mockings in the Bible that are so explicit that I feel inappropriate posting them here (Ez. 16; 23:19-20; Isa 64:6, among many others). What about Jesus in Matthew 23 where he rails against the Pharisees calling them specific culturally offensive terms like “white washed tombs”? Or Paul in 2 Cor. 11 where he uses sarcasm to chide the Corinthian church for accepting false teachers? What about Paul calling the Pharisee’s “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh” in Phil. 3:2? Or Jude calling false teachers “unreasoning animals” in Jude 10? Doesn’t it seem a little “Juvenalian” for Paul to say that he wished the circumcision party would emasculate themselves in Gal. 5:12? Doesn’t it seem a little abrasive and ridiculing in 1 Kings 18 for Elijah to mock the prophets of Baal, joking that maybe their god is busy relieving himself?

Now, you know me, of course I don’t think we should just be fountains of mockery and criticism. Not by a long shot. Though the Bible is filled with plenty of jeering, that is not its primary tone. God gives His law so that He can call us to grace, and His tone is often warm and welcoming. Our engagement with worldviews should primarily be a respectful discussion (a rule that I feel comfortable saying I generally follow), but our tone should match that of the Bible. Our speech should never be needlessly filled with venom, but should be filled with salt (Col. 4:6). Our hearts should never be filled with hatred, but should be filled with truth and love (Eph. 4:14-15). We should never love to argue just because we’re pugnacious, but we should be ready to rebuke people sharply if we need to (Titus 1:13). And our critiques should never exalt ourselves as superior, lest we become the Pharisee gloating over the tax-collector in Luke 18 – BUT, it should exalt God’s truth as absolutely superior – so much so that it “demolishes arguments” raised against God (2 Cor. 10:5). So while our goal is never to be offensive for offensive’s sake, our goal is to be Biblical.

I think Eph. 6:12 is precisely what permits us to speak with such conviction and certainty, while remaining humble – we see that people are ensnared by the wiles of the enemy, and therefore we seek to destroy his lies. But Satan’s lies don’t just exist in a vacuum. I don’t debate the schemes by shouting into an empty hallway. No, the false assumptions are held by people. And I address these people, seeking to dismiss the sinful errors via conversations, debates, blogs, books, sermons, etc. But when I am addressing the individuals, I am critiquing the sinful worldview they ascribe to, not the persons themselves. In other words, I believe that we both are equal in dignity and worth as fellow image-bearers of God, and I am just as much a sinner as they are, so my critiques are not coming from on top of a high-horse, directed at who they are as a person. My critiques are built upon a Biblical worldview, seeking to free the persons from their errant, unBiblical worldview.

Now, I know we agree on that, but the question we are talking about here is “what is the appropriate method to do that?” And the Bible obviously gives us numerous examples. Jesus doesn’t tell the woman at the well that she is a child of the devil (which he does to the Pharisees in John 8:44), but speaks gently with her. Jesus enters into a reasoned, stimulating discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus, correcting his errors sharply, but not condescendingly (John 3:1-15). Jesus quietly speaks with Pilate, rather than insulting him like He did Herod (Luke 13:32). And Jesus rebukes his disciples, calling them “dull” (Matt. 15:16), rips into the Sadducees for being ignorant (Matt. 22:29), and lampoons the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness (Matt. 23:24). Sometimes we should answer a fool, and sometimes we shouldn’t (Prov. 26:4-5). I am not saying that you need to employ one of those tactics as the absolute standard for all discussion, but I am saying that you should not rule one of them out as “something a Christian should never do” when we see our Lord, at times, doing those very things!

Paul encourages us in Eph. 4:29 not to let unwholesome talk come out of our mouths, but only what is good for “building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” This is the same man who ranted earlier that he wished the Judaizers would have super-cised their circumcision. In fact, even more baffling, DIRECTLY after Paul makes the emasculation comment, he exhorts the Galatians to “serve one another, love their neighbors, and abstain from biting and devouring one another” (Gal. 5:13-15). Paul apparently sees no contradiction between verse 12 and verses 13-15. Perhaps, that comment was precisely what was appropriate for that moment, for building up, and imparting grace.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m advocating for Christians to be jerks – that’s not it at all (1 Pet. 3:15). A Christian’s commitment is not towards being as incendiary and controversial as possible – it is towards telling the truth, which is, on occasion, incendiary. But the answer isn’t found in a pin-ball reaction in the opposite direction, calling all incendiary comments antithetical to our faith. If we find that our humble tone doesn’t leave room for some of the words of the Prophets, Apostles or Christ Himself, then we are in the awkward position of looking down on them. Perhaps we have over-shot the mark. And sometimes, that means we can poke fun at what is silly.

I think Mr. Tolkein can teach us much on this matter (If you are reading along, and are not as much of a nerd as Jon or I am, please, bear with me). In The Two Towers, Saruman the traitor has been bested by Treebeard and the rest of the Ents, and his keep, Isengard, now lays in a swampy ruin. The defeated wizard has locked himself inside his impenetrable fortress, holding out like wounded animal, when Gandalf and his company approach the gates. Beforehand, Gandalf warns everyone of the power Saruman still has.

‘What’s the danger?’ asked Pippin. ‘Will he shoot at us, and pour fire out of the windows; or can he put a spell on us from a distance?’

‘The last is most likely, if you ride to his door with a light heart,’ said Gandalf. ‘But there is no knowing what he can do, or may choose to try. A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach. And Saruman has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice!’

The company then hails Saruman, and is surprised when they hear a melody,

Suddenly [a] voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.

Saruman then focuses the power of his enchantment on Theoden, the King of Rohan, whom Saruman just attempted to destroy (but failed). The wizard now promises peace, security and power. Many soldiers fall to the spell and are longing for Theoden to succumb, till Gimli the dwarf gruffly hollers,

The words of this wizard stand on their heads,’ he growled, gripping the handle of his axe.

Saruman, frustrated, then turns to Gandalf, who once was a dear friend of Saruman, and who outranked Gandalf in the ancient wizard’s order, and speaks gently. He appeals to Gandalf to come up and reason with him, to speak sensibly about matters and seek out some common good,

‘Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?’

So great was the power that Saruman exerted in this last effort that none that stood within hearing were unmoved…Even in the mind of Theoden the thought took shape, like a shadow of doubt…

Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.

‘Saruman, Saruman!’ said Gandalf still laughing. ‘Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors. Ah me!’ he paused, getting the better of his mirth. ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well.

– The Two Towers, Chapter 10 “Saruman’s Voice”

Saruman’s voice casts a magic spell to make what it is preposterous seem dignified, safe, normal, and desirable.  Saruman is defeated, with no army, with the enemy at his gates, but he almost single-handedly makes them surrender – that is ridiculous. While he speaks, most everyone eagerly affirms what he says, and anyone who tries to challenge Saruman sounds “harsh and uncouth” and anger is kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. Only Gandalf is the one who is able to see through the magic, and he breaks the spell over everyone through laughter. Laughter? This is serious business, Gandalf! What are you laughing for? He is laughing because he sees reality. Saruman is trying to pull a quick one; like the little kid trying to negotiate with the parents after he is caught.

What a magnificent allegory of what we are talking about. Our culture at large is under Saruman’s spell; entranced by sin, angry at those who challenge it, and what we need are those to treat it as it really is: laughable. It isn’t laughable because it isn’t serious, but precisely because it is. People are being slowly pulled into death, by a defeated enemy, and everyone thinks its the safest, best option. That is preposterous. A hearty, wholesome, humble laugh at what is ridiculous may be exactly what we need more of today.

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