The Importance of Being Earnest for an Irony-Obsessed Generation

The Rise of the Ironic Class: When Voices of Irony Should be Capped

Jul. 27, 2009 By Jenna Bartlo

There are a few things our generation will be known for. These include (but are not limited to): 9/11, American Idol, using phones as mini computers, Facebook, YouTube, Rock Band, narcissism, irony, and popularizing frozen yogurt. The second to last thing is what I want to talk about here…

It’s no secret: our generation — let’s very roughly say those of us currently between college age and 40 — is very, very ironic. That is, we look at the world, especially pop culture, through a highly sarcastic, “you’ve got to be joking, right?” lens. More self-aware and media savvy than ever, we are a growing class of ironists who speak in terms of pastiche, Internet bits and pop culture bites, film quotes and song lyrics, and “oh no she didn’t!” tabloid tomfoolery. We look the stupidity of culture in the face and kiss it — embracing The O.C. and drinking swill like Pabst because, well, because no one expects it, and it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

There are reasons for our embrace of irony. We grew up in a world where earnestness failed us. Cold Wars were waged very sincerely, ideologies were bandied about with the best of intentions. Our parents married and divorced in all earnestness, and wide swaths of American homes were devastated by the sort of domestic disharmony that shattered any pretension of white-picket-fence perfection. Meanwhile, we grew up in a constant flux of advertising and brand messaging. The conglomerates cornered the markets, the ad agencies figured us out and MTV sucked our souls dry. But we also became savvy, and with the Internet and all the wiki-democratization it offered, it became easier to see through the charades of various culture industries and power-wielding hegemonies. Flaws were exposed, seedy schemes revealed amid the formerly shrouded machinations of “the man.” Nothing was sacred anymore, and all was ridiculous.

Irony, then, became a fun, subversive response to pop culture’s increasingly desperate power grab. It became a defense mechanism of sorts — a way for us to exert some sort of autonomy over a machine that thinks it has us figured out. Realizing that mainstream culture was by-and-large one massive ruse, hipsters decided to ironically embrace it at the lowest common denominator level. Thus, the following things became ironically cool: Jerry Springer, ‘80s hair metal, elimiDATE, Buddy Holly glasses, Tron, Saved By the Bell, biker gangs, Carl’s Jr., Britney Spears and sock puppets.

At its core, irony is a way of working through absurdity — in the world, and in ourselves. It’s a method of channeling cynicism and lampooning (or guardedly hoping for) the sort of naïve idealism that believes things can get better. And it’s a communal activity — a sort of “group therapy” where we can bond with others who are similarly numbed and strangely entranced by the weirdness of the world. It’s this need for generational solidarity that has made irony into a veritable industry in recent years, spawning cynical superstars like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, as well as boatloads of snarky talking heads on VH1, E!, TMZ, and Comedy Central.

And, wouldn’t you know it, there has also arisen a Christian irony industry! For the secular world, satirical newspaper The Onion is the pinnacle of hipster irony. Christians now have several very similar alternatives. For example, there is Lark News — a fake news rag with headlines like “Denominations reach non-compete agreement” and “Missionaries maintain obesity against long odds.” Then there is the Stuff Christians Like blog, the Christian version of Stuff White People Like — the runaway success that revels in smarmy self-loathing and the purging of white bourgeois guilt. The Christian version features the same “countdown” format as its mainstream predecessor, including such entries as “#31: Occasionally swearing,” “#393: Family Fish Bumper Stickers,” and “#93: Riding on the Cool Van in the Youth Group.” Other purveyors of Christian irony include Purgatorio, which touts itself as “a panoply of evangelical eccentricities, un-orthodox oddities & Christian cultural curiosities,” Ship of Fools (“The magazine of Christian unrest”), and The Wittenberg Door (aka The Door), which is sort of the Mad Magazine of Christian culture and has been parodying institutional Christianity since 1971.

One of the posterboys of this sort of Christian irony is Matthew Paul Turner, former editor of CCM magazine. RELEVANT Books published Turner’s book, The Christian Culture Survival Guide, in 2004, which epitomizes the sort of nostalgic sarcasm that so many of us who grew up in ‘80s-era evangelical Sunday School can relate to. For Turner, whose most recent book — Churched — is his comedic memoir of growing up amid Barbie burnings and evangelical mayhem, irony is a defense mechanism and a way to work through insecurity about Christians, faith and the whole shebang. 

“I think so many of us Christians have become cynical and ironic because it's something safe to hide behind,” he says. “Most of us have been burned by the idea of ‘Christian relationship’ — we've been hurt or backstabbed or have been honest in an unsafe environment — so we have a reason to be cynical.”

But even as it is totally understandable why we become cynical and ironic, is it necessarily the best place to be for a Christian? Is there a point at which we need to put away our irony hats, stop making fun of our ridiculous and damaging pasts, and start thinking about taking things seriously and making the world better?

Turner thinks so. “We need to remember that if we keep poking holes in our Christian faith, sooner or later, what will we have left?” he says. “We have work to do, and it's easy to simply sit back and poke fun at everything, but it's more difficult to actually stand up and be an agent for change.”

In addition to perhaps keeping us from the work we have to do, our romance with irony has other questionable effects on day-to-day living. What does irony do to our interpersonal relationships, for example? We’ve all been in those situations where there is some super earnest person who doesn’t “get” our sarcasm. We’ve all been in those exhaustive social settings where everything is a joke, everything is ironic and seriousness/sincerity is intentionally kept at bay. And it grows tiresome. Does constantly being ironic hinder our ability to ever have a serious and safe conversation with anyone else? Does irony ultimately prove to be mostly just an alienating factor in relationships?

It depends. On one hand, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Jon Stewart and talk snarky about politics for an hour? Who wouldn’t want to kick back with Tina Fey and watch old episodes of Full House with her, making Olsen Twins jokes the whole time? We need that levity in relationships. But on the other hand, wouldn’t you eventually want to get to a point where you could talk earnestly and seriously about things with them? It’s fun to bond with people over shared senses of snark, but this is just an outer-layer-of-the-onion sort of thing. In every relationship, we have to be able to go deeper and get serious.

This is to say nothing of how irony impacts our relationships in a Christian context.  It’s even more important for Christians to be able to take a critical and careful approach to irony — to think about when and where it is appropriate, and when and where it behooves us to be irony-free. For example, I’m not sure that the Sunday sermon from the pulpit is the best platform for unfettered irony. People come to church to hear a good, honest, sincere word. They don’t come to hear Jon Stewart. But certainly there are places where irony is more appropriate for Christians: informal settings, Christian college dorms, small groups where everyone is at ease with sarcasm. Irony, after all, can be a healthy way to keep our encroaching pride and self-seriousness in check.

Of course, irony can also exacerbate our pride, making us more detached, aloof and elitist — when we start thinking that we have some sort of privileged knowledge of cultural inanities and can recognize the silliness of things even when most people do not. It can also be a way of showcasing one’s cultural adeptness, says Laurel Dailey, a twentysomething photographer from Long Beach, Calif., who considers herself a fairly average arbiter of irony.

“We’re a generation of cultural paranoia, and we don’t want to be out of the loop on anything,” Dailey says. “We want to be in on the joke, aware when we are being duped. Irony is like a self-aware announcement that you know what’s going on and will not be duped.”

But implicit in irony’s announcement that “I will not be duped!” is a snarky ridicule of all those mindless masses who are being duped, who are eating up culture in sincere and grossly uncritical manners. Irony, it seems, is never without its touches of “I know the score” pride.

But can irony also be a positive thing? In his article on the subject, “Age of Irony,” for The American Prospect, Jedediah Purdy concludes that, though irony is problematic in excess, it is also problematic when completely absent. He writes:

“The human reserves of pompousness, self-seriousness, and the leaden earnestness that always threatens to run molten are unlikely ever to be exhausted. Among our most trustworthy weapons against them is an intelligent and resourceful irony. That irony depends on the recognition that our moral situation is tragic — that we are base and worse even while recognizing that we should be good, and that we can keep ourselves from growing worse yet only by holding our frailty and ridiculous self-righteousness always before us.”

For Christians, Purdy’s conclusion should hit especially close to home. If anyone should be aware of our “frailty and ridiculous self-righteousness,” it is Christians, called to live humble lives in which we never think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3). If a healthy dose of irony — one that keeps us real and exposed rather than lofty and detached — can help us live humbler, more grounded lives, I’m all for it. But if our irony proves to be more self-serving and alienating to our community and witness, it should be toned down or abandoned. And if irony depreciates our sense of the importance of life — of the immortality of people and the awesome wonder of things — it cannot be helpful. People will say, “we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously,” which to some extent is true. But it’s also important to remember, as the ever-direct (but occasionally ironic) C.S. Lewis famously noted: “There are no ordinarypeople. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Existence is inescapably serious.

As stupid as people can be, and as silly as this world sometimes seems, we cannot forsake the truth of the matter: that creation is God’s workmanship, that people are holy beings who will eternally exist — for better or worse. If our generation will realize this — that not everything can be made light of and that irony has its limits — perhaps there is hope for us yet.

Written by Brett McCracken, Managing Editor of Biola Magazine. Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine (May/June 2009, pp. 36-39). Used with permission from RELEVANT.

Photo by Laurel Dailey

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