Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?*

Last week or so I was driving somewhere and listening to an ad on the radio, an ad that (like those Geico commercials [TV, 2007*] with the Pierce Brosnan look-a-like) was intentionally ironic, self-referential. That is, it made fun of itself, pretending to be a non-ad ad. As Bob is my witless (Rugrats, 1993*), I thought, “I’ve got to write an article about the irony now prevailing in contemporary culture.” But the prospect was daunting; I didn’t feel S-M-R-T enough (Simpsons, 1999*) to even start.

So two paragraphs into this must-read article, I knew that A) I would post a link to it on my blog and B) my thunder had been stolen and then greatly improved upon. A French prof at Princeton got my idea into the New York Times. Not fair. In her piece, she describes with not-fair levels of insight the culture of ironic malaise that we now call hipsterism. She worries publicly about a visible (?) class of Americans for whom the unbearable pressures of being are alleviated by donning a non-identity identity. She describes hipsters as people who wear and collect and do stuff they don’t personally like from eras in which they did not personally live in order to escape their own failure to contribute to Western culture. (Whew!)

And, she points out, they make as many pop-culture references per minute as there are Twilight sequels.*

The cartoons appended to the article are to die for. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I speak of a hipster culture of irony, there are 2,000 words of pictures on the page which will clue you in.

Can this humble blogger add an insight to such a good piece? I just wonder if the culture of ironic pop-culture references is one reason Wikipedia is so popular. So many articles end with a “This Topic in Popular Culture” section—it’s a perfect usage guide for the hipster. You don’t want to quote Chandler (FRIENDS, 1998*) when it was really Kramer (Seinfeld, 1996*). When you smile knowingly, the true cognoscenti may smile back wryly. Your cover will be blown.

Fundamentalism: The Plot Thickens

So I was reading blithely along, chuckling and marveling at appropriate points. And then (“all of the sudden!” as my toddler likes to shout), fifteen paragraphs in, I was shocked to see myself!

Historically, vacuums eventually have been filled by something—more often than not, a hazardous something. Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists.

I think that’s what you call a backhanded compliment. It’s nice to be recognized for our success in avoiding ironism. But not so nice when the next person on the platform to get the award is Pol Pot. Why can’t people be nice to us? I can be cool in a detached way! I have a youth-sized 1993 National Geography Bee T-shirt that I sometimes wear in an ironic fashion!

But we fundamentalists get no mercy. One of the commenters, whose viewpoint achieved “Recommended Pick” status, is even more pointed than the article:

I think to fully understand the hipster you have to place him alongside the fundamentalist. The hipster and the fundamentalist are two sides of the same fake coin; they are both fearful people. The first is too afraid of looking like a fool to risk being wrong or right; the second is so afraid of ambiguity, of not knowing the difference between wrong and right, that he throws himself blindly into “faith.” They are equally fearful responses to the moral ambiguity of life. The hipster stands outside every attempt at sincere living, mocking anyone who tries to find a moral center; the fundamentalist pretends there is no question about it, there is only one center, one God, one true, one good, and he has found it.

Jesus was capable of irony, even sarcasm. I have always loved His response to the Syro-phoenician woman, for example (Matt. 15:22–28). Two could play His game. And it’s only because you’ve heard it your whole life that you fail to laugh at His “Get the plank out of your own eye” line (Matt. 7:3). Laughter does good like a medicine (Prov. 17:22), even sometimes ironic laughter.

But I think this commenter is on to something. People who truly believe in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith can’t build their lives on the shifting sands of irony. Our lives are founded on a rock. Even our young men are supposed to be sober (Titus 2:6). (The Greek word for “sober” means, literally, “not slackers.”) For some discussion topics, the ironic mode is nothing less than blasphemous. A Christian life will look like fideism to a culture of hipsters—or to a culture of scientific modernist materialist evolutionists. We will look fake. But there is only one center, one God, one true. And He has found us. What else can we do?

The Point

I didn’t start this post with a point in mind, but I can’t help it. I’m reminded of how Tim Keller once pointed out that the trend toward casual dress in society was, he judged, a simple fruit of rebellion against authority. He wondered aloud whether churches should support such a trend by encouraging casual dress in worship.

I feel the same way about ironic hipsterism, despite being myself someone with (ahem) no mean ability to drop subtle references to pop-culture (minus all R-rated movies and nearly every TV show created after the year 2000).* Hipster culture means something. It says something. Is that something consistent with the Christian faith? I urge you to read the article and decide, before God our Rock, for yourself.

*Disclaimer: The pop-culture references in this piece are only illustrative, proving that I am a man of my generation. I discard all irony and prove myself a fundamentalist when I say I’d rather not know what I know about 1990s television.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Isn’t It Ironic, Don’t You Think?*”

  1. I don’t consider myself as a hipster, but I suppose it’s a relative, hazily defined term. I do have at least one Sufjan Stevens album, wear skinny jeans, chuckle heartily at Stuff White People Like, and would sport a Jesus beard if my cheeks weren’t smoother than a baby’s rump. So maybe the label is appropriate, relatively speaking. Either way, I’m reasonably well versed in irony, so I guess this applies to me.

    Right now I’m reading Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things, a Gen-X-er treatise on our culture of irony that delves more deeply into the themes of Ms. Wampole’s article. He describes our irony-drenched culture as one in which we exercise “a style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naivete, of naive devotion, belief, or hope.”

    Avoid the knee-jerk reaction that may be surging through your patella right now–this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because naivete sure isn’t a good thing. Ms. Wampole points out the beauty of a completely naive, irony-free 4-year-old, but such naivete becomes increasingly less attractive with age. A little “discriminating irreverence,” which Mr. Samuel Clemens observed to be the “protector of human liberty,” would actually do us all some good.

    Irony in general is just a natural response to one’s environment. As Purdy notes (pardon the long quote): “We can have no intimate moment, no private words of affection, empathy, or rebuke that we have not seen pronounced on a thirty-foot screen before an audience of hundreds. We cannot speak of atonement or apology without knowing how those words have been put to cynical, almost morally pornographic use by politicians. Even in solitary encounters with nature, bicycling on a country road or hiking on a mountain path, we reluctant ironists realize that our pleasure in these places has been anticipated by a thousand L.L. Bean catalogues, Ansel Adams calendars, and advertisements promising a portion of the rugged or bucolic life. So we sense an unreal quality in our words and even in our thoughts.”

    Ok, that’s unpleasant, but so far no one’s doing anything wrong yet.

    The problem is what comes as a result of that ironic self-awareness. Purdy chooses Seinfeld as his whipping boy and hits the nail right on the head: “Seinfeld’s stance [of ironic detachment] resists disappointment or failure by refusing to identify strongly with any project, relationship, or aspiration. An ironic attitude to politics and public life never invites disappointment by a movement’s decline or a leader’s philandering. There is a kind of security here, but it is the negative security of perpetual suspicion.”

    Based on the excerpts of Purdy’s book I’ve quoted, I see one big question: how do you address that ironic detachment in an information age, where we’re assaulted ads nonstop and where our upstanding leaders can prove their fallibility to the entire world in a matter of seconds? Purdy points out that the moral authority of many of history’s revered leaders lay largely in the public’s blissful ignorance of their personal lives–hardly an option today in the days of YouTube and Twitter. Today the cat’s out of the bag, and thanks to the world wide web, will keep escaping. Unless we return to a pre-internet world like in the contemporary TV show Revolution (obligatory pop culture reference), it’s futile to tell everyone to just eschew irony.

    The key, I believe, is to teach young people the duty of hope. (I almost said the “audacity of hope,” and you have to admit, it’s a piquant phrase.) Realism and cynicism are almost identical twins, the difference being that cynicism is devoid of hope. And hopelessness is a sin. The problem with an irony-infused culture isn’t the irony, it’s the hopelessness that often lies hidden underneath. To do just about anything useful–fall in love, vote for a good politician, try to help a troubled person, write a blog, pursue a career–you have to put yourself out there, knowing very well that disappointment is likely and sometimes inevitable.

    The goal for those hoping to influence the next generation should not be to denounce irony, per se. Rather, you help them to see that it’s easy to use that “discriminating irreverence” and ironic self-awareness as an excuse to avoid hoping, avoid believing in something, avoid doing anything.

    That’s my 16.4 cents worth.

  2. Good thoughts, Jon.

    A small note: I noticed today while watching PBS Kids with my son today at Nana’s house that a number of the kids shows are full of irony. I remember liking “Eek! the Cat” when I was in high school because it was a show ostensibly for kids that only adults could get. But “Word Girl” drips with so much irony that I couldn’t even figure out why any kid would like it.

    Then again, I suppose Rocky and Bulwinkel isn’t exactly contemporary…

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