What the Bible Says About Scorn and Mockery (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

Brace yourselves, readers! S. M. Davis is back…and since I mercilessly mocked his wonky ideas about birth order back in January, I imagine he wouldn’t be very pleased with me.

Let’s cut to the chase and examine the claim around which Davis framed most of the lecture:

And the purpose of mockery is what? To stop or hinder the work of God or the truth of God. The primary purpose seen throughout the Bible for scorn and mockery was to either just laugh at it, or to try to stop it or hinder the work of God or the truth of God.

Davis originally qualified this claim by saying that mockery is “often” designed to stop or hinder God’s work, but by the end of the lecture that “often” had all but vanished. He also, as we should expect after this claim, stated explicitly that he wants to “come real close” to forbidding Christians from ever using mockery (though he was intellectually honest enough to leave himself a little wiggle room, as I’ll explain later), and was especially concerned with the fact that mockery is a “negative emotional force.”

I’d first like to dispute the bit about negative emotional forces. While it’s obvious that mockery is usually a negative emotional force, what’s not so obvious is that negative emotional forces are necessarily bad simply because they are negative. Davis implies this, and contrasts mockery with “positive emotional forces” in the Bible like gentleness and joy. What he never addresses, however, is the fact that God Himself uses negative emotional forces (wrath, judgment, etc.) all the time, and is in fact portrayed as using mockery only one chapter after Davis’ favorite anti-mockery psalm (emphasis mine):

Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)

God is here shown scorning and mocking the nations who are plotting to rebel against Him. (And for those with musical interests, this verse was given its own recitative in Handel’s Messiah.) This alone would seem to blow Davis’ theory out of the water (though there is one more exception, which I’ll address later).

There’s also some historical and social context that further undermines Davis’ premise. J. P. Holding, while addressing the question of whether Christians may use satire (essentially a highly refined form of mockery) and sarcasm against atheists in a public forum, covered some of the same ground as Davis when he wrote about “public honor challenges” in the ancient world:

Many ancient societies…engage in a process known as challenge-riposte. The scene of such processes is public venues in which two persons or groups have competing honor claims: “…the game of challenge-riposte is a central phenomenon, and one that must be played out in public.” [42] The purpose is for each party to try to undermine the honor, or social status, of the other in an exchange that “answers in equal measures or ups the ante (and thereby challenges in return).”

In the Gospels, Jesus “evidences considerable skill at riposte and thereby reveals himself to be an honorable and authoritative prophet.” Many of these challenges are clear, but some are so hidden to us that they need exposition.

I imagine Skeptics pass this one over without a thought:

Matthew 12:5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?

Most Skeptics are too busy worrying about Abiathar and Ahimelech in this passage in the Markan parallel, but read closely it is a tremendous insult to Jesus’ Pharasaic opponents. “Have you not read…?”

Of course they had. The Pharisees were experts in the Scriptures. They read them every day. They were the Ph.Ds in Bible in their time. To ask them, “Have you not read…?” is to essentially call them stupid, unable to read what was in front of them, not having done proper study.[1]

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_Question_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_questionnent_Jésus)_-_James_TissotIn other words, while Davis may have scoured the Bible for “every” instance of scorn and mockery by searching his King James for those and similar words, he apparently missed this enormous barb slung at the Pharisees by Jesus, and is also missing some context that shows us there are uses of mockery and insults which the Biblical authors did not condemn. And this exchange with the Pharisees is hardly the only example: Holding also cites numerous passages from the church fathers, all of which Davis would certainly classify as mockery. Granted, this style of rebuttal is not suited to every situation or adopted by everyone. But the fact remains that it was used and never remarked upon as sinful, which should at least cause Davis to re-examine or qualify his position here.

(Another hilarious irony was that Davis favorably quoted Martin Luther in a lecture about how Christians should avoid using mockery. Quite frankly, anyone who has even a passing familiarty with Luther will know that he hardly agreed with Davis on this point. There’s a reason The Lutheran Insulter has so much material!)

Of Baal and big heads

One of Davis’ main fears about Christians using mockery appears to be that they will mock out of what he calls “religious pride.” One on the hand, I’m glad he mentioned this, because there certainly are many Christians who resort to mockery almost immediately out of arrogance and a lack of understanding. On the other, however (and as Holding also points out), it does not necessarily follow that every Christian who mocks something, is doing so from prideful motives, and so Davis cannot necessarily assume this.

Another of Davis’ concerns is that Christians will inappropriately mock godly things. This too is not completely invalid, but before we jump on Davis’ bandwagon, take a gander at the list of things that scandalized him:

In my lifetime, I’ve heard Christians mock so many things. Think back. I’ve heard Christians mock Christian education, whether it was homeschool or Christian school. I’ve heard Christians mock godly music. ‘Well, that might be something for your grandma to listen to, but it’s not enough for me, I’ll tell ya.’ What are they doing? They’re mocking. The people who use mockery, even if they’re Christians, are usually proud people in a group using peer pressure to wrongly influence others the wrong direction. Christians mock godly dress standards. ‘Well, it looked like something out of the sixteen or seventeen hundreds, you dress like that.’ Christians mock wise principles to get to the marriage altar. Christians mock Biblical terminology. Christians mock people of other races, Christians mock people with disabilities or crippled people or someone with a speech impediment.

As you can see, most of these things fall far short of a Christian mocking, say, Jesus or the Lord’s Supper. Some of them are examples of rude and maybe even bigoted behavior – for instance, mocking a black person – but many seem to be little more than Davis getting upset that someone made fun of patriarchal cultural markers (old-fashioned hymns, homeschooling, etc.). It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Davis that many Christians dispute whether these cultural markers are inherently godly. Granted, we can ask whether it’s always appropriate to mock or satirize them (see the last section), but the fact remains that they can’t be elevated to quite the level Davis might like.

Also, to those with a little background information, Davis may come off as a little inconsistent here. Is he aware that many of his patriarchy proponent friends called their critics names like “feminazi”? If so, does he object to this? Or is it only bad for Christians to use mockery when they’re mocking something or someone Davis likes?

More to the point, however, does Davis’ attempt at a near-blanket prohibition of mockery for Christians even stand up to scrutiny? I hinted above that it doesn’t, when I pointed out that God is characterized as mocking rebellious nations, but Davis has an even bigger problem – Elijah (emphasis mine):

Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.”

So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made.

And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they cried out, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:25-29)

tumblr_mmggsgG3J91qbhp9xo1_1280In fairness to Davis, he did mention this passage and admitted that it seemed to contradict his theory. His only attempt at explaining it, however, revolved around the fact that Elijah was alone when he mocked the prophets of Baal (see below), and that he was speaking against a false god. And then, true to form, there was this:

And then you also have to ask yourself this question: was there some connection between the mockery of chapter 18, and the extreme depression that Elijah went into in chapter 19? And you have to ask yourself the question, is scorn and mockery ever right? Now I won’t say that it’s never right to use mockery, but I will say you and I better be very careful – listen to me – we better be careful about mocking people and that we don’t ever mock truth, and that we’re not mocking ever with a heart full of pride.

This is the extreme depression in question:

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:1-4)

It’s easy to see from this that Elijah’s distress was closely linked to the fact that Jezebel threatened him, so I conclude that Davis’ argument here is just another example of him seeing something that isn’t there.

I’m with stupid

But is it relevant that Elijah was mocking the prophets of Baal alone? Throughout the lecture, Davis makes a very big deal out of the (alleged) group aspect of mockery. In fact, he appears to think that most mockery happens this way:

The people who use scorn and mockery, it is almost always a proud person – think with me – a proud person in a group of other people using peer pressure to influence them the wrong way.

Now certainly some mockery does happen this way (think of a pack of bullies in school). But where Davis gets the idea that mockery “almost always” takes this form, I can’t understand. There are many kinds of mockery that are done alone. Davis’ narrow definition also seems strangely limited to mocking in person, as opposed to, say, in writing. Perhaps this is why Davis seems completely unaware of the existence of satire, which breaks more than one of his rules:

…the person who uses scorn and mockery usually doesn’t know what they think they know. … The person who mocks is usually mocking something that he doesn’t understand or that he refuses to believe.

Now since a scorner is adamant about what he thinks, even though he doesn’t know what he thinks he knows, the Bible refers to the mocker or the scorner as a fool. He don’t know what he thinks he knows.

NEVER-UNDERESTIMATE-The-power-of-stupid-people...-In-large-groups-POGO18Here, Davis is probably picturing an ignorant person using ad hominem attacks to make fun of something he’s not informed or intelligent enough to understand. Obviously, as we can see from even a cursory glance at the internet, this does happen pretty frequently. But are we expected to seriously believe that all forms of mockery are like this? Again, what would Davis do with a good satirist? They are working alone, often using subtle and sophisticated humor – and the best satire, contra Davis’ assertions, is usually written by people who are intimately familiar with their subject matter. Davis’ apparent cluelessness of this point, makes me question his understanding of humor. To implicitly compare someone like Oscar Wilde to a gang of teenage boys (or worse, something like Beevis and Butthead), is not only the height of ignorance, it’s also insulting.

Weird with a side order of quirks

As usual, I have some assorted oddness to cover before I close this post, most of which involves, as mentioned above, Davis making connections that aren’t there. First is his analysis of this passage, in which the author of Hebrews describes the trials of past saints:

Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. (Hebrews 11:35-36)

According to Davis, mockery is listed here, not as part of a description of the martyrs’ sufferings, but as a statement of how powerful and terrible it is. There are two problems here. One, as already stated, I doubt that the inclusion of mockery in Hebrews 11 was anything but descriptive. Two, while I won’t deny that sometimes mockery, especially when concentrated into a bullying campaign, can be very damaging – see the many stories of students who committed suicide after Facebook bullying for just one example – Davis does not qualify his statement. His audience could thus draw a comparison between someone making fun of the dated, emotive language in a 19th-century tent meeting song, and being sawn in half. I shouldn’t have to explain why that it is not only completely illegitimate, but also insulting to real martyrs.

But there is, as usual, an even a stranger example of Davis reading into the Bible. Working from the premise of Galatians 6:7 and that God will always punish mockery, Davis comes out with this:

You remember the text? You remember Jesus going into the house, and there those people who had been weeping and now they’re scorning when Jesus says, she’s not dead, but she sleeps? What was the punishment those people got? The punishment was they missed the greatest opportunity of their lives. Those people had right in front of them the greatest opportunity of their entire lives. They could have seen what no one in this room today has ever seen. They had the opportunity to see what only a small handful of people in all of history have ever seen. They could have witnessed a dead person supernaturally brought back to life. Their judgment was they missed the greatest opportunity of their life because they wouldn’t hold their tongue.

The text referred to is the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:38-43, Luke 8:51-56). In both accounts, the hired mourners make fun of Jesus’ suggestion that Jairus’ daughter is sleeping rather than dead; thus, in Davis’ system, they must be punished for this action. But rather than letting the judgment occur later, Davis feels the need to wring a punishment out the immediate context. Listening to the rest of his statements about mockery, however, you’d expect the consequences to be much, much worse than just missing out on a miracle. In fact, I’m not sure we can honestly stretch this into a “punishment” even if we tried.

Probably the most ridiculous thing Davis put forth in the lecture, however, was this:

You remember the law of first mention? That is simply a principle of interpretation that says the first time you find a word in the Bible is a key to understanding it all the way through the Bible.

Any Biblical scholar would laugh themselves silly at this supposed “law” of Biblical interpretation. This is because Davis is treating the Bible like one book, as opposed to 66(+) of them composed at different times by different people. To do this is to completely divorce the Bible from its historical context, which is, of course, profoundly irresponsible. Then again, should it surprise us that the man who brought us birth order astrology, thinks it’s okay to interpret the Bible this way?

But I suppose it’s not really all bad, in the end. Because…drum roll please…What the Bible Says About Scorn Mockery is the last S. M. Davis lecture in my Big Box!


…and to quote Monty Python, “there was much rejoicing.”

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