Beware of gospel-ending conversations

Jimmy Carr’s comedy is certainly not to everyone’s taste: he has built his career on telling risky one-liners. In his Netflix show His Dark Materials (the clue is in the name), he played with the idea of career-ending jokes, and one such joke may have proved his point.

I am not going to defend his approach or humour. Still, when I finally heard the joke that many described as deeply disturbing, I heard it not as laughing at the Holocaust but as an attempt to expose current prejudices against the gypsy community (prejudices I have heard not infrequently in the area where I live).

Comment sections in the newspapers reflected this divided response: some heard an appalling, cruel and dehumanising joke, while others heard satire and couldn’t understand what the problem was. It has made me wonder whether satire and irony are increasingly difficult to use.

People feel offence despite the intention of the person communicating. It is as though they are speaking different languages. Maybe Jimmy Carr’s problem was that he is so familiar with his satirical form he took it for granted that people would get the joke. Perhaps he was deliberately stoking the culture wars. Maybe he knew the audience he was talking to and geared it for them.

It is hard to put it through a humour filter when you are close to something. In recent years my name has become a meme. It appears on Twitter as #karen and #karenoftheday and is not a compliment. According to Wikipedia, it is ‘a pejorative term for a white woman perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal’. It refers to an unreasonable and, at times, aggressive woman. The stereotype even includes a short bob haircut just like mine. I recall being teased with the phrase ‘a typical Karen’. I knew it was being used playfully, but it was hard to laugh along. The motivation of the joker didn’t make me feel any better, but I smiled and let it pass. I confess I’m not too fond of the stereotype. This is, of course, trivial, but other issues are much more significant.

As Christians, we need to try and be aware of people’s sensitivities. This is increasingly difficult because our society is fragmented, and we can be less confident of what common ground we share. The culture wars have created a world in which communication can feel risky. We don’t want to provoke others unnecessarily; instead, we want to win a hearing for the gospel. The gospel alone should be the challenge for people, not our carelessness of expression.

The words we use matter. The wrong turn of phrase, a joke not understood, sarcasm and irony, can cause division instead of clarity. Having worked as a social worker with feminist colleagues, I still wince when I hear the word ‘ladies’ in church and prefer to use ‘women’. However, in parts of the North, I find myself with many women who happily own and use the word ‘ladies’. Understanding who we are talking to is essential. Taking care of our expression choice is today’s equivalent of Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 9:19: ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.’

One of the things I do in ministry is to provide feedback to students practising Bible talks. Part of the exercise is learning from feedback what others actually hear despite what was said. It can come as a surprise.

When talking to people outside the church, this phenomenon increases – it can be as though we speak a different language. Things that we know, truths we love, vocabulary and expressions which have shaped us and nourished us, are foreign to many people.

We need to step back and try and communicate these truths to people who have never heard of them before. We cannot take anything for granted. Jimmy Carr may have damaged his career by assuming that he could get away with a ‘career-ending joke’. For us, the stakes are higher; we do not want our foolish words to be ‘gospel-ending conversations’. Instead, we need to be aware of the gaps and work hard to bridge them as lovingly and gently as we can

(First published in Evangelicals Now in March 2022)

© 2023 Karen Soole