Iron Man is to the Avengers what Justin Timberlake was to N’Sync, the one with a solo project who gets interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel. What distinguishes this graphic-tee-wearing techie–more Microsoft employee than professional wrestler–from Captain America’s integrity, the Hulk’s strength, and Thor’s alien divinity? Downey Jr.’s character always gets the last word; his number one asset is his razor sharp wit.
The Kindling’s Muse panel recently discussed, “The New Masculinity and the Changing Face of Action Flicks” at Hales Ales. They intrigued me with the questions that panelist Jeffrey Overstreet posed on his blog leading up to the event,
What did the Han Solo of the 1970s tell us about culture’s ideal man? What about the Indiana Jones of The Last Crusade, a decade later? What does the new James Bond tell us about ourselves compared to the Bond of Goldfinger?
The panelists agreed with Overstreet’s observation that, “Masculinity is usually associated with strength, aggression, and virility.” They explained how male power, characterized by biceps in some eras and dollars in others, is increasingly embodied as wittiness in “recession” weary 2013. Of course, our favorite heroes embody all three, like Tony Stark or Christian Bale’s Dark Knight.
Wittiness-as-sexiness is by no means relegated to superhero blockbusters. The cultural space Jimmy Stewart once inhabited is now Michael Cera’ and Zac Galifianakis’ pad. To some extent, this is a new equalizer; one-liners are cheaper than Corvettes and easier (for some) than six pack abs. Besides, who wouldn’t enjoy a showdown between Jeff Winger and Jack Donaghy? In show after show, our enjoyment is proportionate to the clever mockery; we laugh, we leave, we quote, and someone wins an award (with a side of teasing from Ricky Gervais).
Take away the silver screen and many of us have discovered that wittiness also works in real life. Quick one-liners really do buy us social power. With dry delivery and ironic humor in vogue, sarcasm has become the easiest way to impress others.
Is it wise for the church to get swept up in this cultural trend? Sarcasm, whether bitter or playful, is highlighting something bad about someone else to demonstrate our own intelligence. That’s a questionable endeavor for those who’ve been commanded, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Even if a small jab at you would get a big laugh for me, the cost outweighs the benefit for one truly walking in love.
James grieves, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” With sarcasm, the best we can hope for is harmlessness, which falls far short of our duty to honor and represent God.
Oftentimes, we excuse our cutting remarks because our targets can’t hear them, or because our peer group has accepted sarcastic banter as a social norm. Yet, even if “our friends are cool with it,” sarcasm creates competition. Even good-humored friends guard themselves to pull ahead in the endless game. Oftentimes, sarcasm makes it hard for others to trust us and sometimes our whole group–even when we step into another context and intend to be sincere. Furthermore, sarcasm trains our brains to identify, phrase, and blurt one-liners while the timing is right and before anyone else, a hard habit to turn on and off.
In 2006, The Office was in its second season and “that’s what she said” jokes were in full swing. The trick was identifying unintentional double entendres faster than anyone else; like sarcasm, it was just intellectual showboating. As juniors in high school, my friends and I recycled the sexual punchline to no end, until one of us finally pointed out how unbecoming the joke was for a group of Christian men. When we committed to stop, it was difficult to drop the habit. In the pursuit of comedic prowess, I had taught my mind to process every conversation through this lens. Every time passed on a potential one-liner, I struggled to forego impressing my friends. However, it was a vital corrective to the way we interacted and the way I internally processed the world around me.
Some of us are afraid to give up sarcasm because we’re good at it. Thankfully, you don’t have to jettison sharp wit. There’s someone you can target to your heart’s content: Yourself. In high school, my friend and mentor, Brian Walter, gave me some great public speaking advice: Self-depricating humor can be just as funny, makes you likable, and prevents you from offending your audience. Making fun of others makes people guarded around you; making fun of yourself helps people open up around you.
Sarcasm has probably helped you impress others, but what has it cost those around you? Have you been teaching yourself to see the world in a worldly way? Imitating Tony Stark is the selfish, short-term win. Imitating Christ, we may enjoy serving the people around us by making them laugh, but we won’t do it at others’ expense.