Last September I was in Brighton at Church of Christ the King to witness the baptism of one of my grandsons. Another blessing that day was to hear my son Joel preach from Proverbs on the theme of “The Scoffer”, or the Mocker. Vividly he drew a verbal picture of one who is perpetually mocking, and disposed to be negative, critical and cynical. The book of Proverbs gives severe warnings against consorting with people like that.
His words have stayed with me and I have reflected that far from being rare, this is fairly typical of many who gain visibility on TV and radio and who write in our newspapers, who are perceived to be sophisticated and clever and who set the tone for the culture of today. Turn on the TV and you will find shows and discussions pervaded by comments that, while amusing, clever and witty, are often also mocking, disparaging, even savagely cruel and contemptuous. We laugh, but are left with a bitter taste. Worse, we can be left with a smug feeling of superiority as we look down at some poor fool who has been the object of a derisory remark.
Cynicism has become the norm. This endangers constructive criticism and careful evaluation; we have entered a world where it is more important to entertain with witty remarks which provoke laughter. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and mock.
Recently I read a film review that was brutally critical. It was cruelly amusing and effectively demolished the reputation of the movie. Now, the critic is entitled to her opinion; but I found it interesting when I later saw her taking part on a chat show, that a bitingly critical stance appeared to be her default position. Bitter cynicism pervaded all her remarks.
Can such a person ever become a close, loyal friend? Surely such a scoffer must inevitably become isolated and lonely.
I grew up in a family where I was the eldest of four sisters. Every Sunday we attended our local Brethren Assembly and I remember a season when we would come home to lunch on a Sunday and proceed to dissect the morning meeting with savage wit. We were articulate and relished our apparently clever but sarcastic observations; until one day my mother cried, “Enough! If we haven’t got a good word to say for anyone, say nothing!”
We subsided in ashamed silence.
The Bible says, “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.” Does that mean then that our conversation must always be bland, endorsing, non-critical? No: for we are also told that our conversation must be seasoned with salt. There is a place for criticism, and humour can be very effective in exposing warped thinking, or simply bringing another viewpoint… The Sword of the Spirit is itself “sharper than a two edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit.” In other words, it is not woolly and vague! But the motive behind it is to build up, not tear down; it is constructive, not destructive.
Years ago, John Hosier, an elder at Christ the King and a hugely gifted theological teacher, was preaching on the first Sunday of a New Year. His theme was Encouragement, and I remember him finishing with a challenge: “Let’s make this a year of encouragement!” His words resonated with me. Positive words that encourage and spur us on must be the antidote to cynicism. The scoffer undermines and diminishes and belittles; the encourager builds up, reassures and confirms. Let’s change the climate!