Scoffers, Scorners, and Snark

May 2009
by Tim Keller

The New Yorker film critic  David Denby recently wrote a book called Snark. He observed that a tone of snide, mocking, ‘nasty and knowing,’ speaking was coming to dominate our public discourse. ‘Snark’ aims not just at refuting someone’s position, but also at destroying their ‘cool,’ erasing their effectiveness, trying to get control of and sully the person’s image with the public. Opposing views are not treated with respect but instead with snarling disdain and ad hominem mockery. Even many regular editorial writers in major newspaper do little more than ridicule. Denby pointed out that politics has been a major source of snark, since insinuating, insulting, and demonizing the opposition (rather than re-spectful arguments) often wins elections. But the Internet has put ‘snark’ on steroids. 
 
Recently I have been reading through Proverbs and was struck by a particular character that shows up about 17 times. In the NIV translation he’s called the ‘mocker,’ in the King James Version the ‘scorner’ and in many others ‘the scoffer.’ The scoffers’ behavior has two characteristics. First, he or she is marked by dogmatism, a closed mind. The scoffer never says, ‘Well, I might be wrong here’ or ‘I was wrong here.’ The scoffer is always right (13:1). There is never a hum-ble openness to change. In a striking phrase 20:1 tells us that the scoffer is no more open to reason than a hopelessly drunk person. 
 
Second, scoffers show no respect for opponents or opposing points of view. They do not simply refute them; they belittle, insult, and mock them (9:7-8.) There is always a tone of contempt and disdain. Together dogmatism and contemptuous derision comprise the spiritual condition of ‘scoffer.’ 
 
According to Proverbs, these two characteristics do not stem from a lack of intelligence. Proverbs speaks of the ‘simple’ or the gullible person, those who ‘lack sense’ because of their lazy thoughtlessness. But scoffers are not intellectually lazy (14:6), indeed they are often sharp witted, and may have been seduced into this mode by their very mental acuity. Their condition is not due to their mental capacity, but to their mental attitude, especially their attitude toward themselves and therefore toward God. 
 
First, this attitude is marked by pride (21:24.) The Hebrew word for pride used of the scoffer is a word that means ‘people who must have things their own way, who have a need to control and correct everyone.’ Second, scoffers are, under their veneer of confidence, filled with anger (9:8,15:25.) They never act like they take their opponents seriously, but underneath there is great insecurity. In some cases there may be a root of bitterness. They may have been wronged in some significant way, and, rather than letting God be judge (Romans 12:17-21) they have taken matters into their own hands. But in many other cases, the scoffers are simply lacking the combination of humility and inner peace that a firm grasp of the gospel brings.
 
Who are the ‘scoffers’ and ‘mockers’ of our day? On the one hand, there are those who consciously or unconsciously have adopted Nietzsche’s exhortation to ‘do philosophy with a hammer.’ They consider all truth-claims to actually be efforts to gain power. They feel the need to de-bunk and tear down almost anyone who has a serious proposal for how people should live. They laugh and mock anyone who has the podium. 
 
Secondly, there are ideologues. Ideologues are not such not because of the policies or positions they espouse, but because of the way they demonize and ridicule all opponents to their position, and because they never admit any downsides or dangers to their policies. In this they are the classic ‘scorners’ the Bible warns about. Ideologues, then, are not necessarily extremists at all. They can exist anywhere along the spectrum of opinion, even at the center. 
 
Among orthodox Christians there are many people and churches that issue warnings against unbelief and error. Indeed this often needs to be done, and Proverbs 26:28 says that a ‘flattering tongue,’ unwilling to criticize those in power, is destructive to the church. But many believers, even when they flag teaching and practices that should be identified, do it with the attitude of the scoffer in the book of Proverbs. In response to this charge, some of them point out that some Biblical speakers and writers used sarcasm. That is true—you can see it in Elijah’s debate with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, or especially in Paul’s critique of his critics in 2 Corinthians 10-13. Sarcasm and irony can be effective ways to drive a point home, but derision and contempt cannot be the settled, main way that sinners talk to other sinners. 
 
Paul described his communication approach among the Corinthians. He says, ‘I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom…I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.’ (1 Corinthians 2:1,3.) These two phrases ‘eloquence’ and ‘superior wisdom’ referred to practices that often marked public orators in Greco-Roman culture. Anthony Thiselton, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, defines them. First, there was ‘verbal bullying’, using force of personality, witty and cutting disdain, and super-confident demagoguery to beat the listeners into wanting to be on the speaker’s side. Second, there was applause-generating, consumer-oriented rhetoric, playing to a crowd’s prejudices, pride, and fears. Though they were effective in his culture (and ours!) for garnering popular support, Paul refused these rhetorical strategies, both of which were practices of the scoffer or mocker. 
 
According to Proverbs, what happens to the scoffer, the man or woman who always has to be right, who derides rather than engages opposing views? Proverbs says that the first result is loneliness (9:12). Scoffers impress the impressionable if they are allowed to hold forth (19:25; 21:11) but as time goes on, the scoffer not only destroys relationships but is listened to less and less by the public (24:9.) Often the scorner has valid points, but because of his or her dogmatic and proud attitude, no peace is possible inside a community. This is because scoffers don’t know how to affirm and live in harmony with people who don’t agree with them on everything. The problem is, as Kidner says, ‘the mischief he does is not the random mischief of the ordinary fool, but the deeper damage of the ‘debunker’…’ (Kidner, p.42) Therefore, mockers may be actually driven out of some communities. (22:10.) 
 
But by far the most terrible and just result of scoffing is a divine taste of their own medicine. “He [the Lord] scorneth the scornful; but he gives grace to the lowly.” (Prov 3:34, KJV)


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