Ironic and Sardonic


I am the father of two children who still (for at least the next day or so) measure their lives in numbers that fall in the “teens.” My son turns 20 on Monday. Be that as it may, I still qualify as the father of teenagers. They certainly hear plenty from me about God, about the faith, about Church, and I give thanks that they take it seriously and are committed Christians.

They are also committed teenagers. They do not necessarily despise their culture, though they may utter some criticisms occasionally. But the music that emanates from their various electronic devices is not all “Christian” by any stretch. Our house is Christian, but it has not been stripped of all references to popular culture.

Friday night I attended a rock concert at the local college (University of Tennessee) along with my wife, my son and his fiancee, and my 16 year-old daughter and a friend. The group we had come to hear was the group “Cake.” I have no idea how well known they are, though many in the crowd of thousands seemed to be singing along with the songs, so I suppose they cannot be that obscure.

I am actually the first in my family to have heard them – back in the 90’s – and brought home a CD of theirs with the song, “How Can You Afford Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle?” I thought it was worth listening to. Towards the end of the song, you hear,”Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what their sellin’”.  I thought this was insightful. Most youthful indulgence in our culture, much of it disguised as “rebellion,” is really something else altogether. Large corporations have for years dominated the music business, marketing angst, rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with the fiction that they were only publishing or selling what the younger generation wanted.

This, of course, is not true. They not only sell to the anger of youth; they help create the market in the first place.

Thus it was that I found myself at a rock concert on Friday night. The music was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The biting insight of the lyrics remained, but something felt hollow and empty. Perhaps I should not have expectations of rock concerts, but anything that packs in youth by the thousands is worth pondering.

What I realized is that the band and its music offered a sort of “sardonic” view of life. There was acute ridicule of certain aspects of modern culture. An insider’s nod that said, “We all know better.” But, of course, it’s not true. We do not all know better. Poets for many generations have been astute observers of the public scene, frequently pointing out the hypocrisy and foibles of popular culture. There is nothing new here. However, neither is there anything suggested as an alternative.

Indeed, for a band that could write: “Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what they’re sellin’, (which for some odd reason was dropped from the lyrics of the song that once contained the phrase), it seemed strange to hear complaints from the bandstand through the evening that the University had declared the campus to be “dry” that weekend, i.e. no alchohol. This was a popular complaint with the crowd.

Christianity, rightly preached, also recognizes the futility of popular culture, though much of modern American Christianity is as insipid as the culture it critiques.

But where rock and roll offers something sardonic, the Church offers something ironic.

It does not ridicule culture in order to make itself seem wise – it ridicules what the world would call wisdom and exalts what the world would call foolishness. The Cross is the great irony of Christianity. An instrument of torture, the very symbol of Roman might, becomes through Christ, the symbol of God’s compassion and love and His victory over sin and death.

There is a form of wisdom required to be sardonic. You have to be able to see through some things and deconstruct them from some other point of view. But if the deconstruction is just for the fun of declaring that the emperor has no clothes, then it is simple rebellion as much as anything.

But the wisdom of the Cross requires the ability to die to self. To see not only the emptiness of the world and its fashions, but also the fullness of God and His coming Kingdom.

At one point the bandleader railed against the authorities of the school, with a few choice epithets, and to great applause. “What’s all this about a dry campus?” he shouted. “What do they think we are, Christians?” The crowed roared its approval. I felt out of place.

What do they think we are, Christians? Probably most of the campus would identify itself as Christian in some manner. After all, this is America. But there was no irony, no willingness that night, to embrace the foolishness of the Cross. Just another crowd with exams coming next week and ready to have some fun.

Our world today stands in as much need of irony as the world has ever needed. The rich need to hear the irony of God’s poverty. The powerful need to know the irony of God’s weakness. And I need to remember that the poets of this world are not the same thing as the prophets of the world to come.

They’re just salesmen in need of a Savior.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





5 responses to “Ironic and Sardonic”

  1. Cameron Avatar

    Father Stephen, I wonder if you would be willing to qualify your last statement about the world’s poets being “just salesmen in need of a Savior.” I think I can agree with you that many of the lyricists in pop music amount to little more than that. But what about the rest of the poets? Surely we can’t label them all salesmen.

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course you’re right. I suppose my one defense of my sentence was the qualifying phrase, “of this world,” not meaning by that “all poets.”

    I should also say, that although there were a couple of awkward moments at the concert (for me) and this nagging in the back of my mind (“what is it I’m seeing and hearing?”) on the whole I enjoyed the concert and would probably go again. But I might reach the same conclusions.

    I would add that there are poets “of this world” that I enjoy and read, though I’m also aware that I’m not reading the work of a Christian.

    But my Friday experience was probably brought on by the bands taunt, “What do they think we are, Christians?”

    Of course he could have meant it ironically in which case my entire commentary here is off base. Never know.

  3. Mary Avatar

    For What It’s Worth:

    Commentary on Cake’s “Sheep go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell”

    From what I can understand (It’s Finals Week, and I need sleep, so please keep that in mind), Cake meant “What do they think we are, Christians?” as sarcasm.

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks – a good article. I know when I listen to their songs (and I do) that I am very aware of something between irony and the sardonic, but what flashes across in one moment is shrouded in the next – much as the reviewer noted.

    On the other hand with thousands of college students jumping and shouting and just having a good time irony is probably too subtle –

    One of the undercurrents of the evening was referenced by the lead singer several times. It’s the fact that though almost everyone in the audience knows the lyrics, most of them have probably never paid for an album by Cake. Oddly, your fans are all happy thieves. “I forgot,” he said, “you don’t buy albums.”

    I don’t know how much you make on the college circuit, but it’s a lousy living compared to sold-out stadiums and the like. And they’ve been at this for a few years.

    Of course, when I was in college and playing in a band in a bar, I made $25 a night – three nights a week – which paid for rent and groceries and supported me and my newlywed wife.

    One of my favorite lines from the movie Clueless (yes I like that movie), is the lead characters description of college rock (grunge) as “wah, wah, wah,” (the sound of a baby whining). Cake doesn’t whine. They do something else – I guess what poets do.

  5. Kyra Avatar

    “They’re just salesmen in need of a Savior.”

    Interesting comment. Although I might have appended it slightly to say they are just salesmen in need of something to sell and without a Savior.

    Heaven knows how often we run across movie stars, rock stars, politicians or whomever else happens to be in the limelight for the next 15 minutes and will seemingly sell their souls to the highest bidder..or rather the most popular subject of the moment. Everyone has their “thing” it is just a question of how hard are we willing to ‘sell’ it.

    The fortunate part of having Christ is that he “sells” Himself and we do not need to put on the sharkskin suit and toothy grin, the smarmy personality of insincerity and pomposity. We do not have to set for ourselves a moral standard that is judged by our brothers and sisters that can be even more harsh than the “thou shalt nots” of the Old Testament. We have Christ and he is our ambassador.

    The sad part is how many choose to sell Christ, and profit in His name. The litney of merchandise that can now be purchased with the name of Jesus emblazoned across it is enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

    I much prefer to stare quietly at a simple icon and see the truth presented there.

    Don has a wonderful line for explaining the pop culture of today…he say “we are entertaining ourselves to death.”

    So true…so true.

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  1. My last comment begs the question of how the story of Christ in Holy Scripture relates to our personal experience…

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