Sometimes the right word comes along, and you instantly know that it fits.
“Snarky” is a relatively new, mostly British slang adjective that means “critical,” “cutting” or “testy.” It can refer to a person, or mood.
Or, in our case, a culture.
I used to feel the best descriptor of our interpersonal dysfunction was given by sociologist Deborah Tannen, who called ours an “argument culture.” Her observation is that we no longer dialogue with each other, contending that there has been a system-wide relational breakdown. It is as if we approach everything with a warlike mentality so we end up looking at the world – and people – in an adversarial frame of mind.
So how do we explore an idea?
How do we cover the news?
Find people who express the most extreme, polarizing views and present them as the “two sides.”
How do we settle a dispute?
Through litigation that pits one party against the other.
How do we begin an essay?
Oppose someone, for criticizing and attacking shows that you are really thinking.
The lack of civility in our world has become so pandemic that it is now widely chronicled by mainstream media as a cultural phenomenon. Consider a USA Today article titled “Rudeness, threats make the Web a cruel world,” or a New York Times article on Wikipedia’s “Impolite” side. Peter Wood, in his book A Bee in the Mouth, speaks of this in terms of “anger in America.”
Sadly, this very anger seems to mark the very people who should be most immune to such animus.
An editorial in Christianity Today discussed how no attribute of civilized life seems more under attack than civility. The author, David Aikman, noted the extent to which certain Christians have turned themselves into the
“self-appointed attack dogs of Christendom. They seem determined to savage not only opponents of Christianity, but also fellow believers of whose doctrinal positions they disapprove. A troll through the Internet reveals websites so drenched in sarcasm and animosity that an agnostic, or a follower of another faith tradition interested in what it means to become a Christian, might be permanently disillusioned.”
But I think calling ourselves argumentative, or lacking civility, isn’t as pointedly descriptive as calling ourselves increasingly “snarky.”
We have snarky blogs, with snarky comments. We tweet snarky remarks and enjoy reading snarky critiques. We trade in sarcasm and offense, irritability and short-temper.
Simply put, our default mode for interaction, particularly when we disagree, is mean-edged sarcasm and cynicism. It’s as if we don’t know how to make a point without it being at the end of an arrow aimed for someone’s heart.
Perhaps it’s time for a stiff dose of wisdom.
“The mouth of a good person is a deep, life-giving well, but the mouth of the wicked is a dark cave of abuse” (Proverbs 10:11, Msg).
“Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing” (Proverbs 12:18, NLT).
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1, NLT).
“Kind words heal and help; cutting words wound and maim" (Proverbs 15:4, Msg).
“The wise are known for their understanding, and pleasant words are persuasive. ... From a wise mind comes wise speech; the words of the wise are persuasive. Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (Proverbs 16:21, 23-24, NLT).
Of course, such admonishments are not confined to the wisdom literature of the Bible. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote these words: “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT).
Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrased it in the Message, “Watch the way you talk. ... Say only what helps, each word a gift” (Ephesians 4:29, Msg).
We must never forget that there are two types of words: life-taking, and life-giving. Life-taking words are cutting, abusive, provoking. They tear down, put down and beat down. They hurt, wound and maim. They stir up, antagonize, and patronize.
They have no place in a Christ-follower’s mouth.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to say that at ChurchandCulture.org, we’re implementing a new comments policy. Actually, it’s not new. It just has never been spelled out or formalized. But now it’s posted on the site. It has a great deal of specificity so that our editors can refer multiple situations to it with ease. But I can sum up its heart in short order:
“Disagree all you want, but no snark allowed.”
James Emery White
James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture.
“Rudeness, threats make the Web a cruel world,” Janet Kornblum, USA Today, Tuesday, July 31, 2007, p. 1A and 2A.
Peter Wood, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (New York: Encounter Books, 2006).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.