The Quest for the Great Theological “One-Liner”

Any consumer of media will tell you their list of favorite “one-liners.”  These “one-liners” are often the satisfying climax to demonstrating complete and total victory over an opponent or foreshadowing to an epic event that achieves a win for the good guys.  The classic example is the “Oh yeah?  You and whose army?”  To which the protagonist always has an army that he or she gathered to deliver the “shocking” line of “This one.”  Other times, “one-liners’ can be completely comedic like the classic Groucho Marx line, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.  How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”  Additionally, “one-liners” are final insults where the insulter believes that he or she can drop the proverbial microphone and completely lay waste to an opponent’s argument; dismantling their beliefs, converting them to the insulters side, and bring along the entire crowd as well.  It is through this final witty or “punny” remark that final victory is attained. 

Christians, especially those in the Reformed tradition, love their one-liners and I know I am no exception to this. We long for the wittiness, the argument winning remarks, or the lines of extreme courage that others from before us have utilized.  Here are some examples:

John Eliot preached to the Massachusetts Indians in the 1600s, some of the Indian chiefs opposed and threatened him.  He replied, “I am about the work of the great God, and my God is with me, so that I neither fear you nor all the chiefs in the country.  I will go on, and do you touch me if you dare.”

A man called upon the imprisoned John Bunyan claiming that he had a message from the Lord declaring, “After searching for thee in half the jails of England, I am glad to have found thee at last.”  Bunyan replied sarcastically, ‘If the Lord sent thee, you would not have need to take so much trouble to find me out, for He knows that I have been in Bedford jail these seven years past.”

A lady once told Charles Spurgeon, “I pray for you every day, that you might not become proud.”  Spurgeon responded, “You put me in mind of my own neglect, for I have never prayed that prayer for you, and must begin.’  “Oh no,” the lady protested, ‘There is no occasion for that, there is no danger of me being proud.”  Spurgeon replied, ‘then I had better begin at once, for you are proud already.”

We look at instances like these and desire to mimic them. We long for the opportunity to win the war of words. But, we become distracted by routing our opponent verbally and forget that wars are not won with a witty line. We focus on the grandeur of complete and total victory through the power of words and fail to realize that life does not work that way. Each of these previous quotes had their place; their context, purpose, and intention and do seem appropriate given what we know about those who said them. This does not mean they are the right ones for our given situation nor is literary wit our end goal.

Sarcasm, satire, humor, wit, and puns are seen throughout the texts of Scripture (The puns typically require an understanding of the original languages). Balaam’s donkey is seen as more perceptive than the “prophet” (Numbers 22:22-35), Isaiah uses satire against idolaters who use the parts of the same tree for kindling and worship (Isaiah 44:9-20). The Angel of the Lord calls Gideon a “mighty warrior” while Gideon is actively hiding in a winepress (Judges 6:11-12), The Lord Himself employed these functions in his life and ministry in Matthew 7:3-5 and 23. Even God used sarcasm in Job 38:21! These are only a handful of the literary devices of Scripture but what does that have to do with the Christian?

Notice that the writers, preachers, prophets, and people of Scripture did not pursue these lines of verbal destruction at the expense of everything else. The method and delivery of the words were chosen because they were the right ones. We should take this as an example to pursue not the most brutal, or scathing, or sarcastic words but to instead pursue the right and correct words. What we say never can be “unsaid.” The right words with the right heart will glorify the Lord (Ephesians 4:29; James 4).

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