Isn’t It Ironic
A dark-horse contender for my favorite bit of movie dialogue comes from the quintessential Generation X vehicle Reality Bites.
Winona Ryder’s Lelaina flounders through a job interview. With her prospects rapidly going south, Lelaina’s prospective employer asks for the definition of irony. Grasping for words, she blurts out, “I can’t really define irony—but I know it when I see it.”
Ethan Hawke’s Troy provides an unblinking, almost obvious response when Lelaina poses the question later. But I’ll stick with her stuttering, back-to-the-wall reply.
An idea like irony slips through our fingers, even as it establishes omnipresence. A satisfying definition is hard-won, especially as people wait around every corner ready to pounce when you dabble instead in coincidence or paradox. But to evoke another Gen X icon, “Isn’t it coincidental? / Don’t you think? / A little too incongruous / Yeah, I really do think” isn’t the stuff of hit records.
Like Lelaina, like Alanis, I think I know irony when I see it. Sometimes it feels like all I can see.
Discrepancies and double standards common to every age, yet amplified in ours, suffocate. Bends in spiritual logic threaten to break me.
In public instances of domestic assault or sexual abuse, the quick-to-speak perform their duty: “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” “If she was so shattered, why didn’t she report it sooner?” Many who cry loudest remain in toxic relationships with political parties, ideologies, teams, or brands.
Some who slap the state’s hand and spasm at any hint of government intrusion sign blank checks to agents of the state, redeemable whenever they mete out lethal force.
People in every ecclesial and political corner employ the very same purity tests they despise in the hands of their counterparts.
Each of us longs to be seen as complex, the bearers of unique stories. Yet so often we write the simplest of chapters about others, reducing their stories to a single element or experience.
These ironies keep us stuck to creeping an inch at a time, rather than free to move miles together.
Fighting irony with irony wins minor battles on behalf of dignity or justice, but leaves the war unresolved. Satire and stand-up comedy, cool-cousin art forms, surgically peel back layers of conventional wisdom, revealing social folly and systemic sin. The jesters whose punchlines punch back serve the world yet never fully redeem anything.
The faithful presence our world craves owes its strength to a sincerity which feels almost supernatural. Amid the smoke of ironic shots fired across the bow in every direction, I squint, making out the shapes of the steadfast.
Springsteen. St. Bono. Mary Oliver. Eugene Peterson. Dorothy Day. Oh Lord, I want to be in that number. Artists and priests who risk looking foolish for the sake of believing in something. People whose life’s work leaves us with one conclusion and one only: Care and care brazenly.
I see these lives and know who I want to be. I run my fingers over their words. I raise my fist and sing along—loudly—with a line from the 1990s Bay Area band Dime Store Prophets: “And sometimes when you see me, you’re going to point and laugh / Saying there goes a man with high ideals, and a burden on his back.”
The world, despite what those temporarily in control would have us believe, bears no resemblance to a zero-sum game. Wash yourself in the sincerity of the saints and emerge surprised. These beautiful, clumsy radicals neither suppress nor ignore irony. They simply return it better than they found it.
They know we are colder, not warmer, when we neglect the deep and painful paradoxes surrounding us. They understand irony, rightly divined and handled, casts light so we can see a straighter path to God in all his glorious sincerity. Perceptive Christians attend a call to seek first the kingdom of God and all its ironies.
An seemingly illegitimate child takes his rightful place as king of kings.
The meek reap and the poor rule.
God chooses the little, lowly, and unlovable to level what the rest of the world counts as settled truth.
The lion is a lamb.
We read Jeremiah’s words—“Nothing is too difficult for Thee”—then look to Jesus and infer nothing is too ironic for God either. Subverting, reversing, and overturning rank among his truest delights. The most sincere among us love these activities too. They recognize turning tables is not an act of terror but one of restoration, not an end but a means to something quieter, more abiding, more beautiful.
Embracing the ironies of the gospel, rather than those thick in the atmosphere, we access a sincerity which changes everything. Bending holy irony into reality, believing in it with all we have, we bear witness to transformation. We even lend a hand.
Our Bibles, and our most lucid moments, testify to a God who moves toward us in genuine passion, his desire for his people as real as they come. He looks foolish in eyes he designed and created, the irony of the situation a reminder things are not all they seem.
To be recklessly sincere in the sight of others, preciously so in his, is an irony I’m all too happy to own. Especially if it means sticking close to him.
Isn’t he ironic? Yeah, I really do think I know it when I see it.