What is Snark?

Snark is one of those words that has been thrown around a bit on the interwebs. Don’t know what snark is? Don’t fear, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition:

snark– 1. Snore, snort. 2. Find fault with. snarky– Irritable, short tempered.

It has become a strange word in popular jargon resting somewhere between derogatory and cool. It is a high-brow put down and the rebellious English major’s calling card. It can be cutting but not enough to be rude. It can cull an audience on a blog’s comment stream and it can alienate you from anyone who is on its receiving end. It’s the literary Swiss Army knife for any spoken or written throw down.

And Christians, especially young pastors, are finding it more and more of a go-to tone in various media.

Cynicism, Snark’s Older Brother

Where does snark come from? Its source is in cynicism. Cynicism is a general attitude of distrust for a person or their motives and the contempt that comes from that distrust. But cynicism is an internal state of the heart. When cynicism bursts out it can take many, many different forms. Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes it’s snide remarks. Sometimes it’s a cold shoulder. And sometimes… it’s snark.

And we should be clear, cynicism is anti-gospel. Cynicism is unwilling to suffer without resorting to self-righteousness. Cynicism is unwilling to love its enemies. Cynicism is unwilling to put the honor of others above its own. In summary a cynical attitude robs us of at least four things.

  1. Cynicism robs us of peace in the gospel. Cynicism holds grudges and assumes motives because it cannot rest in God’s sovereignty over social situations. It is a contentedness killer.
  2. Cynicism robs us of the joy of loving other sinners. Cynicism gives us an excuse to look down on others assuming that their ulterior motives justify our preemptive attitude of condemnation. It parades under the guise of righteous anger. But one cannot simultaneously confess to hold the moral high ground and claim to be the chief of sinners.
  3. Cynicism robs us of enjoying the mercy of God. Cynicism puts us in the place of the righteous judge. Our motives are correct and others’ are not. In that position we are not only blind to our own sin but we are blind to God’s mercy to us in Christ. We have become the judge rather than the recipient of the judge’s mercy.
  4. Cynicism sucks the life out of our mission. Cynics are exclusionary to those who are different and other. They aren’t sinners talking to sinners. They are cynics talking to screw ups. You cannot share a gospel of God’s mercy from a mouth full of contempt.

So it isn’t enough simply to talk about snark. Snark is the outworking of a cynical heart. What snark is spoken cynicism is felt.

Can Snarkiness be used Biblically?

Obviously, as we’ve already said, cynicism is an unacceptable state for the Christian’s heart. It is something to be repented over. When we unfairly assume motives, cultivate distrust, and stoke contempt we are denying the Lord who bought us. When snarky comments proceed from a cynical heart it is out of bounds for anything that could possibly pass as Christian discourse.

There is some gray area though. One of the OED definitions allows us to use snark to “find fault with.” Is there a place to biblically find fault with someone? Of course. In fact there are times where gospel faithfulness requires us to find fault with the unorthodox. When Peter stepped out of line, as recorded in Galatians 2, Paul had to find fault with him. On several occasions, Jesus found fault with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others. Telling a Jew that his dad is Satan (John 8:44), could be considered snarky—in an uncynical, biblical, righteous, sinless, fault-finding sense.

Even the Reformers used what would be called snarky language on occasion to prove a point and call out the unorthodox. Even a cursory reading of Calvin and Luther show that they used strong and offensive language toward those who denied biblical orthodoxy.

Confessions of the YRS

I admit that I’m YRS—young, restless, and snarky. In fact, I asked all the editors and writers of Vintage 73 if I could confess on their behalf that we struggle with snark. They all agreed.

Snark is a big deal when it comes from a cynical heart. To be honest I’m not sure I can wield it in a way that doesn’t come from a root of cynicism. When I’m snarky I intend to do harm, not to help by finding fault. So for me, snark is always off limits. One of the reasons that I write for Vintage 73 is because I want other brothers to be reading what I’m writing and saying, “Hey Joe, there is too much snark in this piece.”

I need that because I drift towards cynicism too often. I need to repent of that and guard myself from it. If Vintage 73 has a besetting sin, it is our tendency to be snarky in the way we communicate. And since most of us are youngish pastors who are church planting or have a heart for church planting, I’m guessing that snark pervades that demographic in our denomination. It isn’t something to be excused. It is something to be repented of.

A Way Forward: Repentance and Patience

The way forward simply put is through repentance and patience with one another.

  1. We must repent when we see cynicism and snarky statement in ourselves. Repentance over our own sin is often a much more profound argument for biblical orthodoxy than an airtight argument delivered with snarky or cutting language.
  2. We must cultivate patience for one another. It is too easy to shove patience out of the way so we can go in for the kill shot. Whether we are writing a blog, an essay, or a comment we must exercise Holy Spirit powered patience. We must be willing to ask questions before we make remarks. We must give our opponents every opportunity to further describe their position and clarify their points. The denominational relationship we share, and our co-eldership is one of the most intimate and powerful connections described in the Bible. When we perceive error our goal should always be our brother’s repentance and growth in grace before our goal is our brother’s online loss of polemical credentials.