When I was 13 or 14 I discovered the word ‘ironic’. It was a mature word. A complicated word. It rolled off the tongue, and in using it I would be characterized as intelligent and erudite. It had literary heft. I would use it in conversations and people would be in awe of my grasp of the English language.
I didn’t always use the word correctly. While I might find it ironic that T.S. Eliot spent years in banking while his degree was in philosophy, a discipline that spent valuable time and energy arguing about whether or not numbers existed at all, I could just as well lopside the word into sentences like ‘Wasn’t it ironic that Mr. Lester served cupcakes today.’
I often referred to modern art as ironic, which was a safe bet since most of modern art is nothing if not ironic, intentionally or otherwise (Pollack with his splatters of nonsense paint, Duchamp and the urinal: The shock! The outrage!).
There were other words I didn’t understand; like malleable and ethereal and phallic (I kid you not, no clue), but I used irony the most. It was my favorite even though it took me a while to master.
I’m pretty sure I have the word down now, perhaps mostly because I’ve been reading the gospel of John. I’ve come to believe that irony is one of God’s great creations; as light-boned and winged-miraculous as the chickadee that right this very moment is eating from the birdfeeder outside my window. Whether we can label it or not, it’s one of the ways he reveals to us the miracle of God become man.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite gospel (if we’re allowed favorites) is the gospel of John. It uses all sorts of literary devices and is beautifully poetic in the way it communicates feelings and the senses; I can feel the list of a boat heavy with fish, I smell the smoke of fires.
And it's a book full of irony, or perhaps more precisely, it is a book of irony—
My handy desktop dictionary defines irony as “the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for . . . emphatic effect . . .”
A few of my favorite examples of irony in the gospel of John: 9:4: “What? Are we blind too?” (actually, you are), 3:13: “the Son of Man must be lifted up” (To Heaven! oh, wait, on a cross?), and my favorite: 19:19: “Pilate. . . wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (yeah, well, he kinda was).
Of course even though God created irony and passed it on to John to skillfully communicate the truth of things in his gospel, it certainly exists outside of the Bible. Shakespeare had a knack for it: Romeo and Juliet, Othello.
John uses verbal irony, which often makes use of sarcasm. One example of this might be in 11:16 when Thomas, before Jesus raises Lazarus, says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” He also uses dramatic irony, which I like to think wasn’t necessarily visible until after the fact, like the disciples in retrospect were able to look back and say way cool, that time he turned water into wine? That was nothing compared to his blood spilled out for us… I imagine for the rest of their lives the disciples—like us—continued to spot ironies that God had created.
But even with all the ironic situations and concepts peppered throughout scripture it’s hard to miss the big one; the most miraculous irony of all time; The One True Irony John was pulling out all the literary stops for: Jesus, King of the Jews; Jesus, hated by Pharasees; Jesus, broken so that we might be healed…
What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. Woah, step aside Shakespeare.
And there’s all these little ironies in my life: the way God has taken my own sin and turned it on itself and used it to bring humility which brings healing from the very sin that caused my brokenness.
The way my physical ailments have brought spiritual life.
And I often spot comic ironies in my life (in the same way one might experience a stiff, internal snigger over Romeo and Juliet even while bemoaning the sorrow of it all) such as the fact that I have like a thousand ticks (half-blinking eye, a random flexing of my wrist) all while I like to wax on about being still and knowing that God is God.
In fact, as though God was nudging me to not forget The One True Irony, just this morning I found myself in the swing of another one. I was marking up a section of Charles D’Ambrosio’s book Loitering, a chapter where he talks about how back in the day he was anal about his books and how he wouldn’t let anyone borrow them because he was afraid they’d mark them all up. And here I was this very morning marking one of his books up, folding pages, underlining unfamiliar words, so I could look them up later to find out what they mean.