Sarcasm as a ​rhetorical​ tool

The axiom, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”, is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who lived in the second half of the 1800s.

That attribution may not be accurate, but the axiom itself is usually misquoted (stopping at the mid-point) and mostly misunderstood as implying that using sarcasm is evidence of low intelligence. What the axiom perhaps seeks to express is that sarcasm fails as humour, but can reflect an acute intelligence.

Whatever may be the case for sarcasm as an index of intelligence it is a dangerous tool to wield in public debate. It is more likely to offend than persuade, and it can even reverberate with unfortunate consequences for the polemicist who draws that tool from the debating toolkit.

This may indeed have been the fate of a well-known Anglican blogger in Sydney whose delight in deploying sarcasm to attack a media release by the Bishop of Grafton has quite possibly exposed the folly of our blogger’s own worldview.

In attempting to undermine the statement by Bishop Murray Harvey, the Revd David Ould stoops to sarcasm as if that strategy will deflect and rebut the sound spiritual wisdom to be found in the statement by Bishop Harvey:

Here at we want to suggest that Dr Harvey should issue some more press releases because there are people out there making bigger threats than Folau. For instance, this guy should get a rocket:

Luke 13:1   Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 He answered them, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? 3 No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!”

LUKE 13:1-5 (NET)

Now there’s a threat if ever I saw one. He doesn’t just have a small list like the narrow-minded Apostle Paul in 1Cor. 6:9-10 (which Folau quotes in his post along with Gal. 5).

No, whoever that hater is in Luke 13 … well he just used hate speech to threaten and vilify everyone.


That’s the last thing a Christian should do. Someone should find out who he is and tell him to change his attitude and send a positive message about his faith and promote social inclusion (although what could be more socially inclusive than including all of society in your “threat”?).

As for community well-being, surely telling people that they will perish if they don’t repent can’t be good for anyone. Someone tell Dr. Harvey so he can sort this dangerous bigot out.


What this somewhat reckless rhetorical missile has done is simply to expose a serious problem with the biblical texts themselves. Sometimes—indeed quite often—the Bible says things which are indefensible, incomprehensible or just gutter talk. When the Bible descends to the gutter that does not justify us in doing the same, nor are we obliged to believe or practice anything in particular just because it happens to be written in the Christian scriptures.

In his exaggerated journalesque mode, Mr Ould inadvertently illustrated precisely the core issue with the ugly social media posts by Israel Folau as well as the point correctly—albeit gently—made by the Bishop of Grafton.

The Bible endorses and even commands a range of beliefs and practices which most people of faith would these days find abhorrent. The catalogue of nasties includes (but is not limited to) capital punishment, ethnic cleansing, the willful destruction of fauna and flora, patriarchy and sexism, totalitarian rule by absolute monarchs claiming divine approval, and slavery.

When even a modicum of biblical literacy is applied to the task of biblical intepretation, a much more nuanced reading of Scripture results. But Mr Ould and Mr Folau are not ones for nuance, it seems. It is all so simple and so black and white. Just read the words from the ancient text. No need for brains to be engaged at all.

There is, of course, ‘a more excellent way’ than this mindless recital of ancient words, but it requires us to read the text with some critical awareness of how texts work (and the power of the reader to determine what a text means), how these particular sacred texts were composed and received, how little actual historical credibility the biblical texts really have, and at least some awareness of what we now know to be true about the scale of the universe and the complexity of our shared DNA.

When read with cognitive modesty and some critical awareness, the Christian Bible—like all the sacred texts from the great religions—can be a catalyst for human liberation, rather than manacles on the collective human spirit. I made precisely that point when giving a public lecture in Sydney this past weekend for the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council.

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  1. The feedback I have had on Bp Murray’s statement have been very positive. The law of defamation prevents me from expressing a view about David Ould.

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