EvangellyfishEvangellyfish by Douglas Wilson

It was with some reluctance I received the book. I think of Douglas Wilson as a bit of a blowhard, so I was surprised to find the book has wisdom. It is funny, hard to put down, not often lagging, and in the end comes out a good enough book. I wish I could write something as interesting. I am glad somebody pressed it upon me.

The book has an awful lot of sex, in the sense that it comes to light that it is an activity rather copiously and indiscriminately indulged. I do not mean that the activity itself is described. The plot revolves around a megachurch pastor and his staff. When he is accused by some schemer of having made improper advances on another man, a false accusation, the roaches start scrambling because an investigation of any sort is going to find monstrous improprieties. Wilson tells it all with dry relish, with somewhat restrained slang and a certain richness of metaphor and simile. There is a knowing, omniscient narrator that is part of the point of the book. And I think the point of the book is made with (for me) surprising insight and wisdom.

Here is what I appreciated.

1. That the hero of the story is a Reformed Baptist pastor. Reformed Baptists do see themselves as part of the reformed world in a way that other reformed denominations do not always seem to recognize. It is as if baptism were done in a deep pool at the bottom of a deeper chasm, putatively narrow but unbridgeable. It is cheering that Wilson made the guy who is the real deal and who makes a difference in his story one of the Lord’s toilers, and it is further gratifying to see he even makes the high point of the story a Baptist baptism. Generous and ingenious both.

2. I appreciated that however heavy the portrayal of the roach-nest megachurch, there was not a bitter residual indignation. It was done in good humor, which is not a bad way to take the human condition. Black humor I can take in Wilsonian doses, no fear. Humor is about our sense of proportion, and it certainly helps to have humor when what is portrayed is a violation of all sense of proportion. What else is a megachurch? There is a place for sentiments similar or approaching wrath when what takes place is described, but it is usually not from the outside. Wilson may know, but he is on the outside. Hypocrisy is hard to bear with, and one of the problems we humans have accusing one another is that we can easily lose perspective when we are filled with wrath and indignation, at least I do. I think Wilson deftly portrays his scumbags. And the good guys? The deal with their sins, that’s what.

3. Because of that, one is left resolved never to enter a megachurch again or to associate with the whole culture of rock band, staged stuff, screens, emergent, wholesale youth groups . . .all that roachworld of evangelical scam religion. I thought it was tremendous. Bang-on when it comes to affections, Jeeves. I know evangelicals do not judge, but I still do, and Wilson helps.

Here are my misgivings.

1. I have been warned about American Christian views of sex in marriage. There is a tendency to idolize the teenage romance, the stage which is perhaps more passion and lust than otherwise. The American Christian (notice I’m not saying evangelical, though that is obviously included) view seems to be that a good marriage is one in which that stage of lust and passion is permanently preserved, rather than conceiving of a maturing relationship. One of the things Wilson is doing with his good guy is endeavoring to portray a vigorous and wholesome view of the activity which dominates the whole of his book. I personally would not go to him for advice on this score, rather relying on a more polite and sensible English spinster for such topics: Jane Austen. I think what Wilson does just reflects American Christian romantic views, and I would rather manage my marriage on more discerning principles.

2. I do not believe that modesty or judgment are about lines drawn, though I understand lines are eventually drawn. What I mean is that what was immodest yesterday may no longer be immodest today, and the same goes for how we speak about things. It is a matter not of guidelines promoted to laws, but a matter of understanding and of discernment which is demonstrated in good judgment. I say all this because Wilson’s language is not quite of tame expression, though anybody who reads any contemporary writing will hardly find cause to complain. His expression transgresses (or did back in 2012) the boundaries of, for example, Tim Challies. I think Wilson ought to be given latitude. I do think in some cases he goes beyond what is necessary to the effect he needs, and he is undoubtedly sometimes callously glib. I wish he would think more about the effect of his expression, though he obviously does. On the other hand, this is the society we live in, the sound of people’s speech is still sanitized, rather than in detail depicted, and what precedent does he have to rely upon? Mine is a quibble, not a general complaint. I do not think he ought to be censured, I just think he could do a bit better.

3. My biggest complaint against Wilson is his use of figurative language. Now here is a person who is obviously intent on making great use of metaphors and similes and all such. He often does it well. But I think he could do it better. There are nobler and less noble areas of life from which to draw your similes. Similes from nature have an effect different from similes from technology, for example, and I wonder if Wilson discriminates sufficiently. Wilson is exuberant in his use, relishing impact sometimes to excess, I think. I wish he were more prudent in considering the effect. Who am I to judge Wilson in this? Well, I do. Let it be a lesson to me.

It is an exuberant book, and that is why I liked it. In the end, Wilson not only depicts a roachworld megachurch, but also the real thing. And he is good at the real thing. What he is trying to do is contrast false and true religion, and the contrast is deftly made. If you have a hearty appetite for black-humorous fast-paced stories of wildly not altogether inaccurate similes, try this.

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