Review of Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson
By JUSTIN HAWKINS
Commenting in his youth on his own pastorate, Reinhold Niebuhr remarked that “I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions, and there is no reason why we should not love a profession and yet be critical of it.” By this metric, Pastor Doug Wilson loves the ministry. If Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was “an epistle from a wounded lover,” then Wilson’s Evangellyfish is a scathing burlesque from the pen of a dangerously witty and unsettlingly observant lover. And he has a bone to pick with the megachurch.
The story centers around Chad Lester, a titan of Christianity. He pastors (in the very loosest sense of the word) a Midwestern megachurch flushed to the gills with multimedia technology and vague, platitudinous theology. But it is truly difficult to fault Chad himself for the latter; after all, his sermons are written for him without his input and delivered to him on Friday night as he walks out the door on the way to his mistress’ home. So, really, who can fault a pastor for poor theology when he has such other pressing things on his mind? And as the narrator informs us, “He was an average red-blooded male, with perhaps above average red-blooded male problems. What could he say? He and King David both. Chad had slept with quite a number of women who did not have the last name of Lester, but it’s not like he was even in Solomon’s league. A friendlier age would have simply called them concubines, except maybe the married ones. He wasn’t sure what they should be called.”
The book follows Chad and his church as they become embroiled in allegations of sexual abuse by a male counselee that had visited Chad’s office, a long time prior. These allegations are entirely false, for the simple and convincing reason that “the nature of Chad Lester’s undecalogue-like activities had been extensively and exclusively hetero.” Furthermore, virtually the entire female contingent of the church’s board of elders can attest to the innocence of the very reverend Lester by virtue of their firsthand experience with his heterosexuality. And for what it is worth, Chad is not alone in his exploits, even among the church’s leadership. So there you have it.
The foil to Chad’s foibles is a small-town Reformed Baptist pastor, John Mitchell, whose only real flaw is a righteous indignation that caused him, on one occasion, to “extend the right hand of fellowship forcefully to Chad Lester’s left eye.” But this was entirely justified, as a fuller reading of the book will attest.
“Ripped-from-the-Evangelical-headlines” might be a stretch to describe this book, but it would be only an exceedingly small stretch. This is because Wilson’s insight into the foibles and the outright nonsense of some parts of modern Evangelicalism is far too keen for comfort. From Wilson’s perspective, there is plenty in Evangelicalism to lambast, and little is too sacred for satire. His characters display “an abstract faith in the act of journaling.” The church’s well-watered foliage decorating the “acres of asphalt” of the parking lot look like “wet, botanical orcs.” Their media trailers “look like Russian fishing trawlers off Long Island at the height of the Cold War, antennae everywhere.” When reading Wilson’s descriptions of the churches we have so unreflectively and consumeristically constructed, one gets a tangible sense of just how serious the head-shaking from a Calvin or a Luther might be were they to return to life and assess the state of the Church in America.
Evangellyfish is P.G. Wodehouse with a dash of Jonathan Edwards. It is a snarky excoriation of the silliness of megachurch life, impelled and driven by a strong sense of the sacrilege that such silliness represents. Each page could contain probing thoughts, like “what size earring would the apostle Paul have worn if his mission had been to the skateboarding and pants-drooping youth of today?” or “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” At its very best, it is a call to repent of our collective evangelical silliness. At its worst, it is still irresistibly funny. And mirth, it can be convincingly argued, is itself an important spiritual discipline.