Many times when I mention to fellow pastors that I’m a Douglas Wilson reader, the response I get is that he’s got good stuff, but the hard-edged style sends people away, shaking their heads in consternation.
As one who usually has an answer for everything, Wilson wrote a book in defense: “The Serrated Edge: A Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking.” In other words, a defense of the magazine, Credenda/Agenda, published by the church he pastors.
This post is a summary and analysis of “The Serrated Edge.”
The first question: is satire or sarcasm inherently sinful? If so, we’re done arguing, and Wilson loses. Satire is a well-known literary genre (Gulliver’s Travels), but that doesn’t make it right. So we find some Biblical satire or mockery in Isaiah 44:9-17 and 1 Kings 18:27, and in Jesus’ harsh words for religious people in Matthew 23 or Mark 7:6-13, and in Paul’s strong criticism in Galatians 5:12.
The second question: isn’t satire just outside the bounds of respectable discussion?
Well, yes it is. Wilson maintains that respectable discussion isn’t the goal – honoring God is. How do you have a reasoned discussion with hard-hearted, obstinate people? You don’t; you taunt them, simply as a way of defining and shoring up the truth against opposition. You jolt them awake from their apathetic self-certainty. Wilson uses the word “nigger” in this book (an interesting and rather poignant modern application of Mark 7:26-29). That’s outside respectable discussion. Yeah, that’s the point. Saying today, “What you believe is wrong” is uncouth, too, but it must be done. Wilson reminds us that satire is one weapon in the realm of polemics, where orthodox truth takes the show on the road, instead of simply defending itself against worldly and liberal attacks. We have Biblical warrant for attacking in Matthew 16:18. Hell’s gates won’t prevail against the Church’s attacks. This leads into the third question…
Third: we aren’t inspired by God as these Biblical authors were to be so strong in our criticism. “Maybe it’s in the Bible, but you aren’t Jesus, pal.” Wilson’s response: the Bible calls on us to imitate Jesus and Paul; how do we choose which attributes to follow, and which to ignore? Why do we try hard to draw sinners with our compassion like Jesus did, but not ream on religious hypocrites like Jesus did? Moreover, Jesus and Paul both call on us to follow their example, precisely in this regard. Jesus with the gates of hell line above, and Paul in Col 4:6, telling us to season our speech with salt. Sometimes you’ve gotta make a point.
The fourth objection: the Bible calls on us to be kind (Eph 4:32) and have gracious speech (Col 4:6!), and not to be contentious or disputing, which contradicts satire or sarcasm. Wilson’s rejoinder is three-fold: (1) it takes wisdom to know how to interact with the world, and different responses are called for in different situations (Prov 26:4-5). (2) There must be a way in which Jesus’ diatribe in Matthew 23 and Paul’s strong language was not contentious or sinfully disrespectful or divisive. (3) Paul tells us to be kind to one another. If a shepherd is kind to wolves, he hurts the sheep. Shepherds must point out wolves for the sheep’s safety. This takes us to a more fundamental objection…
Fifth: we shouldn’t judge people with such certainty. Only God can do that, right? Satire and sarcasm brings to the fore the judgmental character of the undertaking, and Wilson admits it up front, saying this genre assumes a norm to which the satirist holds the object of attack.
I think Wilson is weakest here. For one thing, he is simply going against a strong stream of intellectual current, affecting even the most conservative of evangelical writers: admitting uncertainty in personally knowing the truth. When everyone around you is saying, “Well maybe you’re right. I don’t claim to know everything. As I understand it…” then you just look bad when you start railing on people, assuming they are wrong.
Wilson’s argument at this point is to give us more evidence of the ills of modern evangelicals, his favorite target. He shows they deserve criticism. But he doesn’t like to waste time doing this, it seems. It’s quite obvious to him, so let’s get on with rebuilding a Christian culture. But this doesn’t answer the objection: even if you’re right, shouldn’t we be more kind in how we point out the fault?
Wilson answers indirectly when he brings up sentimentalism. This is the phenomenon of the world, and the church, defining love as being nice and kind. But this leaves no room for other Biblical definitions of love, like saving some with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh (Jude 23). This is an act of love, but it is distinguished from being compassionate (Jude 22). It is like pushing my daughter out of the way of a Mack truck about to run her over. It wasn’t nice to do; she’ll be shaken up, might have bruises from the fall, but it’s better than the alternative, and it was an act of love. Sometimes nice doesn’t get the job done. We need to awaken the Christian world to the dangerous direction of its current drift, regardless of if it shakes them up a bit.
There are many mainstream, more respectable writers dishing out the same criticism Wilson does. A sermon by RC Sproul on the golden calf, applying it to worship trends today, comes to mind. The criticism is just as hard. The only difference seems to be specificity. Naming names. Calvin College, my alma mater. Zondervan, producing the majority product I sold at a former job. This doesn’t bother me, because I see the truth of the criticisms.
What does bother me is that most Wilson observers, while acknowledging the truth behind the criticism, focus less on the truth and more on the criticism and criticizer: “you can’t say it that way!” I suppose they are simply employing the same principle Wilson does: be hardest on those closest to you. Wilson doesn’t mind dinging everybody including the PCA, CRC, OPC and Christian bookstores, and he does it specifically, in public, in books, so he’s got enemies everywhere. It’s the prophetic dilemma. If you speak the truth to everybody, without restraint, you won’t have many friends. And, as Don Lucchesi says in Godfather III, “even the strongest man needs friends.” This worries me about Wilson and corps, because they are getting isolated and marginalized by the broader Reformed and Evangelical community. He claims otherwise in the book, but my experience paints a different picture. Precisely because they are so right about so much, I do want them to have a hearing. But if it won’t come on their terms, they don’t seem to care.
So Wilson never really answers the second objection he raises in the preface: you’re driving people away from your positions by your style. His short-term, "We're growing" belies a wider response of isolation that I see in the Reformed world. In the end, his only response to this objection seems to be, “Nuh uh.”