Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 09/18/2007 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. An exceedingly entertaining and highly literate defence of satire’s place in Christian life and letters.
‘In your satire do not sin’ is a biblical paraphrase summing up the gist of Douglas Wilson’s little black-and-blue volume on Christian satire. The paraphrase works well not simply because it is pithy (something Wilson is known for) but because anger is almost always bound up in the dispensing of satire. Depending on who reads this book, Wilson will either be castigated as World’s Greatest Reformed Anger-Monger or admired as Brilliant Reformed Guy Who Wields a Pen Like a Sword.
Now, Professor John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary fame (and whose output, I am certain, must exceed a million pages of solid, deep-thinking theological text) has interacted with Wilson’s book in a lengthy and passionate review, so a good part of me asks ‘What am I doing reviewing this book? It’s like a Muppets in Space skit following a Stephen Hawking lecture on quantum physics.’’ However, since Frame is not currently reviewing for Discerning Reader, here goes…something.
As always, Wilson is clever to the nth degree. If you love Wilson’s writing, as I do – and one either loves Wilson or hates him, there is no in-between – glee is a difficult feeling to smother while reading him. Take these excerpts:
“Too often we think that our struggle with sanctification is a simple matter of overcoming the temptations to all these big E on the eye chart kinds of sins.”
“Everybody is against two thousand year old sins. But it takes a prophet to be against the currently approved abominations.”
Wilson does not simply define and defend satire. He attacks – fittingly, in view of the subject matter – targets he deigns free reign for satirical attack: pharisaic pomposity, his own coined terms ‘dearlybelovedism’ (sappy limp-wristed acceptance of ‘respectable’ sins) and ‘modevism’ (the kitsch and caboodle of popular evangelicalism), just to start. He also levels the sixteen-inch guns of satire on what I suspect is the health, wealth and prosperity gospel: “If you have a stupid religion, then evangelistic zeal just gets you more of it. If you have rank hypocrisy, then why should we want to get that planted in the Third World?” Wilson is in good company here, as John Piper is also on record decrying the exportation of the prosperity gospel to the developing world, calling it outright ‘crap.’
But Wilson’s theorizing falls short, particularly when discussing the etiquette of satire. When do we employ the charm of graciousness, and when do we wield the sword of satire? The line is so blurred and fuzzy that a book like this one is obligated to provide at least a hypothesis about where that line might fall. But Wilson circumvents the question. Take this definition of arrogance, for example: “the sin of assuming yourself to be in the right without warrant from the Word of God.” Wilson omits any mention of the very important matter of the mode of expressing this rightness, and that is quite serious. In Frame’s words, Wilson “doesn’t say enough to help us make safe use of his serrated edge.”
One other issue I wish Wilson had addressed is the biblical account of the woman caught in adultery. It’s possible that Wilson has never considered this synoptic episode in light of satire, but it’s hard not to avoid its implications. In the chapter pre-emptively dealing with objections, Wilson comes close in a discussion about whether “we should imitate this part of Christ’s demeanor and refuse to imitate that part of it” – ‘this’ referring to satire and ‘that’ to, well, anything else. But the woman caught in adultery never makes her entrance, unhappily, and so we never hear Wilson handle the issue of throwing the first stone in satirical contexts.
Despite these concerns, Wilson’s work has the same effect on me as it did on Frame: “Even when I disagree, his work makes me think and leaves me grateful to God for the encounter.” This is not a gentle book; it is provoking in more ways than one. As such, A Serrated Edge is indeed a brief polemic, rather than a systematic exposition, on the role of Christian satire. Since Wilson points out the necessity of Christian satire but not its rules of engagement, one might want to follow up A Serrated Edge with The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (Baker), Words That Hurt, Words That Heal by Carole Mayhall (NavPress), and/or War of Words by Paul David Tripp (P&R) for a fuller picture of the norms of Christian communication. This little book probably needed to be a good fifty pages longer in order for Wilson to satisfyingly fill in the gaps, which he would no doubt accomplish with a great deal of verve, vigour and vinegar. I hope at some point both he and Canon Press undertake this task. I will be watching with bated breath.