Christian standards for engaging the culture

I follow Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog because I think he is a trailblazer for an approach to Christian cultural engagement that is always aggressive and often belligerent—laughter is war, as he says. I don’t understand this approach well enough to dismiss it, so I keep reading, sometimes with gritted teeth, in the hope that I will eventually come to see how Wilson and his followers justify what looks to me like gleeful mockery—of brothers as well as the world—generously larded with the kind of jesting (what Strong’s translates as “scurrilous, ribald, low jesting”) that Ephesians 5:4 exhorts Christians to avoid.

In a recent post, Cheering for the Cowpie Channel, Wilson begins as follows:

I have said before that I find Sean Hannity barely tolerable. Whenever I see him, which is rarely, Bill O’Reilly provides an ongoing trial of the purity of my sanctification. And I have only seen Glenn Beck for a few minutes in YouTube clips, but that man is clearly a histrionic specimen of the first order.

I take all that as meaning that he does not like how they do what they do. But does he like the thing that they do? In some fashion, yes. Wilson continues:

That said, and fully acknowledged at the front end, I take great pleasure in the fact that, for the first time in my adult life, we are seeing an old-fashioned political brawl, the kind that suit-and-tie Republicans could and would never initiate.

I take that as meaning that Wilson likes old-fashioned political brawling itself, just not the fact that Hannity and O’Reilly and Beck are the ones who are conducting the Republican side of it. Why not?

These cable channel men, clearly not qualified to do so, have taken up a noble task that the certified gentry of conservatism would not touch with a barge pole.

OK, so the task itself is noble, the problem is that the men who have undertaken it are not qualified to do it, while the ones who are qualified to do it have become so gentrified that they won’t dirty their hands with the task.

Of course the Obama White House is chockablock with commies. It is beyond delightful to find people willing to say so, with an audience of millions, and who lack the sophistication to know that what they are doing is just not done.

It’s not important to my point here whether or not the White House is chockablock with commies, only that Wilson thinks so. And so he is delighted that someone has had the courage to say it. I’m not sure whether it’s the audience of millions that he thinks are unsophisticated, or Hannity and O’Reilly and Beck. Perhaps both. In any case, he seems to be willing to pay the price of having unqualified, unsophisticated messengers as long as the message gets delivered.

So apparently the importance of getting the brawl underway trumps the fact that it is being instigated and pursued by people whose behavior Wilson can barely tolerate and who he thinks are unqualified to engage the other side—which I guess means that for the wrong reasons they are accidentally saying the right things, such as claiming that the White House is chockablock with commies.

But what justifies this? Aren’t Christians supposed to let their yes be yes, and their no be no, regardless of what we think the outcome should be? Is this some sort of theory of co-belligerence, where we can encourage others to engage in behavior that is distasteful and untruthful as long as the outcome is desirable and our own hands stay clean?

Wlison ends his post with a helpful analogy:

It is as though an uptown lady bought a Mao T-shirt for 500 clams at an upscale boutique somewhere, and some cornpone fresh off the farm threw a cow pie at her for doing it. Sharp intake of breath all around, right? But in the cosmic scale of values, which is more of a moral blunder? Throwing a cowpie at a clueless rich lady, or wearing a T-shirt celebrating the sociopath who murdered scores of millions of people? [Emphasis added]

So, the key to managing such situations is a keen sense of the cosmic scale of moral blunders. As long as an action taken is less of a moral blunder than the action it is responding to, it is justifiable. Or, if I read Wilson’s final sentence correctly, it is at least an action that Christians can encourage others to take, if not take for themselves:

Anyway, that’s what it is like. So set me down as cheering for the cowpie channel.

I should say at this point that I don’t mean this to be some sort of “gotcha” analysis of Wilson’s post. I mean it to be a plain reading of the post by someone who doesn’t agree at all with Wilson’s approach to engaging the culture, and who is trying to understand in more detail the source of the disagreement. I don’t doubt that Wilson and his defenders will find his thinking in this post consistent with his overall view of the Christian life. What I want to know is whether my own view, which seems to me to rule out Wilson’s approach, is somehow wrong or deficient. I’m hoping that such close reading of Wilson’s writings will eventually tell me that.

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10 thoughts on “Christian standards for engaging the culture

  1. 1. Without the grace of God we would be as lost as anyone else. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and President Obama are all lost without the work of Christ in their lives…just like we were at one point.
    2. We are to reflect Jesus to the lost and dying. This type of banter doesn’t endear non-believers to the gospel.
    3. Even when we feel the way that DW does, we probably should “stifle it” for the sake of the gospel.
    4. I’m sensing a good bit of pride and arrogance in the blog from DW…it might just be that he writes this way to make a point, rather than actually fully believing what he is writing.
    5. We should be the ones ready to receive the cowpie for the sake of the gospel. Not that I’m excited about doing that myself :)

  2. Rick,

    Have you read “A Serrated Edge”? Would Eph. 5 rule out any and all possibilities of sarcasm? Is the context of Eph. 5 meant to mean fellow believers or does is mean everyone including heads of state, public personalities etc (or perhaps I should say all people, all places, all times)? Does Chesterton make it past this reading of Eph. 5?

    Not trying to find wiggle room here, just saying I see a lot to chew on in order to get this one right.

  3. Ethan,

    Not trying to find wiggle room here, just saying I see a lot to chew on in order to get this one right.

    Agreed, and that is why I’m trying to take one small bite at a time.

    The question I have about this particular post is pretty specific: is it legitimate for a Christian to cheer for someone who is engaged in a moral blunder, as long as their blunder is aimed at a greater blunder, and the result of their blunder is a noble one?

    Or, using Wilson’s analogy, can we cheer on those who throw cowpies as long as the folks who are getting them in the face are worse than cowpie-throwers, and somehow a cowpie in their face advances the cause?

  4. I liked the phrase you used for what Doug Wilson does: “gleeful mockery”—a technique Jesus surely employed as to be used so much by another shepherd of the flock.

    Doug Wilson writes: And I have only seen Glenn Beck for a few minutes in YouTube clips, but that man is clearly a histrionic specimen of the first order.

    Rick, Kuddos to you for at least reading Doug Wilson for some context before a critique. I wish he (and Crunchy Con) would do the same. I don’t understand the Glenn Beck hate from conservatives. 99% of the time, they preface their comments with, “Now I’ve never watched the show….” Embarrassing.

    Glenn Beck is a recovering alcoholic, opinion journalist, free-spirit Mormon. He is very good entertainment, and he brings up facts that no other networks will touch.

    Glenn Beck is nothing more than a classic case of shoot the messenger.

    Doug Wilson: It is beyond delightful to find people willing to say so, with an audience of millions, and who lack the sophistication to know that what they are doing is just not done.

    Arrogant.

    I admittedly spend too much time watching FOX news. Those guys are a lot of things, but definitely not unsophisticated.

    Rick writes: just not the fact that Hannity and O’Reilly and Beck are the ones who are conducting the Republican side of it.

    Just a minor point of clarification. Beck is a libertarian, most definitely not a Republican. Both sides hate Beck. Hannity is a Reagan Republican. I am unsure about O’Reilly; he’s hard to read.

  5. Amy,

    What seems to be paramount these days in public discourse is to peg someone as quickly as possible. In pegging Glenn Beck as a “histrionic specimen of the first order” after only a few minutes of watching YouTube clips, Wilson not only demonstrates that he can dissect a person’s character quickly, acutely, and decisively, but he spares himself (and his fans) the need to listen to Beck any further. The ridicule may commence.

    Me, I’ve followed Glenn Beck long enough that I know he can’t be easily pegged. I began listening to his radio program two or three years ago, when it first came on the Somerset station. His approach to talk radio was quite different, and only recently did I discover that it stems from his extended period spent as a “Morning Zoo” DJ. But his approach changed a bit since he started his CNN program, and seems to have changed quite a bit since he moved to Fox. But since I’ve never seen his television programs and haven’t been able to hear his radio program for months, I don’t know much about exactly how he’s changed.

    I have my own opinions about Beck as a thinker, as an entertainer, and as a human being. But they are still pretty vague, and continue to develop as I take in bits and pieces of new information. I am nowhere close to having him pegged. I have a much fuller understanding of Doug Wilson, from reading his books and Credenda and his blog for many years now. But it’s been this long before I have been comfortable raising even this much of a question about his approach to cultural engagement.

    As to Rod Dreher (Crunchy Con), I am currently giving him a tentative and time-limited pass on his antics, because I think he is engaged in some sort of struggle over his approach to blogging. In just the past few days he ran a post about how our obsession with tabloid events is distracting us from truly important issues, followed immediately by an urgent plea for us all to pray for the Colorado balloon boy, followed by a series of posts on the hoax as it unraveled, in which he excoriated the dad, pegged the family as white trash, and said that he ‘looked forward with lip-smacking relish to the truth about the Balloon Boy story coming out.’

    This and much else Dreher has written lately strikes me as Andrew Sullivan-style blogging. And Sullivan’s success as a blogger, both financial and audience-wise, must be weighing heavily on the minds of writers like Dreher who are currently plying their trade in a dying field. So rather than pegging him as a certain predictable sort of blogger, I’m happy to assume instead that this is be a period of experimentation, after which he will either reject the approach or fully embrace it.

  6. Two observations:

    1. When Wilson says “people who lack the sophistication…” I don’t think he’s being arrogant, I think he’s point out that the Repubs think they’re too sophisticated to do what Wison’s talking about.

    2. When he calls Beck “a histrionic specimen of the first order” I don’t think he’s judging his character, rather describing his style on TV.

    I don’t agree with everything Wilson says, but I do think I understand where he’s coming from. This post reminds me, sorta, of my reaction when Dr Tiller was killed. “He needed killing.” Not that I support vigilante justice, or think that the murderer was actually right to do what he did, just that the state has been neglecting its duties for decades to protect its weakest members, and it was about time that somebody stopped him.

  7. Kelly,

    Not that I support vigilante justice, or think that the murderer was actually right to do what he did, just that the state has been neglecting its duties for decades to protect its weakest members, and it was about time that somebody stopped him.

    You raise an important point. I’m still surprised when I read the Bible at how often God uses unrighteousness to punish unrighteousness.

    But at least there I know when it’s unrighteousness that is being punished, because the Bible tells me so. There are other times in the Bible when unrighteousness goes unpunished (temporally), and times when righteousness occasions some severe treatment.

    So I’m definitely nervous about choosing to act as an instrument of God’s justice, and even about taking satisfaction in seeing someone else act as one, because it requires me to know the mind of God pretty well in a given situation. Jehu knew the mind of God through the prophecies of Elijah, and was zealous in bringing them about—and Israel suffered for generations as a result. He was an instrument in God’s hands, but I don’t know that I would have cheered him on.

  8. Regarding Crunchy Con, sometimes I wonder if he was just experimenting with crunchiness and conservativism. Yet, there is still a certain loyalty in me toward him, just because I find him a likeable guy, even if he did jump the shark.

    One of the things that troubles me about modern young conservative women is their tendency to “cut you off” when you veer from the path (which are rules and lifestyle pecularities they’ve agreed upon but are not insisted in Scripture), without understanding that life is fluid and you don’t have all the answers (even if you suppose you really do). Sometimes we are just thinking through things.

    I don’t want to be like that, so I keep my mouth shut and wait it out on our friend, Rod, as you are. Lord knows I’ve said some stupid stuff too and wish people gave me the benefit of the doubt.

  9. Thanks for this post–it’s the kind of thoughtful material and exact parsing of argument and language that attracted me to your blog and keeps me reading you.

    I am not inclined to be in sympathy with Beck, but even more I know as a teacher of rhetoric that his sort of act — and Wilson’s, as well, from my perspective — tend to bolster the convinced and horrify the uninitiated. If these versions of libertarianism or theological conservatism have a future, it can’t lie in constant sarcastic remarks about their fellow humans. In my opinion.

  10. Regarding Crunchy Con, sometimes I wonder if he was just experimenting with crunchiness and conservatism.

    Amy,

    Rod Dreher just pointed to this somewhat unflattering article about him written at the time that his book had just come out. Taken together with the direction his blog seems to be headed, I’d say that he was hoping he had hit paydirt with the Crunchy Con concept, but was disappointed.

    Too bad, because I think Dreher glimpsed some important truths in the beginning, but rather than digging it out he bundled up the superficially attractive parts into a bundle that was warm and comfortable and self-affirming and potentially lucrative. The truths are still there to be dug out, though.

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