July 10, 2020

Recommendation: Is Christianity Good for the World? and A Primer on Worship and Reformation, both by Douglas Wilson

I quit calling myself a Calvinist in 2006, and I really moved theologically to other theological convictions in the following months. Today I love my Calvinist friends, but I’m not one of them. One of the primary reasons for my shift was my inability to identify my own experience of Jesus as the same as many in the Reformed community. It was like being part of a family, realizing it was time to be out on your own, and finding motivation much easier when you thought of particular family members.

To continue an illustration, however, there are other family members that make you want to keep some relationship with the family and not entirely cut ties. They embody the admirable traits of the family; the things you don’t want to give up. While some Calvinists made it easy for me to say “That’s not me, now or ever,” other Calvinists made it more difficult because they embodied and lived out some of the very things I valued highly (and other reformed types seemed to despise.)

Hands down, no argument, my favorite reformed writer/pastor is Douglas Wilson. If you haven’t met pastor Wilson, become a reader of his blog at Blog and Mablog, get his books at Canon Press, read his magazine Credenda Agenda or listen to his sermons/teaching from Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.

Douglas Wilson is, to say the least, a very interesting character. You should read his account of how he became the pastor of Christ Church (after arriving to be the worship leader for a typical evangelical church plant) and how Christ Church became a reformed church, eventually even a bit of a contemporary Geneva. (You can find it in the excellent book, Mother Kirk.) In many ways he represents the forward advance of the “Jesus Movement” into the “Young, Restless and Reformed.” He’s a brilliant writer/thinker while being a rather ordinary speaker. He doesn’t have a doctorate that I am aware of, yet he’s started one of the finest Christian colleges in the country.

He’s extraordinarily witty (with a bite), but uses his wit as an equal opportunity weapon, finding as many targets among his fellow Calvinists as among atheists. He has been hip deep in controversy with the liberal nut jobs of his own community (who actually called the cops over children receiving communion wine), resulting in about every kind accusation short of burning Servetus, yet he clearly loves his community and has led his church to do marvelous, innovative and substantial things there.

He is the only person I know who led his church to have a “dual view of baptism” clause in the church constitution so credobaptists and paedobaptists could live together peacefully. He uses the King James Version and sings Psalms, but he plays blues and rock and roll. He’s a serious sabbath keeper and a pastor who’s led his church to embrace feasting and dancing. He loves N.T. Wright and is one of his most serious and helpful critics.

I don’t agree with Wilson on everything by any means. In fact, I probably don’t agree with him on many things. His views on the confederacy are puzzling. His writing on race has been good, but purposely provocative. His views on marriage cross me several ways. I admire his devotion to classical Christian education, but I disagree with his dallies into theonomy. He has a healthy ego, quoting himself all the time at his blog, but preaches a Christianity well stocked with humility.

If I were a Calvinist, I’d want to be like Douglas Wilson. He’s eclectic, interesting, Jesus shaped in his discipleship and serious about the right things and not too serious about others.

And as a writer, Douglas Wilson may be the most interesting pundit in evangelicalism. His books of criticism, analysis, challenge and exhortation are especially good. It’s rare not to enjoy a Doug Wilson book, even if you find yourself calling him names at the end.

Two recent releases from Canon Press provide good samplings of Wilson’s wit, analytical and debating skill, verbal energy and spiritual wisdom.

A Primer on Worship and Reformation is a series of short essays outlining a core agenda for reforming evangelicalism through reforming worship. I have great appreciation for the reformed tradition in its seriousness and simplicity in worship. Few people understand that tradition as well as Douglas Wilson. While Mother Kirk is the big book that you need, the Primer will start the discussion and make the major point that the place to rebirth and renovate a sick evangelicalism is in worship.

All of Wilson’s ideas won’t fly with the emerging crowd, but I think his diagnoses are particularly on target. He leaves you lots of room to figure it out on your own, but this little book will start the job.

The second book is a reprinting of Wilson’s printed debate with atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens, and is called Is Christianity Good for the World? Wilson has already published a series of responses to atheist Sam Harris, called Letters From A Christian Citizen.

Is Christianity Good For The World? is half Hitchens, half Wilson, and is quite brief. Hitchens avoids Wilson’s major critiques and seems to invest little serious thought in his chapters. Wilson, on the other hand, makes a cogent and well focused critique that is a model of good thinking, humor, wit and evangelism. It may not be the best atheist/Christian debate you’ll ever read, but as a short book it could be very helpful to anyone wanting to learn how to respond to the moralism of the New Atheists. It leaves you wishing a real debate would have been possible.

Both books are quick reads and modestly priced. I recommend Wilson’s writing in general and both titles. (I’ve agreed to review books for Canon, so expect to see more Wilson and Canon titles recommended here in the future.)

Comments

  1. Steve Rowe says

    Douglas Wilson seems like an extraordinarily odd character are you sure you want to link your self to him? Wilson’s book “Southern Slavery as it was” seems to be a symptom of a man with a very unbalanced view of both History and the Bible. I don’t know the man personally and have only a superficial knowledge of his work but it seems to me that you can’t dismiss his neo-confederate tendencies as mere eccentricities. As an aside why has it been that the Reformed Tradition in the American South and in Southern Africa been so hospitable to racism?

    Feel free to delete this post if you link I am going over a line

    God Bless

    Steve in Toronto

  2. >I don’t agree with Wilson on everything by any means. In fact, I probably don’t agree with him on many things. His views on the confederacy are puzzling. His writing on race has been good, but purposely provocative. His views on marriage cross me several ways. I admire his devotion to classical Christian education, but I disagree with his dallies into theonomy. He has a healthy ego, quoting himself all the time at his blog, but preaches a Christianity well stocked with humility.

    1. I grew up in a confederate area, with a Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn. As far as I know, almost all the Christians in the confederacy were supporters of slavery, with very few exceptions.

    2. The people accusing Wilson of being a racist are the kinds of people that ought to convince anyone that he may be many things, but a racist isn’t one of them. These people are uniformly, scandalously given to lying of the worst sort.

    3. I’ve read the booklet you’ve mentioned and a later book, Black and Tan. I have no interest in sympathy for the confederacy as a political, social or cultural artifact. But Wilson is not a racist.

    4. Wilson’s most provocative statements on slavery may scandalize someone’s view of what students of history “ought” to say, but none of them make him a racist.

    5. I share anyone’s puzzlement at the fascination many Reformed folk have with the confederacy, confederate heroes, etc. I don’t share it and I don’t endorse it. But I know many of those people and while I shake my head at what they feel is worth their personal interest and energy, Wilson isn’t a racist.

  3. Steve Rowe says

    If I implied that I thought Wilson was a racist I am sorry I don’t know enough to have an opinion. I do know that a lot of his neighbours think he is however. I used to spend a lot of time visiting my Dad in Franklin Tennessee and I know a few neo-confederates and I think most (but not all) of it is harmless nostalgia. What is more interesting is how so many people in the reformed movement have embraced a very naive view of history. Look at how the puritan revolution in England is romanticized and a blind eye is turned towards the very sad history of religious intolerance in Ireland, Scotland and Puritan New England. My fiancé grew up in Rhodesia and saw first hand the dangers of certain strains of reformed “civil Religion”. When I read the work of men like Rushdoony, Gary North or even Doug Phillips I get the feeling that if they could would like to recreate a similar society here in America. I don’t think these men are racists but I do think that the very hieratical, patriarchal and sectarian societies that they champion lend them self’s these kinds of abuses.

    Peace

    Steve in Toronto

  4. Basically in agreement on your concerns, but I still find a lot to commend in Wilson apart from my disagreements.

  5. I enjoyed his A Serrated Edge a great deal.

    I’ve been wanting to get his books on marriage, but now I’m wondering. What is it about his view of marriage that you don’t like?

  6. Steve Rowe says

    Hello Michael

    I have been listening to some of Douglas Wilson pod casts and you are right it is good stuff. Thanks for the tip I am looking forward to reading his novel “Evangellyfish”.

    God Bless

    Steve in Toronto

  7. Michael,

    I too have wondered about the connection between Reformed theology and the Confederacy and apartheid in South Africa. I noticed that link a few years ago, and it seems to exist because of some type of tendency in the concept of covenant theology. At least that was the case in the South African version. Maybe it has something to do with a poor view of predestination and the place that people hold in society. I don’t know, but I would love to learn more about it. Being a Southerner myself with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I am always interested in such things.

    Thanks for the blog, by the way. I am a regular reader but I think that this is my first comment. You do a great job here and I have linked to you more than once.

  8. Unfortunately it was Wilson’s views on women’s roles that turned me off him several years ago. Just can’t seem to get past that.

  9. stan in san diego says

    Steve,
    It’s not that the Reformed in the South and South Africa were hospitable to racism. Rather, it’s that the South and South Africa were racist because of the presence of the Reformed (and Baptists, Methodists, etc.) If you want to read something that will chill you to the bone, read R.L.Dabney’s explanation about the Golden Rule and its relationship to slavery. Dabney is one of Wilson’s heroes. You already know about Wilkins, Wilson’s partner in perfidy. Watch the company Wilson keeps. His views on slavery and the Confederacy aren’t puzzling, they’re exactly old-South, pre-Civil War Pharisaical Calvinistic racism.

  10. Steve Rowe says

    It is important to remember that racism is not just a reformed problem it is a human one. Mark A. Noll has written a very insightful book on this subject The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. It should be required reading for anyone who is convinced that their Hermeneutical analysis of the bible should override a common sense understanding of Christ’s message of grace ,forgiveness and equality.

    We should all look at our history and be both humble and ashamed.

    Steve

  11. stan in san diego says

    Steve,

    Racism (and slavery?) are certainly human problems but should they be Christian ones? We can excuse pagan civilizations because they were/are lost. But what about the supposed Christians, who built slavery on the basis of their supposed hermeneutic? If James excoriated his readers and pointedly questioned their faith when they had the poor sit in the back and paid them paupers’ wages, what would he write to those “southron christians”, who paid no wages and kept the Gospel from the slaves? What would he write to Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins and all their “southron secessionist/nationalist” and slavery-apologizer cronies?

    If the besotted Hitchens hadn’t been so lazy, he would have noted Wilson’s background and won his argument in the first installment.

  12. It is certainly true that people in the United States were racists and before that racist slaveholders. They were Christians too. Just like believers today, they are susceptible to arguments that reinforce what is easy and comfortable for them. I don’t know that it’s particularly a Calvinistic sin… the Episcopal English allowed Irish to starve in the famines. Listing the sins of Christians is a parlor game for some.
    It’s not even particularly a Christian since the great genocides of the last century were collectivist or totalitarian in origin.
    Not to excuse the past at all. But it’s easy to take false comfort in believing that these sins of the past are beyond us. It’s also a danger to brand everyone with the sins of some of the adherents of Calvinism or any other doctrine.
    The remedy in my view is a humble focus on Jesus and the gospels. It’s a powerful counterbalance to our reason and our comfort as Jesus leaves us off balance and dependent on him.

  13. stan in san diego says

    The problem, Peaches, is that Doug Wilson, Steve Wilkins, etc. would not consider those past sins to be sins at all. R.L. Dabney said that emancipation was the sin. Mr. Wilkins, the co-author of ‘Slavery, As It Was…’ with Doug Wilson, is a southern nationalist along with many others. Their stated goal is to restore southern culture and have the South secede from the Union. Mr. Wilson states that he would have fought for the South and would do so again. So, appeals to past sins or that slavery was an old problem (everybody does it) dont work on these folks. They have no shame over slavery or Jim Crow, etc. Mr. Wilson needs to openly repent and separate himself from these kind of people, all of whom call themselves Christians. And we need to stop praising whatever else they write pausing only to be “puzzled” about their views about the Confederacy. I refer again to James.

  14. Steve Rowe says

    This discution has suggested a question that has preoccupied me ever since I lost my faith in a literal reading of geneses (it accrued have way down the grand canyon on a high school science trip) How important is it to have a coherent theology/world view? Our host Michael has no problem picking and choosing from among a vast number theological traditions like a golfer picking the right club for each hole. Men like Douglas Wilson are purist and true believers who are so committed to a particular hermeneutic that they will follow it almost every where. I have a number of deep seated cultural prejudices that are deeply at odds with mainstream conservative evangelical Christianity (among them: leadership in family life should be consensual and egalitarian and that evolutionally biology basically has it right and that I should not make it my top priority to convince my Jewish friends that they are going to hell). My father (a conservative Presbyterian) accuses me of having a basically incoherent theology. He’s right but I don’t know how else I can continue to call my self a Christian and at the same time maintain any kind of intellectual and spiritual integrity.

    Peace

    Steve

  15. stan in san diego says

    Steve,

    I think that the majority of Scripture would say that Wilson, etc. have a heart problem, not a hermeneutical one. The first is cleverly disguised by the second.

    I no longer look at “theologies”, systematic or otherwise. I have MAJOR problems with the first 11 chapters of Genesis, especially with why God would turn a monstrous beast and murderer like Satan loose on the prize of His creation, most of whom are Ninevites, not knowing their right hand from the left. I’ve found nothing in Scripture or in any other writings to help. In fact, the problem has only intensified. Therefore, I rest in Luke 15, which has 3 wonderful stories about a woman, who lost a coin, a shepherd, who lost one of his sheep and a father, who lost his son. That is enough for me. I hang on to those stories and the fact that I absolutely believe in the virgin birth, sinless life, death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus…for me. I had memorized John 3:16 by the age of 3 and no theology or hermeneutic is going to cause me to reinterpret it. If God doesn’t love every person in the world and Christ died only for the few, then I will convert to a hearty, uproarious, freeing, know-nothing agnosticism.

    By the way, it was while living in Arizona that I became convinced of the historicity of the Noaic flood. I could easily see the waters rushing to the sea leaving a giant gorge and depositing layer after layer of sediment, etc. That and the fact that Jesus treated it as historical. I ABSOLUTELY trust Jesus!!

  16. Just catching up on some of your BLOGS. We think alike Michael. Keep it up. I wrote a new BLOG recently that a couple of your thought threads reminded me of. Here is a link to it:

    http://spadinofamily.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/the-theology-of-rocky-balboa/

  17. Steve Rowe says

    Yes Stan but you trust everything that’s said about Jesus? (Even what’s said about him in the bible? Remember there is some very odd stuff in Revelations). I am basically on your side I try to read the whole bible in light of the gospels (yes even Paul) but sometimes it’s a very hard fit. As per Noah’s flood I would like to think there is a core of historical fact there (I once read a fascinating article about what happen when an ice dam melted and flooded the Mediterranean. The image of a waterfall at the strait of Gibraltar taller than Victoria Falls has never left me.) but I am convinced the story is mostly myth (all that stuff about rainbows and two of every animal except off course for those that were need for ritual sacrifice (a system that does not even seem to have been invented/revealed yet!). As I said in my previous post I am uncomfortable about the ambiguity in my position but right now I don’t see any other alterative.

    Peace

    Steve in Toronto

  18. stan in san diego says

    Peace to you, Steve. As you know, except for a scant mention in Josephus, ALL we know about Jesus is from the Bible. In my past forays into atheism and communism, I couldn’t get away from Jesus. I DO believe all that the Bible says about Him and all that He says about it. Perhaps it’s the witness of the Holy Spirit.

    I have the same concerns about the Flood as you but now I have questions, not doubts.

  19. We used to be followers of the marriage paradigm Douglas Wilson writes about in his, “Reforming Marraige.” Eight years later, we stumbled out of it broken and bleeding.

    I agree that Wilson brings good things to the table. But his views on women are unbelievably destructive. A man who teaches other men that God views men as the farmer’s and women as their field, that they get to choose what will grow and what won’t, when it will grow, and what will be weeded, etc, and should do so authoritatively (in that they are called to do such), needs to be recommended with a STRONG caveat, if recommended at all.

    I’ve also heard from friends who were once church members. They certainly felt that as the years went by, Wilson’s arrogance grew and the teaching’s promoted there grew odder… I realize I’m only hearing one side of the story, but they are dear people, and are telling the truth as they saw it.

    I’m not a fan of banning books, or banning people. But I will say, as an iMonk fan (so much good stuff here!!!!!), that this post made me wince. So much pain in my life has been because of things that Douglas Wilson taught.

  20. I am not here to defend Douglas Wilson’s view of marriage by any stretch. I do not share his views at all. I also realize that he is far from the first or only evangelical complementarian to have these views. They are common among hundreds of thousands of people who have never heard of Wilson.

    I review a lot of books and mention a lot of names. I realize that not everyone has had a good experience with some of those persons. That’s why I make a serious attempt to make it clear that I don’t agree in all things, don’t recommend all things and don’t want to imply a blanket endorsement.

    Thanks for the honest response. Appreciated.

  21. Respectabiggle says

    Molly- what was it that was so harmful about Wilson’s view of marriage? We’ve been moving in that direction over the last few years and it has been nothing but helpful for us. I’m interested in how your experiences differed.