Review of Douglas Wilson, A Serrated Edge 
John M. Frame
Just so everyone will know where I’m coming from, I should say that I am a longtime fan of both satire and Doug Wilson. The former came into my life much earlier than the latter. I first caught the writing bug doing satirical pieces for my high school literary paper. In those days my model was Mad Magazine, not Horace or Juvenal, but in time I came to appreciate Erasmus, Swift, and others. In popular Christian circles, I enjoyed the Wittenburg Door back in the days before it got all serious on us and tried to solve all the world’s problems. Now I find it hard to live without my monthly dose of www.larknews.com, and Credenda Agenda.
Which brings me to Doug, who besides editing Credenda has created a remarkable Christian community in Moscow, ID, with churches, schools, and Canon Press. They were a great help to my wife and me in our home schooling; we used some of their curricula (Latin, logic) with our boys, and my younger son is now studying in a Christian classical academy much influenced by Wilson. I’m often amazed at how my son the surfer and soccer player is catching on to the life of the mind through our Geneva School.
Doug has written much on education, parenting, theology, and worship, with which I agree maybe 80% of the time. But even when I disagree, his work makes me think and leaves me grateful to God for the encounter. That certainly has been the case with the book under review. This is Doug’s defense against those who have complained about the satiric, often sarcastic humor in Credenda. He reveals here that the magazine’s humor is not merely a reflection of his personality and that of his staff; it is a self-conscious, serious enterprise in obedience to biblical norms, as Wilson sees them.
He shows that Jesus used strong and mocking language, often satirical. Pious paraphrases have dulled the force of Jesus’ words, but Wilson sharpens their edge by contemporary parallels: Matt. 19:24 becomes “It is easier for a ’72 Ford pickup to go through the tailpipe of a Toyota, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (31). Or this, from Matt. 7:1-6:
A self-important man has undertaken amateur ophthalmology in order to get a speck off his neighbor’s contact lens when he has managed to get a railroad tie gummed to his own.” (32)
Similarly Doug finds sharp, humorous mockery in many Old Testament passages, and in Paul. His survey is quite thorough for such a small book, and to my mind persuasive.
I respond enthusiastically to this conclusion:
Simply presenting the truth of God in a computer printout fashion, without the passion, life, satire, love, and emotion found in Scripture, is a way of being unfaithful to that content. Style is more than the simple decoration of propositions. Style (with satire an important part of this) should be woven throughout every discourse and considered an essential part of it. Because we have pursued an “objective” style of communication (having believed that this was possible), we have created a deracinated and boring form of speech.(98)
The present volume is a fine example of this integration of style with content.
I agree with Doug that we should emulate this form of biblical teaching, and I also agree that in general the Christian community needs to develop a thicker skin, so as not to be so easily offended by this sort of thing, except, of course, when (as in Jesus’ case) it is precisely and rightly designed to offend.
What is inadequate in the book, however, is Doug’s account of the principles governing this sharp language. The obvious question is, how does all this fit in with the Bible’s teachings about gentleness, graciousness, and love? Wilson tries to answer that, but it is clear that the task is not easy for him. He admits that it is possible to be too nasty, too harsh. We should not attack “with a spirit of malice and selfish hatred” (27). But he does not describe any signs of malice and hatred, so that we can distinguish good from bad verbal attacks. He says later, “Of course it is possible to sin by means of sarcasm and mocking” (58). How is that possible? We know it is possible, because the Bible says so, Doug answers. But what does such sin look like, according to the Bible? Doug tells us only that “Before we can answer this question rightly, we have to ask it rightly” (58), that is by recognizing that there is indeed a time for polemical speech. But then he closes the chapter without any reflection relevant to our question.
Later in the book he says again that it is possible to mock others in a sinful way, and he says,
Few subjects are as badly neglected in the modern Church as the applied field of biblical polemics. As a result, we have done very little thinking on the goal of this kind of satire in controversy. Of course, the point of everything is to glorify God, but how does satire glorify God? (97)
Great question, but again Doug fails to answer it. All he says here is that this question should not deflect us from godly satire. He also says again that we should be governed by the Bible (102), and that we need wisdom (103-5):
Of course, in saying all this, there are a few caveats of the “don’t try this at home” variety. I believe that true biblical balance in such things is the fruit of wisdom, and that such balance is not usually found in hot-headed young men who don’t know what spirit they are of (Luke 9:55). Consequently, prophetic rebukes should come from seasoned prophets, from men called to the ministry of guarding those people who belong to the Lord. The work should be done by men of some age and wisdom, and not by novices, firebrands, and zealots.” (104)
“Excellent!” I exclaim at age 67, recalling a number of specific novices, firebrands, and zealots who I pray will read Doug’s admonition. But how and what are they to be taught? Is a biblical balance here something that comes automatically with experience? Are there no principles for distinguishing good mockery from bad?
Douglas Jones, in his moving appendix, carries us a bit farther:
But mocking arrogance—violating the tyrannical decencies of a prevailing idolatry—has to be only part of the battle. We can’t do without it, but it can’t sustain itself either. It’s a glorious, sometimes hilarious, negativity, but it has to ride on a deeper, constructive seduction of truth, beauty, and goodness. (119)
Yes: the main thrust of the Christian message is positive, not negative. We need to watch our balance. But even that is too general to help us distinguish good mockery from bad.
The closest thing to a principle that I have found in the book comes in Chapter 5. At the beginning, Doug quotes Eph. 4:31-32, a passage certainly relevant to the question he earlier posed:
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice; and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
After some basic observations about the passage, Doug asks, “what are the practical boundaries that set the pattern for . . . verbal behavior?” (60) Alongside more examples of biblical insults, he does mention one principle:
we are to be kind to one another. Sheep are to be kind to sheep. Shepherds are to be kind to sheep. But if a shepherd is kind to wolves, that is just another way to let them savage the sheep (60).
We should be kind to sheep, then, but we may be unkind to wolves. On 105 he qualifies this position further:
…we must be careful not to be hasty in imitating [Jesus], since His wisdom is perfect and ours is not. It is therefore good to take counsel with others. Related to this, sharp rebukes and the ridiculing of evil practices should seldom be the first approach one should make, but usually should follow only after the rejection of a soft word of reproach, or when dealing with hard-hearted obstinacy displayed over an extended period of time.
This is a pretty good beginning of an analysis of the issue: limit sharp rebukes to “wolves,” and then only after counsel and the use of gentler methods. These principles do reflect biblical practice. Scripture is harshest with idolatrous kings, priests, and prophets in the Old Testament, and with Pharisees, Judaizers, and Gnostic-docetists in the New. With others, God’s messengers are far more gentle: Jesus with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Paul with the Christian vegetarians and day-keepers in Rom. 14. Of course, there are degrees of harshness in Scripture, and often a relatively harsh rebuke is balanced by praise and encouragement, as in many of Paul’s letters and Jesus’ letters to the churches in Rev. 2-3. But in Doug’s book it seems that admonition is like a musical instrument that can be played soft, or loud, but without any subtlety of variation.
Now I am accusing Doug here of a sin of omission, that he doesn’t say enough to help us make safe use of his serrated edge. In reviewing books, I normally don’t make much of omission. After all, nobody can say everything, and when people occasionally try to say everything they end up saying nothing. But by Wilson’s own admission, harsh rebuke is a dangerous instrument—something you should not use without wisdom and experience. So I must fault him for writing a book praising this instrument, urging its greater use, defending its practitioners, claiming for it a central role in biblical witness, and only then telling his readers (in much more muted tones) to use caution. And the cautions he proposes are too general to be of much use to anybody. It’s like spending 120 pages lauding the fun and usefulness of assault rifles and then adding “of course these things can kill people, so be careful.”
I must belabor this point a bit further. One may get the impression from this book that believers should be constantly satirizing and attacking one another, that “niceness” should only occur rarely. At one point, Doug ponders why he should even be expected to give a biblical defense of satire. Rather, he says, “the real dilemma should confront those who would undertake a biblical defense of writing like the author of the Elsie Dinsmore stories” (47). I don’t know Elsie Dinsmore, but I can well imagine, since Wilson couples her with various forms of “19th century sentimentality.” Well, certainly “niceness” is not always to be applauded. But the question in the reader’s mind is not whether Scripture authorizes Elsie Dinsmore, but whether it authorizes just plain civil conversation. By civil conversation, I mean friendly discussions, in which, if rebukes are to be made, they are made gently, with concern for the feelings of the other person. Doug does endorse “a soft word of reproach” (105) as an interim step before satirical demolition.
But in fact Scripture presents “lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:2, which Wilson quotes on 99) as the normative state of affairs in the body of Christ. Further, whether or not this sounds like Elsie Dinsmore, Scripture cares a lot about feelings. See how Paul expresses anguish for the needs of his flock, and how he hates the thought of bringing grief to them (2 Cor. 2:1-5, 1 Thess. 2:7-8, 17). However one may criticize extremes of sentimentalism, one should never forget that Scripture requires us to care for one another’s subjective needs. So, contrary to the impression Doug’s book gives us, gentleness is not just an interim step toward harsh rebuke. Rather, rebuke should be something occasional, gentleness and love the normal relationships between Christians. I think that Wilson himself understands this. Certainly Jones does, when he urges upon us a foundation of truth, beauty, and goodness. But the book is not designed to present that biblical normality.
In our conversations with other believers, and indeed with non-Christians, there should be a strong presumption in favor of graciousness, gentleness, and civility, unless there is a clear justification for the opposite. That is what Wilson should have said in this book, and that is what I have been unable to find anywhere therein.
Doug also says far too little about the proper objects of rebuke. He distinguishes only between sheep and wolves. But that leaves many important questions unanswered. For one thing, we should note that in the New Testament, both sheep and wolves are covenant members, professing believers, though of course the wolves’ profession is insincere. How, then, should we deal with non-Christians, those outside the covenant community? Sometimes in Scripture God pours out judgments on them, anticipated by harsh rebukes from prophets. Other times, God’s people address Gentiles with much respect and meekness: Joseph with Pharaoh, Solomon and Hiram, Paul with Felix and Festus, and with the Athenians in Acts 17:22-30. This is another important issue that Wilson does not address.
Another question is how we should identify wolves within the covenant community. In the New Testament period, this was not difficult, for Jesus and the apostles identified authoritatively the enemies of God. After the apostles, identification of wolves was more difficult. But as long as the church remained one church, she was able to pronounce an authoritative verdict. Later, however, the church divided into thousands and thousands of denominations and a number of warring traditions. Today, someone considered a great man of God in one denomination is often considered a vile heretic in another. Is the identification of wolves, then, an independent decision for each of us to make, every man for himself? Doug doesn’t tackle that question either, but it is relevant to our decisions on how to treat one another. In my judgment, it increases the presumption in favor of civility; for we should be hesitant to pronounce someone a wolf who has not been so identified either by a Christian consensus or by a responsible church authority.
In any case, Doug tells us that the chief target of his own satire is “modern evangelicalism, or, as in the title of Chapter 7, “ModEvism.” The first problem here is that he is disparaging a group which has never been identified as wolves by any other group of Christians. The second problem is that “evangelicalism” is simply too large a movement to attack with such a broad brush. He addresses the second problem, but not the first.
He recognizes, of course, that not every evangelical is a wolf:
In my frequent attacks on modern evangelicals, do I acknowledge that such attacks are generalizations? Of course. Do I know that there are contemporary evangelicals out there who have a spiritual backbone? Of course. Is this going to slow me down? Of course not. Modern evangelicalism, taken as a whole, is a wretched money-grubbing business that has sold its soul for a market share. Why should we hold back the charge because there are some honest evangelicals who acknowledge that the charge is true? Holding back would make liars of them. (35)
Now there are a few problems here. Is this critique really about wolves, in the biblical sense? Lack of a spiritual backbone would seem to be more sheepish than wolfish. Money grubbing, now, that is wolfish, and some recent scandals force us to take that issue seriously. Does Doug have any hard data to show that evangelicalism is rife with financial dishonesty, beyond the few cases that have made headlines? Or (on another interpretation of his charge) does he have private access to the motives of evangelical leaders, so as to say for sure that their motives are to enrich themselves rather than the kingdom?
As his discussion continues on 36, we learn that Doug doesn’t like the mannerisms of TV evangelists, their blow-dried hair, the fact that they counsel the president, that they include large photos of themselves in the books they publish, and that they like being called “Doctor.” I must say that nothing in this paragraph, to my mind, convicts any evangelicals of being wolves. Even if all the specifications are sustained, the charge is not proven.
In Chapter 7, he brings up the issues of divorce and financial irresponsibility, which are more serious, but they are also somewhat removed from the New Testament understanding of a wolf. A wolf is not merely someone who is guilty of sin; on that understanding we would all be wolves. A wolf is someone who sets himself up as a leader of the flock to lead the sheep astray. Some evangelical leaders are unbiblically divorced and convicted of financial irresponsibility; but I am not convinced that these sins are characteristic of evangelical leaders. And I don’t see many leaders telling evangelical sheep that they should get divorced and embezzle from their churches. Nor, clearly, does Doug intend to restrict his rebukes to those who do.
Now I am not saying that we should never satirize silly hairdos, ecclesiastical pomp, and the like. I’m only saying that Doug’s stated principles really don’t allow it. He could improve those principles by drawing up some kind of sliding scale: full-out meanness against a true wolf, lesser levels of satire for others. But you won’t find such calibrations in A Serrated Edge.
Part of my problem with this, I confess, is that I don’t really think the Reformed confessional world (which Doug and I inhabit) is much better, if at all, than “ModEvism.” I think Reformed theology is far more biblical than those theologies more often called evangelical, such as Arminianism and Dispensationalism. But I don’t think that Reformed churches and institutions are generally better than those of non-Reformed evangelicalism. Frankly, I’ve seen an awful lot of backstabbing, pastoral failure, immorality, pride, pomposity, traditionalism, poor theological arguments, and just plain silliness in the Reformed camp, and I’ve seen many glorious works of God outside that camp. I see no reason to think that Reformed churches are generally more virtuous than evangelical churches, or any less amusing. If it is really important, as Doug says, for judgment to begin at the house of God (76) then to my mind we should begin by judging our own Reformed church life: tugging the railroad ties from our eyes, before performing amateur ophthalmology on our evangelical brothers and sisters.
To conclude, A Serrated Edge is a lot of fun, and it will tell you some important things about biblical humor and rebuke. But it will leave you confused, both about the biblical limits on harsh rebuke, and about its proper objects. Given the confusion this book is likely to create, I think the best advice Doug gives us is “don’t try this at home.”
1. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
2. In the reference to Eph. 4:3I-32, the book uses a Roman numeral for the “1.” This is the pattern of the whole volume; there is no Arabic numeral “1” anywhere. Doubtless there is a good explanation, but since Wilson has put us in a satiric mood, someone might well suggest that this is classicism run amok.
3. All of Doug’s Bible quotes come from the KJV.
4. Jesus does convict her of sin, and there is some irony in his language, but his words to her are far different from his words to the scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23.
5. The polemic against sentimentality, even against a regard for emotions, is very common in recent Reformed writing. I note that in the battle now raging in American Presbyterianism over the Federal Vision, which Wilson favors, both sides have this in common: that they strongly emphasize the objective over the subjective and sharply disparage modern evangelicalism for, among other things, catering too much to people’s feelings. On the contrary, I think that Scripture teaches a positive view of the emotions (see the following note), and I think that evangelicalism has, on the whole, a more biblical balance in this area than does the Reformed community. I suspect that the objectivism of the Reformed movement partly explains the many destructive battles it has endured in the last 70 years or so. (See my “Machen’s Warrior Children,” in Sung Wook Chung, ed., Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), and at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Machen.htm.) If Presbyterians could speak civilly to other Presbyterians who seem initially to disagree with them, there would be, I think, far less divisive theological warfare among them. Unfortunately, what has happened is that people on all sides of these battles have done what most of Doug’s book appears to urge.
6. For an extended discussion of the sin of “Hurting People’s Feelings,” see my essay of that title at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Hurting.htm.
7. One should not have to make such an obvious point, but gentleness is mentioned seven times in the New Testament as a Christian virtue, though it seems to be the forgotten virtue in Reformed circles today. Love is, of course, the heart of biblical ethics, Old Testament and New.
8. Of course, all Christian leaders, like all human beings, want to make money to support themselves and their families. So there is always some level of pecuniary interest. How much of this must someone have before we may call him a money grubber? That question is not as easily answered as Doug’s discussion suggests. And even to ask that question carries us beyond the ranks of “ModEvism,” into the motivations of ourselves and our own leaders. Doubtless Doug himself desires to make a living from his ministry. But I wouldn’t dream of trying to measure in Doug the proportion between his pecuniary and his kingdom motives. Surely his motives must be assumed pure unless there is evidence to the contrary. I am only asking the same presumption of innocence for evangelicals.
9. On my own definition, which I think is justified historically and pragmatically, Reformed theology is a form of evangelicalism. Doug seems to be denying that in this book; at least he doesn’t apply his criticisms of evangelicalism to the Reformed movement. So he follows those who think the circles “Reformed” and “Evangelical” do not overlap. I won’t make an issue of this. Here, I follow Doug’s practice.
10. I wonder sometimes if Doug can take what he dishes out. A satirist could have a field day with the elitism of Credenda, with all its Latin titles and such, the adulation of past ages in the classical education movement, the thees and thous in his KJV references, and Wilson’s view of worship, which apparently lacks any interest in making the liturgy intelligible to ordinary people. Not to mention the Roman numerals in his Scripture references (see note 2, above).