Evangellyfish: A Novel by Doug Wilson

Andy Naselli —  July 31, 2012 — 5 Comments

The latest edition of Themelios released this morning.

Here’s one of my book reviews (pp. 417–18):

Douglas Wilson. Evangellyfish. Moscow, ID : Canon, 2012. 228 pp. $21.00.

So far this year I’ve read eight books by Douglas Wilson, and reading him usually evokes one of three responses:

  1. I strongly agree. Witty, pithy, insightful. I wish I would’ve written that.
  2. I strongly agree, but an improved tone could win others over. (Think Tim Keller.)
  3. I strongly disagree, and the tone is off-putting. (For example, in March 2012 he called the NIV a “gender bender” translation, asking, “Who wants a Bible translation with hormone shots and breast implants?”)

Evangellyfish evokes the first two responses but with a few caveats.

The book is unlike any other I’ve read by Wilson: it’s a novel, and it’s satire. Wilson’s other writings have doses of satire, but this is 228 pages of non-stop satire. I don’t want to give away the storyline, so I’ll be vague on those details. Basically, the book is a story of two pastors: (1) a sleazy, sex-crazed mega-church pastor and (2) a faithful, down-to-earth Reformed Baptist pastor with an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary. And there are lots of other colorful characters.

On the one hand, this book may not be for you. First, it’s preoccupied with sex. Though it contains nothing explicit, many (most?) scenes are suggestive. Second, it includes realistically coarse language when depicting what crude characters are thinking or saying: e.g., “Who the hell” (p. 21), “what the hell” (p. 99), and “damn” (pp. 24, 35, 111, 156, 179 [2x], 192, 209). Third, Wilson directs his satire almost exclusively at mega-churches in generic evangelicalism. Hardly any of the barbs hit close to home for conservative evangelicals who are robustly confessional. Even worse, the book may instill a prejudice in those readers and tempt them to look down on or be suspicious of all large churches in vanilla evangelicalism as being led by slick hypocrites and filled with superficial attenders.

On the other hand, Evangellyfish may be just what you’re looking for. Like almost everything Wilson writes, it’s witty, funny, and edifying. Especially edifying are the end of the story and how he portrays the Reformed Baptist pastor’s marriage and family. While this novel depicts sin, it doesn’t glorify it; sin is dark and has miserable consequences in this life.

Here are some examples of Wilson’s humorous verve:

  • “Mitchell’s mother had always called church choirs the war department. Luther once said that when Satan fell, he fell into the choir loft” (p. 12).
  • “[H]is pulpit ministrations had left the congregation in an exhausted frame of mind, and parishioners would go home after the message, recline on the sofa, and pant” (p. 67).
  • “[S]he was one of those rare individuals whose wise and sagacious appearance was immediately contradicted as soon as she opened her mouth” (p. 74).
  • “Johnny was not really a highly trained logician, and would simply go as he was directed, as long as the suggested direction did not conflict with the tangled bundle of platitudes, loosely tied with string, that made up his worldview” (p. 100).
  • “Michelle was a smart woman, but it must also be said she had always been a ‘will that be on the test?’ kind of smart” (p. 105).
  • “[T]he repercussions did not seriously affect Chad’s ministry at all. In fact, he got a book deal with Zondervan out of it— Walking With Christ Through Divorce” (p. 108).
  • “[A]fter repeating several phrases unnecessarily (the sermonic equivalent of a blinking fuel gauge), John decided that he had to wrap up. He didn’t feel any better. He felt like he had just tried to give a tar baby a bath in vegetable oil. Lester didn’t look any cleaner, and John just felt gunked” (p. 140).
  • “Pastoral snarls are like the mercies of God—they are new every morning” (p. 175).
  • “[T]hat kind of anger is like manna. Even if it is good, it goes bad overnight if you try to keep it” (p. 224).

Wilson said in one interview, “I want this book to come across to intelligent readers as ‘funny, dark, and redemptive.’” By those criteria, he succeeded.

Andrew David Naselli
The Gospel Coalition
Moore, South Carolina, USA

5 responses to Evangellyfish: A Novel by Doug Wilson

  1. Andy,

    A great review. While I am about one-third of the way through Wilson’s book, I felt you nailed exactly my own perceptions this far in my reading.

    Thanks for your review and insights.

  2. Andy,

    Thanks for the good review. A few questions. You criticize Wilson’s tone at points. But is it possible that we could use in soft evangelicalism a few more Wilsons? Isn’t he sort of like that guy God used to bring the Reformation? When is the biting, heavy-hitting style of the prophets and Jesus called for? Religious hypocrisy, no?

    I’m enmeshed in a soft (and sometimes silly) evangelicalism of the Wheaton variety, and so I appreciate it when a Wilson calls a spade a spade. To my mind, we need a few more heavy hitters who are willing to point out evangelicalism’s flaws. And especially those that hit closer to home. I mean, like right here, where I live. Wilson’s done that fairly well from Idaho (though, as you pointed out, not so much in “Evangellyfish”).

    Again, thanks,

    Jeff

  3. I appreciate your pointing out concerns related to sarcasm in DW’s writings. I think there is a place for it in certain forms of communication. It would be a mistake to use it as the tool of choice in every situation (even if footnoting Jesus as you say), just as it would also be a mistake to avoid sarcasm altogether.

    I’ve heard Piper use sarcasm many times (not as creatively or as often as Wilson) and sometimes it was fitting and other times not. When it did work I notice it was usually off the cuff and the crowd laughter in those cases increased its effectiveness to the hearers. The irony is that failed sarcasm is usually off the cuff too.

    So, should we say that sarcasm like salt is to be controlled not by avoiding it altogether, but how much, where and when?

    I regard a book like Evangelyfish as a worthy format for such because it’s fiction. I agree with you as well that DW could dial it back when speaking about or to living persons.

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