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Podcast | 21 Minutes

Is Satire Good Rhetoric for Christians? ft. Doug Wilson

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
Is Satire Good Rhetoric for Christians? ft. Doug Wilson

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Did you know that the relationship between Marlin Detweiler and Doug Wilson is over 17 years old? Over time there has been a distinct shift in how each man chooses to share about classical education and the Christian faith. In this episode, our founder and host, Marlin Detweiler, debates the pros and cons of controversial pastor and author Doug Wilson’s jabbing, satirical online presence. Do we at Veritas agree 100% with Wilson’s style of equipping the saints? The short answer is no. Listen to the episode to see which style of communication resonates with you, and see proof that we can still befriend and engage in loving debate with those with whom we disagree.

Note: Due to a technical glitch with Doug Wilson’s audio, you may hear some static in the video above. We apologize for this unfortunate occurrence!

Episode Transcription

Note: For readability purposes, this transcription will vary from the original words used in the recorded episode.

Marlin Detweiler:

Hello. My name is Marlin Detweiler, president of Veritas Press, and you have joined us for the first episode of Veritas VOX, The Voice of Classical Christian Education. Today we have with us, Doug Wilson. Doug, thank you for joining us. I believe I got some warning that this episode might be entering some hostile territory and be a bit adversarial - of course, I don't mean that completely [chuckles]. Doug has been a good friend to me.

He has seen the questions I plan to ask ahead am submarining him. I want to first say to you, Doug, that we at Veritas have an enormous debt of gratitude to pay to you, as do those that enjoy and practice classical Christian education all over the world. Veritas Press in particular, and our online school, owe a great debt of gratitude. Your work and your interest in popularizing classical Christian education has made a tremendous impact on us. So thank you.

Doug Wilson:

You're welcome. Thank you.

Marlin Detweiler:

For those of you that don't know, Doug is the author of Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. It is a book that was written as a response to Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning.

If you haven't read that book, it is easily deserving of the title of “seminal work in classical Christian Education”. It was life-changing to us when we read it. It was great.

This podcast could go in a lot of different directions. But I want to focus on one thing, as I told you: the concern that we have for the rhetorical approach that you take in public discourse. Before I get into some questions, let me set some parameters here to help those that may not understand what I mean by that.

I have once heard from a pastor who left the church denomination that you, Doug, were involved in starting. A part of the reason he gave was that he was tired of continuously saying, ”Doug's not a bad guy”. I thought that it was funny, but I also thought it concerning.

Back in 1993, you, two school administrators, and I together, started the Association of Classical Christian Schools. Today there are 400 to 500 schools around the country and around the world.

But I would say maybe with a different rhetorical approach by you, that number could have been 4,000 to 5,000. I think that there would be considerably more successful and thousands more schools involved had you used a different voice. But what's interesting to me is it's not the voice that you used in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and that is, as best I know, your most successful book. Is there a lesson there? That's an open question.

Doug Wilson:

Right. So is that the question?

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, that is.

Doug Wilson:

So there's no way to talk about what I do without getting into what I do. And I'm not trying to humblebrag or anything like that. But I've written about a hundred books, including Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Some of them are like Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. I've also written one book, Serrated Edge in defense of biblical satire, and I've written some openly satiric novels, and of course, I've written some things that are, you know, real examples of the kind of rhetoric that you're concerned about.

But I've written many marriage books, family books, and childrearing books. So my writing is not a Johnny-one-note sort of thing. It's not like I was on my meds when I wrote Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and then got off my meds to write all the other stuff.

Back to your note on the Association of Classical Christian Schools - the classical school movement is on the whole healthy and conservative and standing against the tides of weakness. I think you may be right; that had I not adopted the adversarial posture that I do have, we could have had thousands of schools in the association. That's quite right.

But I would also postulate that it was quite possible that half of those hypothetical thousands of schools would be part of the problem, and with that many voices in the mix would we would now be in the process of going woke. Because no one is willing to yell fire when the school is on fire. We are in a time, I believe when we're seeing our civilization come apart. We also live in a time when anybody who points out that it's coming apart, whether they do so mildly or satirically or in a loud voice or quiet voice, they can have their careers ended and ruined.

You know, you can have a mild-mannered professor at a sensible Christian college say something like, “I think that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” and lose his job over that. Many people find themselves down in H.R. because they said something perfectly innocuous 20 years ago. So the thing that I'm concerned about is without an adversarial benchmark, we lack a flag. We could have thousands of schools, but I don't want to be part of a movement that has thousands of schools that are an essential part of the problem.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, I agree with that. And I think I provide evidence that it doesn't become that necessarily; we are a single school with over 10,000 students and we are not subject to that when we have been asked about certain things. We've answered them clearly and directly.

So I don't think it's it is a given that if the Association of Classical Christian Schools asked for thousands of schools, half of them would be problematic. Before I jump into some very specific questions, I want to make another note. You are absolutely right: I've read many of your books and you're absolutely right that you don't always adopt a satirical or maybe mocking type of mindset at the same time.

In addition to that, I've heard you preach, I've heard you speak, and from the pulpit in the context of Christian worship, I've never heard you communicate that way. It is not the way that I have commonly seen you preach and members of the church who have heard you preach a whole lot more than me confirm that.

The other thing I'd say is some of the people with whom you have “picked fights with” online using your satirical language; you would not speak with them in that same way when they are present in your home. And I think there's to me, there's a disconnect there.

So let me just ask you - what is your goal in using satire, mockery, and belligerence?

Doug Wilson:

It's to encourage the Saints.

Marlin Detweiler:

Does it work?

Doug Wilson:

Yes, it does. But if the argument is your belligerence is off-putting, or your polemical stance is off-putting, one of the things you would have to then account for is why our small little town here also is the receiving station for refugees from all over the country. Hundreds. And we're talking about hundreds of people over the last year and a half coming into Moscow Idaho.

People saying, “I've got to get the heck out of California,” “I've got to get out of Illinois,” “I've got to get away from my pastors who won't stand up for me, who won't draw a line.” This nation has evangelical churches that are led largely by invertebrates. A central part of my goal is to provide a voice for the voiceless, to fight on behalf of those who need a defender, and to articulate what these people would desperately want to see articulated.

Now, when when I first started the magazine Credenda/Agenda in 1988, I selected my ideal reader to write for and I've not varied from it that since that time. That persona is someone who is really upset or distraught or disquieted by what he sees going on around him in the evangelical church and doesn't know how to articulate what's wrong with it, but he knows that something's wrong with it.

The goal is when he reads what I write, he says, “Yes, that's it!” When we did Credenda, I had that voice in just one or two pages out of the 30-page magazine. It wasn’t like that voice was a Johnny-one-note, but that style element was there.

And I want people to know that satire or polemical discourse is a tool that you pick up to use for a particular purpose. And when you're done, you put it down again. I don’t write that way because my personality is broken and I can't help it. When I write this way, I'm picking up a particular tool at the workbench and employing it for a particular reason.

Over the years I've wanted to know, am I hitting that target? What evidence do I have that I'm getting through to him [my ideal reader]? Well, our ministry has grown and flourished up to the point that hundreds of people have moved here [to my church], and many of them have done so because they felt abandoned by the leadership of the Evangelical Church.

Nobody's calling a spade a spade. No. Nobody's willing to get out there. Now, there's a fork in the road. You know, when someone comes to me and says, “What you're doing, this style of communication, is unbiblical.” My response to that is, “That's a great argument. Let's have a Bible study.”

Marlin Detweiler:

Let me just interject there. I don't think it is biblical. And I do think there is a time and place. But what I would say about the growth that you cited is that I could cite the growth of a church that a pastor took from 200 to 20,000, a lot bigger than the church that you're a part of. And I don't think it grew necessarily for reasons that you would be comfortable with.

Doug Wilson:

Oh, I know. That's why I started by saying, morning glory grows. Cancer grows. Yeah. So they are growth patterns. What I'm saying is that you can't say, “What you're doing is turning people off,” because this are a lot of people are attracted to it. So you can say it turned some people off and you can say that it attracts others.

And then it's the inescapable concept, not whether [my writing voice turns people off] but which [people it turns off]. So that's the other thing. When I travel around the country when I speak at conferences and someone comes up and says, “I read your this book, or that book,” and then they chuckle. One thing I want to note is, what kind of person is that?

What kind of person likes what I do now? If, you know, if nine out of ten of those people that I meet have three heads and two of them are drooling, I think, okay, I'm reaching the wrong audience. But overwhelmingly, the people move here, the people I meet, those people are responsive, are sweet, godly, conscientious, faithful Christians.

Their families are an ardent order. They feel like I'm articulating something that nobody else will say. And that's something I just read in my Twitter feed. And so I take all kinds of brickbats and things thrown at me because I'm trying to articulate a voice for the voiceless.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's not the only possible conclusion from the data, though. Another conclusion would be that it is accomplishing something good with some people, but it may be that good is the enemy of what's best.

Doug Wilson:

Yeah, it's possible that should be put on the table.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, let me put one of those questions out there for you. Is this kind of mockery not some sort of bullying?

Doug Wilson:

No, because one of the things I do, and I think you'll see if we went back and we just zeroed in on my satiric novels or my polemical, no holds barred, no quarter November kind of writing - 95% of the time I'm not making fun of a particular individual. I'm very careful when I include a name; when I finally say, “Ok, Tim Keller or Russell Moore,” or if I'm interacting with someone that's a real person on the other side of this. You can go back to the point about how I would deal with someone in my living room. I would like to be able the next week to have that person I mention by name in my living room. Or if that person showed up at church, to be able to serve them the Lord's Supper.

What I do is more like the job of a cartoonist. Let's say I draw a liberal peacenik demonstrator. Some lady with hippie glasses and a tie-dyed shirt. I caricature certain elements of that kind of person and I really exaggerate them.

But I don't say, “This is Smith who lives in Des Moines.” What I'm doing is painting a caricature. This is something that Jesus does in Matthew 23 when he says, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees. Hypocrites!” And he paints a picture of them like a caricaturist. They give lengthy prayers, they blow trumpets before they give a donation. He caricatures them. And he does it very effectively as a cartoonist, but he names no names. I'm very careful to try to imitate that.

Marlin Detweiler:

But what do you think? What kind of people are actually persuaded by mockery and belligerence?

Doug Wilson:

I would say the people who are persuaded are the people who have lived under mockery themselves for months and years. Where they are downtrodden. They're the ones who are insulted by others because they still believe in the confession of faith. They thought they joined the Presbyterian Church and now everything is drifting left and they're the only ones who are upright.

The people that I'm encouraging are the people that our cultural moment is hell-bent on ostracizing. What I'm trying to do is stick up for that guy. And thus far, from the feedback I get from those guys, from the people moving here [to Moscow, ID], the people who try to reproduce what we're doing, and people who sell books, is that I'm effectively speaking for them.

Now, if someone said, “Yes, you're speaking effectively for 5000 people in that position, if you just change your tactics it could have been 5 million,” We could have a debate about that. But I do know that there's a real class of a significant number of Christians who feel like what I've been doing is a lifeline. Faithful people can be reminded and say of themselves, “I'm not crazy. The world is crazy.”

Marlin Detweiler:

“The world is crazy” is easily granted. And there are people that support the style and the approach that you've taken. The point that I would make, is you might be able to cite that a thousand or 20,000 people moved to Moscow. I know it wasn't 20,000. There are probably more than a lot more than that. I hesitate to put a number. I would read thousands who would say your communication style is problematic and it's less than ideal and it's in some senses counterproductive. I have become one of those people. We at Veritas have been put in a position to answer the question, “What's Doug's role with you all? What do you why do you support him?”

I don't want to get into the theological issues. I recognize that those are complicated matters. You and I have talked about them for many hours and talked about historic issues and that sort of thing. What I want to focus on is the style of communication [you use] that I have grown to believe is far less effective than some alternatives.

I would say, with regard to your church, as I understand it, your church has maybe 3,000 maximum total people. I cite those numbers because it’s not that big.

Doug Wilson:

We're not a megachurch, you know. If we moved all our people here in Moscow into a mid-sized American city, we'd be below the average number. We could be a big box church. That's true. So we're not a big church, but we are a church that punches way above our weight.

Marlin Detweiler:

Absolutely. I know that.

Doug Wilson:

It's not that we’re a “mega huge numbers” church. But we are the biggest in Moscow, Idaho. But this is a small town. But when you look at things like web traffic, when you look at what circulates or what sorts of things we respond to, a strong argument can be made that we have become the voice of the conservative resistance in evangelical Christianity in North America.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, I can't speak to that. But I was addressing was your citation for [your communication style] being a good thing because a lot of people are coming there [to your church] now.

Doug Wilson:

I'm not saying it [my communication style] is a good thing because people are coming. I'm saying you can't argue that I’m turning people off. When I said if people say, “What you're doing is unbiblical,” I'd say, “let's have a Bible study.” Then they move over and say, “What you're doing is counterproductive.”

Now, if they say it's counterproductive, then the question is, “counterproductive compared to what?” If you're saying, “Compared to what could have been,” We're going to come to that question with our respective paradigms.

Marlin Detweiler:

We have a rhetoric book called A Rhetoric of Love. The rhetoric described in it contrasts with a rhetoric of domination. And I would categorize the kind of satirical rhetoric you use, to the extent that you do that - and I understand you don't always do it. But I would categorize the rhetoric you use frequently as a rhetoric of domination and as a counterproductive thing.

One of the things that I think we have missed as Christians, very simply stated, is the way that we fight isn't the way the world fights. It strikes me that this form of mockery you use is primarily the way the world fights. And I don't think that's the way that the gospel teaches us to fight in a primary sense. I think in a primary sense, it teaches us to make a traitor out of our enemy. And the enemy becomes a traitor to their own cause, joining the cause of the gospel.

Doug Wilson:

I agree with that part. We're not we're not dominating anybody. I'm not I'm not kicking puppies. I'm not picking on the little guy. I'm not insulting. I'm not punching down any of them. Imagine we are in a blind alley. Backs to the wall. A band of armed thugs are coming after us and we are fighting.

As I've repeatedly said, we don't want to fight like thugs. We want to fight like Cavaliers. We want to be merry warriors. We don't want to be silly. We don't want to be hard-bitten. We don't want to be, you know, talking out of the side of our mouth. But if it's not bullying, we are being bullied.

We aren’t domineering. They're attempting to dominate us. And so what we're doing is we're saying we're not having any. We're not going to go along with your program and we're going to fight. We're going to resist. But is that domineering?

When Jesus goes into the temple and flips over the tables, he's not domineering. This is what got him killed. Right? He goes it goes to Jerusalem and to the solitary prophet. There are only two swords in the whole company. And he tells Peter to put one of them away. Jesus went to Jerusalem to pick a fight with the authorities. And he did not do the gentle Jesus, meek and mild approach.

And they dominated him. They crucified him. They went after him. And so his rhetoric got to be God will judge you. You waited, sepulcher. His rhetoric included very pointed caricatures, such as a camel going through the eye of a needle. He's a very effective satirist.

The time is coming when I and all the sweet Christians are going to be loaded into the same cattle car. And taken off to the camps. And we can have our debates there about this. But I would say that I saw what was coming decades ago, the cultural moment we are currently in.

I started calling it out in the 1990s. People didn't believe me. I see occasional comments now - I just saw this last week on Twitter. Someone said something like, “Say what you want about Wilson. He predicted this cultural moment years ago.”

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. No doubt. But all of that doesn't mean that it follows that our backs are in the alley against the wall in the dark - the metaphor that you created just a moment ago - that they're there because of locusts and because of those kinds of things. Sometimes we end up in those positions because we do things that cause that right.

Doug Wilson:

So one time, we had an unbelieving speaker come in to address our students at New St. Andrew's. I remember in the Q&A, Doug Jones asked him (and this was before Doug developed the convictions on display in A Rhetoric of Love).

Doug Jones asked the speaker, “What do you think of the late-night comedians making fun of Republican presidents and stuff?” And, and the guy said, “Oh, it's great. You know, its satire is great when it's lampooning an approved victim.” So if some late-night comedians want to make fun of evangelicals or of Donald Trump, or of any generic Republican congressman, or whatever, it's open season and nobody objects to the rhetoric game.

What they object to is the rhetoric being deployed against one of their sacred cows. So if you go after a sacred cow, that's the issue. It's not the rhetoric you use.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, that is true, no doubt. And it's incredibly true today. But that is not true of how I am expressing concern, because right now I'm taking a very different tact than what might be a common practice in my expression of concern to you about this. And it has nothing to do with whether or not you're attacking my own or you're attacking somebody with whom I have great difference.

Doug Wilson:

So let me ask you what you think of this: Most standard mainline evangelicals are so nice and are so sweet that diabetics can’t be friends with them.

I'm talking about men like Jack Philipps, the Colorado Cake Baker, or Burnell Stutzman in Washington, the florist. The photographers and videographers and the wedding coordinators and staff. These people are the sweetest, nicest people in the world. And they are in the front lines of this battle that is going on, not because of their satiric gifts not because they're right, not because they pop off.

And yet they are in the crosshairs. They are in trouble. They are in court because they are standing in the path of the sexual revolution. Similarly, anybody who gets in the way of the sexual revolution, whether or not they've ever made a joke at the expense of the woke agenda is given the same treatment.

They are called a hater. Right? And thus far, Veritas has not been put in that position. But I can guarantee you that if the right employee complained, all you need to have happen is that one, two, or three pieces fall into place and you would find yourself in the middle of a firestorm and you could be the sweetest guy in the world.

And as I'm happy to tell people, Marlin actually is so. You but you have been a good friend.

And I would say on the Internet, even if there had been an eruption of lies told about you.

Marlin Detweiler:

That has happened, actually. And my approach to it was to go silent and let it die. it may not always be the case, but it generally takes two to tango, and the person swinging at you gets very tired very quickly if you don't swing back.

Doug Wilson:

And just to say, there have been many times when I have refused to write the debate.

Marlin Detweiler:

I don't doubt it.

Doug Wilson:

I think I know the situation you're talking about, and I greatly admired how you handled that one and thought that was the right call. That was all good. And there's no one size fits all. Sometimes you let it go.

Sometimes you leave the other guy swinging. So when someone says something on Twitter about me with slander, I click on their profile. Usually, it's three followers, probably mom and sister. And I know that if I answer this guy, I just made his day. I just handed him a microphone.

But there are other times when I click on their profile and there are 120,000 followers. And what they've just done is they've just handed me the microphone. So I can say something to their large audience.

So I believe that the Bible says that an elder can't be a belligerent man. He can't be a brawler. So if I were in these fights all the time because I couldn't help it, that would disqualify me from ministry. But I am selective about what fights I get into. I'm very selective about when I name names. I really want to be careful there.

Marlin Detweiler:

I certainly understand that. And there are times when it does require us to stand up for things in ways that can be a kind of fighting. But I don't think it follows that mockery and maybe even belligerence are necessary.

We have to wrap up for now! We have Doug Wilson here with us. We're going to continue this discussion in our next episode of Veritas Fox.

Thanks for joining us! I really appreciate this chance to banter.

Doug Wilson:

I appreciate it greatly as well. Thank you.