What’s more important, our aroma or our mood?
A few thoughts on Doug Wilson and Kevin DeYoung.
There is a part of me that hesitates to even publish this article since I know it opens me up to the minions of Moscow, Idaho, and their particular flair for abrasive apologetics. I am neither eager nor interested in that conversation, nor am I keen on adding too much to the already fraught online dialogue surrounding the so-called “Moscow Mood” of Doug Wilson and his ilk. As the host of Abounding Grace Radio, Chris Gordon put it, better judgment says to avoid putting yourself in the crossfire whenever two men are slinging mud at each other. But in reading Kevin DeYoung’s now-infamous essay and some of the many reactions it has sparked, I couldn’t help myself from commenting on what I consider to be DeYoung’s best point. Sometimes the mud on your jersey means something.
For the uninformed (God bless you), Kevin DeYoung, a notable Presbyterian pastor and council member for The Gospel Coalition, recently published a lengthy essay entitled, “On Culture War, Doug Wilson, and the Moscow Mood,” in which he critiques speaker, author, and pastor Doug Wilson and the ministry empire he’s created in Moscow, which includes Christ Church, Canon Press, New Saint Andrews College, Blog & Mablog, among several other ventures. In short, Wilson’s “brand” of “Reformed” Christianity is one that is often associated with vulgarity, edginess, and a staunch affirmation of postmillennialism that has bred a newfound love affair with Christian Nationalism. DeYoung’s evaluation is largely focused on the self-aggrandizing aura of Wilson’s online persona rather than Wilson’s questionable (at best) theological underpinnings. (For that conversation, I would highly recommend reading R. Scott Clark’s article explaining Federal Vision theology, of which Doug Wilson is a known proponent.) Depending on who you talk to, though, the “Moscow Mood” is not the disease itself but the rotten fruit from a diseased tree. Nevertheless, about three-quarters of the way through, DeYoung arrives at what, I think, is his best point. He writes:
The well-worn critique of the seeker-sensitive movement is apt for the Moscow mood as well: What you win them with is what you win them to. And with so many of Wilson’s videos and blogs, what he’s winning an audience with is a spirit of derision, cavalier repartee, and the drinking down of liberal tears. Pugnacity and jocularity are not the occasional and unfortunate by-products of the brand; they are the brand.
DeYoung seems to be evoking something Jared C. Wilson (no relation) once said in his book, The Gospel-Driven Church, when he remarked: “What you win people with is what you win them to. The best motives in the world cannot sanctify unbiblical methods” (25). In context, Jared is alluding to the ills of the attractional or seeker-sensitive model of ecclesiology that, seemingly, does whatever is necessary to get bodies in the building. The sappy and saccharine message that attracts folks to those services quickly ends up becoming the very thing that keeps them coming. “The way a church wins its people shapes its people,” Jared continues (37). Although he didn’t originally intend this analysis to be targeted at a provocateur of incendiary theonomy, Jared’s insights are tailor-made to help us understand some of the malignant effects seeping out of Moscow.
In Doug Wilson’s rejoinder, he spends a lot of time attempting to defend his razor-edged use of the English language, which has landed him in “hot water” more than a few times. In defense of his acrimony, Wilson resorts to pointing out that The Gospel Coalition (TGC), where DeYoung serves as a member of the steering committee, regularly publishes articles discussing movies or other media that have questionable, at best, language and/or content. Although this is true (see Brett McCracken’s regular features for TGC), Wilson’s “defense” is the equivalent of: “Oh yeah, well, you do it too” (or at least you support it). The problem is that DeYoung wasn’t writing on or for TGC. Rather, his essay was published on his newly launched Clearly Reformed website, where all of his writings and sermons are now housed (formerly they resided on TGC). To discredit DeYoung’s critical assessment on the basis of tangentially associated publications that don’t even bear his name is risible, at best, to use Wilson’s own terminology.
“What I believe this point reveals,” continues Wilson, “is that the objections to my language has more to do with where that language is aimed than it has to do with the presence or absence of certain words.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps I should refrain from speaking for Kevin DeYoung since I don’t know him, but from my vantage point, his critique of Wilson’s vulgarity was not because said vulgarity was directed toward certain individuals or institutions. Rather it was because Wilson’s coarse language seemingly exists for no other reason than to get a rise out of whomever happens to find themselves on the receiving end of his barking. Bafflingly, Wilson even makes the searing assertion that his use of the word “c*nt” was a “stand for righteousness,” and that, if necessary, he would be “willing to write every syllable of it again today.” This sort of logic is, to me, indefensible if the Word of God is the standard by which we are living our lives.
And look, I know the rationale that is often posited since there are a number of instances of coarse language being used affirmatively in Scripture, with the apostle Paul and the prophet Elijah being the two most often cited examples (1 Kings 18; Gal. 5). The inference, then, is that since he, too, is decrying the voices of cultural decadence, Wilson’s utilization of “colorful metaphors” is warranted. He even goes so far as to say: “The way I use it [coarse language] . . . is not a sin — I am not arguing that it is okay to sin if you only keep the ratios right. Rather, it is not a sin if it is being deployed righteously.” I’m not entirely sure where this thinking comes from but it’s not the Bible. It’s paper-thin reasoning, at best. Walking in a manner that is worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called (Eph. 4:1) does not include throwing the occasional f-bomb simply because we do so for a righteous cause. Paul’s words are clear: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29; cf. Col. 4:6; 1 Pet. 3:15).
Wilson then resorts to another “defense” method by which he aims to assert that DeYoung and the rest of his detractors have missed his point. He disputes the notion that his ministry is one that is encapsulated by snark since, after all, “our motto,” he insists, “is ‘all of Christ for all of life.’ It is not ‘all snark for all of life.’” He proceeds to note that in many of his most fiery and “hardest-hitting posts,” he is always sure to leave the reader with an explanation of the gospel. Therefore, why are his methods being called into question if his endgame remains to get the good news in front of as many eyeballs as possible? What’s more, why would any of his fellow laborers within the Body of Christ want to concentrate on his (multiple) instances of off-color diction (DeYoung tallies seventeen such examples!) when he also writes about the gospel and “the finer points of Reformed soteriology”?
To be frank, this has roughly the same net effect as a Disney Executive publishing a press release reminding everyone that Disney Animation Studios is an entertainment company for children by recalling all of the movies and shows they’ve produced for children, all the while ignoring the fact that the brand, in the aggregate, has become known for something else entirely. This, I think, is what’s happened with Wilson, which both is and isn’t his fault. “I tell people,” he says, “that I write for the same reason that dogs bark,” which is just to say that he is writing in response to something dangerous, something that has the potential to wreak havoc on the church, and he is doing all that he can to warn his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to stay away. Therefore, his bark is necessary, even courageous. Unfortunately, the more often you bark back, eventually, all you become known for is yapping. “It is impossible to immerse oneself consistently in social media rage mobs, even in a defensive posture, and come out wholly intact,” comments Samuel D. James. “Before you know it, you’ve become what you beheld.”
This brings me back to Kevin DeYoung’s point echoing what Jared C. Wilson says, “What you win people with is what you win them to.” What’s winning folks to Moscow is the mood. The disintegration of the West has been well documented in recent years, with the increased polarization of our society pushing folks further and further to the fringes. Wilson’s biting resistance is compelling, to be sure. But for my own part, his peskiness has more than overstayed its welcome, especially when his cohort appears to have graduated from the same “Abrasiveness 101” course in creative writing. Rather than being known for railing against the mob and raging against the machine, those who belong to Christ should, like Paul, strive to be known for the way in which they fragrance the good news of Christ alone. “We are the aroma of Christ to God,” the apostle declares, “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). May that with which we win folks be nothing other than wonders of the cross and the decisive triumph that was won there “once for all.”
Grace and peace to you.
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).