On the back of Doug Wilson's Against the Church, Gregory Thornbury compares the book to Kierkegaard's seminal Attack Upon "Christendom". It's a fair comparison in that both Wilson and Kierkegaard strike at the same basic problem—that the Church is full of piety, but is in many quarters as dead as the surrounding world.
Wilson would say this dead Christianity is due to a lack of regeneration. (Kierkegaard pinned it more specifically on institutionalization, but the concerns were basically the same.) More than in any of Wilson's many books, we see him taking especial pride in his identity as an evangelical, as one concerned above all else with the new birth through faith in Jesus Christ.
This new birth comes only through the work of the Spirit, and when it comes it smashes our idols, even the idols that we think make us acceptable to God, or the idols we've made out of good things God has given us. These include liturgy, the sacraments, tradition, systematic theology, and more.
As always, Wilson is polemical, with a tendency toward strident and biting wit. He says "damn" and "hell" a lot, which we don't find offensive but which may undercut his message in some quarters. He makes a lot of direct in-joke references to a certain breed of Presbyterian which he obviously has little fondness for ("Machen's warrior children", we know who we are). He has no problem taking potshots and saying some pretty eyebrow raising things.
But critics and fans of Wilson have largely learned to take these things in stride. They may be off-putting or endearing, but underneath it all Wilson makes some excellent points, particularly that anything can become an idol, and if we use the elements of our faith and religion as ladders to heaven rather than gifts from the God who saves, we've missed the whole point.
To this, we utter a hearty Amen! Yet if Wilson can air his grievances against the church, surely members of that church who have been regenerated may respond with a couple complaints of their own. First of all, the book reads more like a series of journal entries or blog posts (which they may have been) than a coherent book. This makes the overall gist hard to follow at times, and detracts from the unified theme.
The second concern is more important. Wilson is a known lover of paradox, and those who've read any of his books will be ready for that pattern here. Yet the way he employs paradox in Against the Church, while not necessarily different, is more dangerous because of the subject matter.
Over and over again we're told that God "trashes Scripture," that God is the great iconoclast who smashes the images he makes, and much more in like vein. While we agree that sometimes things must be killed before they can rise to new life, Wilson often leaves his paradoxes fuzzy, with not enough clear explanation. He has a point, but he isn't Scripture and shouldn't try to imitate it by creating his own paradoxes and leaving them for us to interpret.
That said, this is a needed book, one that reminds us what the Church is for in the first place. Wilson would do well in the future to take a more humble stance, one in which he admits his own shortcomings as well as pointing out those of others, but sometimes the church just needs to be dressed down in order to be brought to its senses. Against the Church, for all its faults, is a very sensible dressing down from one who clearly has a pastoral concern for its well-being.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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