Wilson on Walsh

I saw a book with a catchy title on someone’s shelf this morning. It is called Contours of Post-Maturity (Google Books it here). The cover has a picture of a kid screaming, though I’ve discovered that the new edition has a more benign cover of some wallpaper art or something. My two-and-a-half year old son showed it to me, saying with shock, “There’s a little boy crying.” Jack’s always shocked by other kids crying, but never shocked when he cries himself. I thought the book might be about child-rearing, so I gave it a gander in the hopes that it might tell me how to get my kid to stop crying. Alas.

Getting past the deceptive cover, I see that it is written by a favourite author of mine: Doug Wilson. The sub-title also caught my eye. It slammed InterVarsity Press, which I thought was a little weird at first, as I have a lot of their titles on my own shelf. It says, tongue-in-cheek (and in parentheses), that “InterVarsity Press Comes of Age.” I thought Wilson was being a hater, and was trying to knock out his publisher’s competition. Then I saw the table of contents.

The short booklet, re-released in 2007 by Canon Press, is a collection of reviews of books published by IVP in the mid-90s. The first book under review is Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be co-authored by Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh; Wilson calls this book Tistyuhtub in light of the acronym TISTIUTB. His second review is of Clark Pinnock’s The Openness of God. For a moment I thought Wilson was prejudiced against Canadians, but then I saw he also reviews Apologetics in the Postmodern World edited by Tim Phillips and Dennis Okholm of Wheaton and I felt a little bit better about it–although Middleton and Walsh both have chapters on postmodernism in this one too. I should eat some Canadian bacon for comfort.

The first review, called “The Centrality of Jelly Doughnuts,” (now I want a doughnut) interested me because Brian Walsh is a casual acquaintance. I work at the theology bookstore at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. Brian is the chaplain for the Christian Reformed Church at the university, his office is down the hall from the store, which I’ve often thought is odd because Wycliffe is an Anglican seminary. I often see him bobble by with helmet on, bike in hand. Invariably on a Tuesday morning the hallway is full of students that I have to dodge in order to get to work; they are there for “Wine Before Breakfast” hosted in his office. This is a time for students to celebrate the Eucharist before class, not necessarily a place for religious drunkards to hang. Walsh teaches at Wycliffe, the Institute for Christian Studies, and Trinity College, with his wife Sylvia Keesmaat. They both wrote Colossians Remixed (also for IVP, ahem), and Brian has the distinction of being the subject of N. T. Wright’s book dedication for New Testament and the People of God (this one by Fortress). His blog is Empire Remixed. I like Brian, he typically has something funny to say when he walks by.

So I read Wilson’s review.

Youch (that’s “ouch” with a “y” in front for emphasis). I won’t be at the store much over the slow months of the summer, so I likely won’t see Brian for a while. But I’d like to ask him if he read the review and what he thought of it. It’s written in Wilson’s brilliant, tear-wiping, belly-jiggling style—for some reason Wilson’s at his funniest when he tackles postmodernism in the church. I wonder if Brian laughed, or at the very least chuckled, at his own expense?

I’m fairly suspicious of the level that some Christians have elevated social justice concerns. I completely agree that Christians should help the poor, be politically motivated, speak out against oppression, care for the environment. But I don’t equate these with the gospel, and I am concerned when Christians take what Paul calls “matters of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15 and give them a secondary status or worse. My sympathies lie with Wilson. But I admit that it’s weird to read such a strong review of someone I know. If I didn’t know Brian, even to the little degree that I do know him, I’d probably make my way through the review, then I’d rub my cheeks against my sleeve and move on to the next review. But the next time I see Brian, I’ll remember my chuckles and feel a little bad.

Here’s a particularly strong point that Wilson makes that I didn’t chuckle over. I wonder what Brian would say in response?

“We can make up all kinds of stories that Uplift, and if Christianity works for us in our kind of story-telling, we can look for the Uplift we so desperately need in the canonical bigstory or metanarrative. But alas, there is an epistemological catfish in this punchbowl of narrative ethics. I mean, other people can make up other kinds of stories too. To their credit, our authors confront their prejudices squarely. ‘Some narratives (like fascism and communism) seem to be intrinsically more oppressive than others’ (p. 73). Whoa. Now what? How do we tell the good narratives from the bad ones? White hats and black hats? The answer is getting us dangerously close to an abstract, contextless system of thought or action!

Wilson’s point is that Walsh and Middleton’s dislike of abstract, contextless systems of thought or action—as in traditional forms of evangelical theology—is inconsistent. Universals are inescapable. It’s not whether, but which. To remove all abstract systems of thought is really only to affirm an abstract system of thought; namely that there are no abstract systems of thought. So basically the Middleton/Walsh paradigm adopts the form of the system of thought that they are trying to critique.

Wilson’s other point is that to affirm the relative validity of all narratives is to open the door to some nasty visitors, like fascism or communism (I really, really don’t like to read them say that these two political terrors only “seem” to be more oppressive. Yikes!). It’s odd that this would happen, when Walsh and Middleton seem (there’s that word again) to be against totalitarianism, or at the least “totalizing” texts. In fact, they say that an over-emphasis on the sovereignty of God makes for a “totalitarian view of the deity.” But twentieth-century fascism only appears to be oppressive? Does their language betray the possibility that fascism is a legitimate narrative? If not, Wilson would ask, by what standard?

Anyways, the review is good. I didn’t read the one on Pinnock’s The Openness of God, but if I did, I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him around and feeling funny. Pinnock passed away a couple of years ago. I did see him a couple of times before he died, though. He was tall.