Posted by: mattcolvin | September 18, 2009

Doug Wilson and Cultural Critique

Christians who are aware of the antithesis and believe that “culture is religion externalized” are confronted with a temptation. We have a choice here. We can look at how we live out our faith, and then criticize the culture based on subjectively interpreted symbolism and anabaptistic fear of “cultural influences”. We could even make these critiques into a hallmark of our churches. We could set up blogs where we make witty posts about the slouching of our fellow Christians into the trappings of pagan savagery.

Or we could say, “You know what? This isn’t something we want to be known for fussing about. So rather than having our pastors authoritatively interpret the details of culture for us, we’ll try to train our people in the virtues that we think are supposed to result in a certain kind of dress or decoration… and if that training does result in those outward things, then that’s great, and if it results in different outward things, we’ll be OK with that too.” We’ll clean the inside of the cup, rather than judging by outward appearances. In other words, we’ll exhort people to have their faith “flowing out their fingertips.” But we won’t tell them precisely how that will look in terms of dress, piercings, tattoos, and birth choices. Instead, we’ll live before them in sincerity and humility, not strutting like peacocks and demanding emulation with arguments, but winning it by the conduct of our lives. And we’ll teach them not to look askance if someone with tattoos or piercings comes into church one morning.

This sort of attitude would leave adiaphora in the realm of adiaphora instead of building a fence around the Bible. Such cultural manifestations, even when they are not just merely harmless differences in culture — even when they are actually sinful — are almost never the key sin in the equation. Rather, they are only a symptom of a more basic one. Is it possible to change hearts by regulating clothing or outward appearance? Yes, it is. (I’m not a Cartesian or a cultural Nestorian.) But it isn’t very likely to work. And in the meantime, the pastor who tries to do this will end up looking like an arrogant smart-alec who gets enjoyment out of ridiculing people. A pastor thinks he has been called by God to insult with cutting remarks Christians less discerning than he is. This is his prophetic ministry, and he appears to enjoy it greatly.

Someone has to interpret cultural details, to be sure. But if the pastor does it all, then he will get some of them wrong. And the result of being wrong is that he becomes a legalist, and condemns things that the Bible doesn’t, or identifies as sinful things that are not. The chances of being wrong are much greater when one writes sarcastically on a blog every day.

A further benefit of eschewing this sort of “cultural critique” is that it would turn the church’s rhetorical powers away from offending Christian brothers who differ in these areas of tenuous and slender disagreement, to focus instead on things that it is easy to “get right.” Note well: this is not the same as throwing up your hands and becoming an indifferent relativist about all matters of culture. It is, rather, a difference of strategy. Specifically, it is the difference between the Pharisees’ strategy and that of Jesus.

Jesus focuses on the weightier matters of the Law: justice, and mercy and faith (Mt. 23:23). He indicts the Pharisees for “making their phylacteries large and their tassles long” (Mt. 23:5) — even though He Himself is also wearing those tassles, and commands his followers to obey what the Pharisees tell them, since they sit in Moses’ seat. In other words, Jesus does not deny that the Pharisees are correct about the outward appearances that result from obedience to the Bible. Both Jesus and the Pharisees agree that, as Doug Wilson is so fond of telling us, tattoos and body piercings and dress and where you have your babies are all evidence of what’s in your heart. Your faith will indeed flow out your fingertips. Jesus agrees with both Doug Wilson and the Pharisees on all this. What he attacks is the way the Pharisees take those outward appearances as the problem to be solved. He says that method is like cleaning the outside of the cup. The problem is actually inward.

People don’t learn to love the Lord by busily correcting all the cultural behaviors they have unwittingly absorbed. They learn to be busybodies and legalists that way. (I know, because, only a few years, under the influence of certain Reformed pastors, I was such a one.)

So that’s my recommendation for Pastor Wilson: let it drop. Go ahead and eat with “tax-collectors and sinners” — with Goths and tattoo artists. Rather than trying to get them to buy into your understanding of how their practices are born out of rebellion and paganism, see if you can win them to love the Lord and His Word. Train them to be wise, and then they will be able to use that wisdom when they are making their own decisions about how and whether to wear, pierce, tattoo, eat, and give birth.


  1. Great post, Matt.

  2. Just down the road from us a collection of young people bought a small farm, over a year ago. We referred to them as the “hippies,” based on a few things we saw and a few things we heard. Our daughter Maggie met a couple of them last Saturday while she was running a spinning wheel at a local crafts exhibition. Today she and Chris and Matthew stopped in to say hello, offer a loaf of bread, and visit a bit.

    Turns out they really are hippies, at least in spirit. There are five of them, of mixed sexes, with a sixth joining them soon. They are all working outside jobs to pay off their mortgage as quickly as possible. They are determined to turn their farm into a self-sustaining operation. They want to play music with Chris and take knitting lessons from Maggie. Chris wants to help them re-establish their forge, and help them get their diesel dump truck working again.

    We still refer to them as the hippies, because it was never a term of derision, just a bit of teasing. But we’ll certainly never let them hear us call them that; in fact, we’ll probably find a gentler term soon enough. And we hope to get to know them better, and help them integrate themselves into the neighborhood.

  3. This is a very welcome response to much of the tirades of Doug Wilson’s cultural crusades. I cannot simply recount the number of individuals that have been turned away from many of the nobler, surer wisdoms the man stands for, because of such condemning language.
    Jesus does seek to cleanse the inner rather than white wash the outer. However, I think a mistake with the conception of “culture is religion externalized” is the expectation that changing the heart will necessarily result changed actions (or the correct ones, at least). If experience teaches anything, it teaches that man is continually sinful and needs the exercise of godly wisdom for guidance. Producing good culture will not come naturally if we are not trained to think about what is good culture and if we are not instructed in what God’s Word has to say about culture. Also, if we expect individuals to privately consider such questions and determine their own pursuit of good culture, we will inherently end up with myriads of different practices. Culture is not something individuals produce in isolation, but rather something that is inherently communal. Therefore, such questions of culture must certainly be considered by individuals, but must first and foremost be dealt with as a community, a community of the body of Christ. By which I don’t mean to say, necessarily, that the interdenominational Church is to lay down a proclamation of Christian culture; such a notion is both inpractical and overlooks cultural variences of time and place. Rather, the local body of Christ ought to be consciously engaged in wrestling the question of how we apply God’s gospel of redemption to the work of our hands in bringing for the fruits of His creative order

  4. Very good, Ben. I agree with you that such decisions aren’t to be made by individuals, but by communities. The point I was trying to make is about how communities process such questions, and lead individuals to choose one course or another. You’re quite right that a change of heart won’t necessarily result in righteous behavior — it might result in different unrighteous behavior. That’s where community comes into play.

    For instance: how do you learn what to wear? Imposed rules, or an organic process of inherited tastes, observed modeling, and the input of your family? It’s not a matter of individuals shutting themselves in private rooms and working it all out. But neither is it a matter of clerical dictation.

  5. What a great post 🙂 Thanks Matt! Sounds like you guys have had a fruitful few years!

    Reading material by Doug Wilson and his ilk almost destroyed my faith a few years ago, for the very reasons you mention.

  6. Each time I read this (i think this is the third time now) I think “spot on!” and then forget to post such. You have aptly pinpointed the difficulties with Wilson’s attempts to teach how being a Christian in this era should look. And also described why I could never be part of that community of believers, as much as I have benefited from the teachings of Pastor Wilson. Thanks.

  7. Given your comments about the somtimes-pretentious use of Latin in Moscow, I thought you might enjoy this from Spengler over at First Things… (link)

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