Book Review: Evangellyfish by Douglas Wilson

Life is simple for Pastor John Mitchell, a Reformed Baptist pastor to a small flock in a relatively large Midwestern city—that is, he’s sucked into the shady life of his counterpart/adversary Rev. Chad Lester. Lester, the senior pastor of the local megachurch, Camel Creek Community Church, drives a flashy car, a book contract for a book on following Christ through divorce, and a D.Min in adultery. He thinks he’s got it all until he’s named in a sex scandal, the only surprise to which is his accuser is a man. What happens next is chronicled in Douglas Wilson’s Evangellyfish, originally serialized online and now compiled and edited into book format. And the result is a book that makes a reader squirm as much as delight as Wilson skewers modern evangelical subculture and the hypocrisy that lies within it.

Wilson creates an evangelical world populated almost exclusively by unlikeable characters. Chad Lester is a cad and a man who, for all his oratory gifts, couldn’t preach his way out of a wet paper bag. The staff and leadership of Camel Creek are biblically illiterate and morally deficient ninnies, who are either complicit in Lester’s adultering ways or so busy sleeping with each other they can’t bother to notice. Michelle Lester seems to positively delight in her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s misfortune. Even Lester’s accuser is more concerned with crafting poorly written critiques of foreign films than getting the details of his case correct. Indeed, the only characters with any redeeming value are Mitchell, his family, and Michelle’s agnostic boyfriend Brian (who has an increasingly strong relationship with Mitchell).

Consequently, it’s transparent who is the target of Wilson’s critique: the theologically negligent, program driven church. And, as you can imagine, no cliché is left untouched, to the point that it almost becomes uncomfortable to read. The characters are so detestable and the blissful ignorance of those following their lead is so absurd there are times when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

What’s effective about his critique is that (if you’ve ever been part of a program-driven church), you can’t help but squirm. You recognize the tips and tricks described (and you can practically hear the “Spirit strings” at the end of one of Lester’s sermons). The drawback is Wilson’s critique is too one-sided. He pokes fun at Mitchell to be sure, but he is clearly the imperfect “hero” of the story, the pastor of the small, faithful church who endures the silliness surrounding Camel Creek with varying degrees of patience (even as he hilariously waffles on how best to apologize to Lester for giving him a black eye). As a result, Evangellyfish sometimes comes across as mean-spirited absurdity rather than cutting satire.

Moving from substance to form, Wilson’s prose is a delight to read. One of my favorite examples comes just after Mitchell receives a drunken call from Lester who wants him to meet him at the local Hyatt:

John Mitchell just sat in his chair, trying not to think. Scenes from dozens of bad movies played through his head. Villains dangling from balconies, cliffs, various ledges, villains calling out for help. Then there was John Mitchell, pastor, follower of Christ, busily stepping on their fingers. Hanging up on the tax collectors and prostitutes. He glanced at his watch and stood up, trying to embrace the role of dutiful father—gotta get to my daughter’s volleyball game—but it didn’t wash. Joppa was a small school, and Sandy’s coach was almost certainly going to play the B squad. Sandy was varsity. She had told him specifically that he would be wasting his time if he came, but that she’d still love to see him going above and beyond the call of duty. He had perfect liberty to go talk to Lester, and he knew it. He had made all her other games, the ones she had actually played in. He knew he should go see Lester, but deep within the recesses of his rib cage, an insistent voice was loudly maintaining something along the lines of, “I don’t wanna!”

What about Wilson’s writing is he does what so many of us struggle to do successfully: capture tone. As you read, you get a clear sense that he has his tongue firmly in cheek as he writes. More importantly, it’s clear that Wilson actually loves the English language; he loves good writing. And because he loves good writing and understands how it works, it makes for good reading.

Although its satire strays off-course at times, this book is great fun and well worth reading. If you’re looking for an entertaining and provocative read, you can’t go wrong with Evangellyfish.

Title: Evangellyfish
Author: Douglas Wilson
Publisher: Canon Press (2012)

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