Canon Press, 2012
232 pp., 21.00
Thinking Second Corinthianish Thoughts
Voltaire's Candide ends in a garden—its characters decrepit, ravaged by war and folly, but with new wisdom. "This is the best of all possible worlds," repeats Pangloss for the umpteenth time. "We must tend our garden," concludes Candide. For Voltaire, true philosophy is best presented in a shroud of irony.
Douglas Wilson's Evangellyfish ends in the home office of a Reformed Baptist pastor. Unable to focus on sermon prep (having "tried to think Second Corinthianish thoughts") he considers going to the kitchen to try to interest his wife in sex. It's a similarly comical and idealized conclusion, and what precedes it is similarly devastating satire. Evangellyfish dismantles middle-class American evangelicalism, its trends and subcultures, its suburban landscaping, architecture, youth culture, and private education, and, not least, its idioms. Evangellyfish is a Candide for contemporary Christian culture.
But the plot is lighter and enjoyable on its own terms, its structure manageable, a detective mystery—reminiscent perhaps of P. G. Wodehouse. John Mitchell, Reformed Baptist pastor and protagonist, is small-minded, simmering with resentment, conscious of his own sexual frustration and desire for revenge. Mitchell resides in a town whose churchgoing population is polarized between his own small congregation and a multi-thousands megachurch owned and operated by his nemesis, Chad Lester. As this is a satiric novel, Mitchell is not an entirely sympathetic character.
The story's central problem is that Lester, who's had numerous affairs with female congregants and staff, can't handle being publicly accused of—being sued for, in fact—sexually harassing a male former congregant. His staff, in a tacit pact of silence regarding their flawed shepherd, support him, but to no avail: his demise is precipitous. When he finally, drunkenly, calls Mitchell to beg for help, Mitchell resists. "John, please," says Lester. "Sorry, Chad. My daughter's got a volleyball game," replies Mitchell, and hangs up.
In ironic contrast to Mitchell's social pettiness, his "sermons [are] of the 'all grace, no slack' variety," writes Wilson, leaving "more than a few worshippers … concerned about just how much more grace their families could take." He's also emotionally needy, repeating to his wife, "I don't like it when you leave." Not as obviously errant as the Ferrari-driving megachurch pastor, is still portrayed as weak and limited, not an entirely effective pastor. When "three new families" join his church over six months, he considers it a "massive revival."
Chad Lester is far more deeply compromised, an outright hypocrite, and Wilson doesn't mind skewering him. His church, Camel Creek, is surrounded by "twenty acres of asphalt" and "automatic sprinklers on a timer." In his office he's "a magisterial executive, leaning back in his leather magisterial chair …. A magisterial executive in a Hawaiian shirt." When he meets people he says, "Please, call me Chad." Of his divorce he says, "Grew apart. Still the best of friends, though." He smiles "a sad, pastoral smile." An evening worship service begins with "no break between songs, each one moving aside when its time was done, and allowing others to merge flawlessly to take its place." This is followed by a montage of video clips and pop songs, "some raw postmodern anguish, full of integrity, which seemed to be mostly about boyfriends who don't call anymore."
To summarize Wilson's view, neither of these extreme forms of church is great, but the small church is by far the lesser evil. Alas, the local Christian secondary school isn't great, either: "It was an academically sound school, but it had long ago lost all moral authority with the students. The one rule that was enforced"—and this is a typical Wilson shot—"was that any moral disorder must not be conducted in such a way as to embarrass the headmaster in the newspapers, and for the most part the students honored this working truce with the administration." Both of Lester's daughters who attend the school are "quasi-regular users of marijuana (but anything harder would be stupid), and both had slept with several of their classmates."
Wilson's depictions, though comically exaggerated, are essentially accurate not only of Christian culture but of an America in which middle-class suburbia is the definitive mode. Thus Evangellyfish may be useful for the general reader. It's certainly not a Christian insider novel, and it's not gentle. It cuts deeply and shamelessly. It resorts to sexual double entendre that will make the more pious reader's skin crawl. But it will make sense to anyone who's witnessed the horrifying antics, political quagmires, and social foolishness common to American experience and to its Christian evangelical subculture in particular.
Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He is the editor of The Curator and author of two books of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea. A third, Glitter Bomb, will be published by Persea in March 2014.
Copyright © 2013 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.