A Response to Kevin DeYoung
One of the reasons I’ve long appreciated Kevin DeYoung is that he and I both value clarity. That’s why I was eager to read his recent critique of Doug Wilson and the “Moscow Mood.” Having done so, I understand why many folks have found it helpful. He’s raising a lot of the right issues. At the same time, I have some questions about his analysis and some important disagreements with his prescription.
Let me begin with a brief summary of DeYoung’s main lines of criticism. He contends that Moscow’s appeal is largely visceral, not intellectual. People are drawn to a cultural, aesthetic, and political posture, a culture-building and culture-warring mood or vibe that says, “We are not giving up, and we are not giving in. We can do better than negotiate the terms of our surrender. The infidels have taken over our Christian laws, our Christian heritage, and our Christian lands, and we are coming to take them back.”
DeYoung acknowledges that there are aspects of this mood or vibe that are commendable, but he nevertheless foresees “serious problems” with “the long term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating the Moscow mood,” to wit, that it is too often “incompatible with Christian virtue, inconsiderate of other Christians, and ultimately inconsistent with the stated aims of Wilson’s Christendom project.”
To demonstrate these problems, DeYoung highlights two promo videos for No Quarter November (NQN), Canon Press’s annual event in which they give away lots of free books and launch new resources on the Canon+ app, all while Doug Wilson writes weekly blog posts in which he speaks pointedly, with no qualifications, nuance, or hedging. DeYoung sees the promo videos as representative of the concerning aspects of the Moscow Mood. In particular, per DeYoung, the videos display a sarcastic and edgy tone; they take cheap shots at other Christians (such as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and G3 Ministries); they explicitly encourage culture-warring and culture-building; and they are focused on Wilson himself (as rebel, gunslinger, taboo-breaker, and hero for crazy times).
According to DeYoung, NQN is selling “a carefully cultivated personality and image,” a vibe that is built on a “fundamentally oppositional framework,” “an adversarial stance toward the world” and toward cowardly Christians. “Differentiation is key,” DeYoung says, “and this can only be sustained by a mood of antagonism and sharp antithesis,” one that builds a following through negative partisanship and refuses to link arms with other networks but instead forges an unbreakable loyalty to Wilson as the Outsider-Disruptor.
Satire as Rebuke
Like I said, I have some questions. For example, what is the proper role of satire and the serrated edge? It seems to me that a number of rhetorical devices are conflated throughout DeYoung’s article–writing with Chestertonian joy and Wodehousian verve, playfully mocking other Christians through memes, derisively mocking the folly and compromise of Christian leaders, shockingly indicting sin and idolatry through carefully deployed obscenities and vulgarities. Distinguishing these different types of rhetoric and their proper use would be immensely helpful and clarifying, but is not something that DeYoung takes the time to do. He opts instead to lump all these styles and strategies together.
With that in mind, let me take a stab at clarifying a few common confusions about satire. At one level, satire is an appeal to reality over against the absurdities of sin and rebellion. It often appeals to those who live amidst corruption and hypocrisy, while provoking those who practice them. But satire is also a form of rebuke and admonition, deployed to correct and reprove someone when they’re heading down a sinful or foolish path. Like other forms of rebuke, it operates on a dimmer switch. Light satire might be used to reprove the folly of a fellow Christian who needs some prodding to knock it off. Heavier satire might be used to skewer serious compromise on the part of professing Christians, with the rebuke acting as a sifting agent–with some responding to the satirical rebuke with humility, and others hardening their hearts. And the heaviest satire might be used to expose and condemn great wickedness and rebellion.
With that rubric, let’s consider some of DeYoung’s objections to Moscow’s use of satire. At one point, he argues that satire and mockery are inappropriate when dealing with serious wickedness in the culture. To mock the evil of the world with “Wokey, McWokeface” is “silly, unnecessary, and ultimately undermines the seriousness of the issue they are trying to address.” But wouldn’t this same criticism apply to Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27), asking if their God is asleep or relieving himself? Wasn’t idolatry “serious wickedness”? Or ask yourself this question: why is it presently culturally acceptable to mock biblical marriage and traditional child rearing, but “hateful” to mock the obvious and immoral absurdities that mark the sexual revolution? Could it be that one of the ways that the world advances its rebellion, its blasphemy and heresy, is by teaching us what to laugh at and by demanding that we take its folly seriously (as this short video on the Moral Imperative of Mockery argues)? Could it be that the Bible deploys satire as a high-stakes weapon, one that is particularly suited for the trenches of a culture war?
Or what about DeYoung’s objection that the serrated edge should be deployed only against the non-Christian world, and not against fellow Christian leaders. Well, again, if satire is a form of rebuke, then wouldn’t it be appropriate to use it to correct professing Christians? The Bible clearly doesn’t limit satire to the non-believing world. The shepherds of Israel, the priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees–all of these are subject to a variety of caricature, indictment, mockery, and scorn at the hands of the prophets and the Lord himself. And this doesn’t imply that every member of these groups was unregenerate. Some members of the Sanhedrin followed Christ. Did Christ’s satirical rebuke of them as a whole have anything to do with that?
Viewing satire as a form of rebuke helps to answer the particular examples that DeYoung highlights from the video–the jab at the ERLC and the shot at G3. In the first case, the Bible uses satire to rebuke the compromise and misplaced priorities of the leaders of God’s people (think of Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees for straining gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24)). The ERLC, which DeYoung commends as an allegedly conservative Christian bulwark, has arguably demonstrated precisely those kinds of misplaced priorities and compromise, whether it’s lobbying for liberal immigration reform and gun control or opposing anti-abortion legislation in Louisiana. It has decidedly not been on the same side as conservative Christians in key cultural battles. I suspect that DeYoung’s assessment of the NQN shot at the ERLC is owing both to a mistaken view of the appropriate targets of biblical satire as well as different assessments of the fidelity of that particular institution.
As for G3, the men associated with that ministry have publicly misrepresented and attacked Moscow (and Christian Nationalists more broadly) in various ways over the last six months while steadfastly refusing to have any clarifying conversations or discussions (despite repeated invitations to do so in a variety of formats). It’s ironic for DeYoung to chide Moscow for a playful jab when it’s Moscow who have repeatedly sought to find common ground with G3 (to no avail). A playful swipe is perhaps a good way to prod them to conduct themselves with greater charity and clarity when it comes to representing the views of fellow Christians.
In a slightly different category is the use of meme-making that playfully pokes fun at fellow believers. Think of the kind of banter that groups of men regularly engage in as a part of masculine friendship. In such circumstances, you earn the respect and trust of other men by being willing to take your lumps and to give as good as you get. Such playfulness is a sign of health, humility, and camaraderie. Even insults can be a sign of affection (and no, this isn’t an excuse for “locker room talk”).
Which brings me to the heaviest kind of satire–the use of vulgarities and obscenities to expose gross rebellion. Wilson has recently responded to another reasonable criticism of his (very rare) use of such rhetoric. Some critics give the impression that Wilson casually cusses like a sailor for the fun of it. While he admittedly did do a stint in the Navy, this characterization is simply untrue. His use of obscenities and vulgarities ought to be regarded as an intentional act of translation, one that he deploys sparingly and in particular contexts. When sin, folly, and idolatry are unrecognized for the evil that they are, the use of vulgar and obscene language translates the evil into a form that is both accurate and shocking, as when Ezekiel likens the idolatry of Israel to a woman who lusts after the genitals of donkeys. To use one of the more infamous examples, when the apostate Lutheran lady pastrix gave Gloria Steinem that award, she was saying something with the statue. Wilson simply translated it into English.
In all my years of discussing the use of satire, I’ve yet to hear one of Wilson’s critics provide an example of a faithful imitation and application of this prophetic mode of speech. If Wilson is doing it so wrong, where are the examples of Christian writers and preachers doing it right? Has DeYoung (or others who share his criticism of Moscow) ever used satire, mockery, and the serrated edge to rebuke the folly and rebellion around us? Both the Old Testament and New Testament are filled with the serrated edge in various forms, from short rebukes (“you foolish Galatians”) to imprecations to caricatures to scathing indictments to derisive mockery, and all of it undergirded with a deep joy and gratitude for God’s kindness. And yet outside of Moscow and the Babylon Bee, I can’t think of anyone attempting to deploy that kind of biblical speech in confronting worldliness and rebellion.
What’s Front and Center?
But I have more questions. DeYoung contends that Moscow does not put the right things “front and center.” He claims that Wilson’s online persona is not about introducing people to Reformed creeds and confessions, or explaining the books of the Bible, or about global missions to the uttermost parts of the earth, or about liturgy, preaching, prayer, and the ordinary means of grace. Now perhaps DeYoung might respond, “Yes, those resources are available, but they are not emphasized in Doug’s online persona.” But how are we assessing that? How many times does Canon have to tweet something before it is sufficiently front and center? How many times does Doug need to feature his commentaries in the header of his blog? How many bread and butter expository sermons does Doug need to preach for that to be a defining mark of his ministry? How many global missions conferences does Christ Church need to host in order to satisfy critics like DeYoung?
DeYoung does gesture toward a means of evaluation later in that same paragraph: “If Wilson and Canon Press believe that their bread and butter is about all those things (creeds, confessions, Bible, missions), then they should devote an entire month (or even a whole year) to just those things without any snark, without any sarcasm, and without any trolling of other Christians.” There’s the rub. Despite his acknowledgment that satire is “a holy weapon in the Lord’s army,” at the end of the day, it seems there is little to no place for satire and jocularity in “culture warring rightly understood.” Or to put it another way, the underlying assumption throughout DeYoung’s article is that Moscow engages in satire “too much,” and doesn’t accent basic Christian teaching “enough.” But I’m still left with “What’s the right ratio, and how do we know?”
We can press more deeply into the ratio question. Consider DeYoung’s criticism of the Moscow Mood, which he describes as pugnacious and jocular. DeYoung’s criticism boils down to this: “The main thing Wilson (and Canon) do is fight, and they really seem to enjoy it.”
Part of the issue is that Chestertonian joviality pervades the ministries here in Moscow, and that Doug always writes with Wodehousian color, including in his use of satire and polemics. The common mistake is to conflate these Chestertonian and Wodehousian elements with the polemics and satire. Given the millions of words that have come out of Moscow over the years, satire is only a small portion of the output.
But this is only part of the issue. The other has to do with restricting the criticism to Doug’s online persona and to Canon’s social media. As DeYoung acknowledges, Wilson and company have built an “ecosystem of schools, churches, media offerings, and publishing ventures.” Wilson, thus, wears a number of different hats: pastor at Christ Church, board member and fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews college, and so forth.
But one of Wilson’s particular callings is a writer. In general, he writes books and he writes articles. A generation ago, he would have had a side hustle as a columnist in a newspaper. In the internet age, he has a blog, and he writes roughly two columns a week commenting on various and sundry matters, whether theological, cultural, or political. In writing those columns/articles, he frequently employs satire, as a deliberate rhetorical strategy in a particular medium. This is a particular calling, and one that he manifestly enjoys. “Blessed be the Lord my strength, who trains my hands for [culture] war.” Like the warrior in Psalm 19 who runs his course with joy, Wilson does wield his keyboard on the battlefield of the internet like D’artagnan and the musketeers.
So when DeYoung singles out Wilson’s “online persona” and criticizes all the constant fighting, he’s unfairly stacking the deck. It’s like going to a football game and concluding, “All those guys do is hit people. And they really seem to enjoy it.” Well, yes, that’s what happens at a football game. In other words, DeYoung has singled out two places where fighting most frequently occurs (social media and Doug’s blog) and presented that as the defining mark of Moscow. DeYoung must either believe that we should not fight at all, or that we should fight in some other place (and perhaps with a long face).
This is why DeYoung’s criticism of Moscow will inevitably strike many appreciators of Moscow as hollow and unfair. They know that, while fighting and sparring in the culture war is one of the things we do (and one of the things that we enjoy doing), it’s not the main thing that we do, or the only thing that we enjoy (consider one representative testimony). Because the fact is, we enjoy a lot of things out here. Joy in Christ pervades this community. We enjoy big meals and block parties. We enjoy drinking beer and singing psalms. We enjoy making children and raising children (we’ve even been known to discipline them with cheerfulness and joy). Most especially, we enjoy worshiping God with his people, renewing covenant with him and delighting in all of his kindness to us. It’s simply false to say, as DeYoung does, that we enjoy the fight itself more than what we’re fighting for.
Whatever our hands find to do, we try to do it with all our heart, because we are doing it for the Lord. And this extends to all manner of labor and vocations. Some of us enjoy teaching college students and coaching high school football. Others enjoy interior decorating and cooking Sabbath meals. Still others enjoy making documentaries and selling books that will help you Apocalypse Proof Your Family. And yes, some of us enjoy skewering folly and unbelief and occasionally wielding a flamethrower. We do all of these things in obedience to Jesus. We sincerely want to serve the Lord with joy and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things.
What We’re Known For
But I know that at this point, some will say, with DeYoung, “Yes, but that’s not what you’re known for.” Which brings me to my larger concern with DeYoung’s criticism of the Moscow Mood. Does DeYoung recognize that he and his circles also have a “carefully cultivated personality and image,” a brand that they seek to display to the world? The circles he inhabits are governed by a mood of respectability, credibility, and responsibility. And in and of itself, that’s fine. Those are biblical principles (just like courage and satire). But does he recognize that the appeal of that mood is “visceral, not intellectual?” And that it has particular temptations associated with it? More importantly, has he sought to publicly address those temptations in the ministries he’s associated with?
And lest I be accused of simple whataboutism, let me clarify the argument I’m making. DeYoung identifies his intended audience as “those who appreciate some of what Wilson says but also feel like something isn’t quite right.” DeYoung writes in order to validate that feeling and to identify what that “something” is. I’m suggesting that instead those who feel that something is off should interrogate the feeling itself. They should examine whether that feeling is actually grounded in the Scriptures or whether it’s driven by the wrong kind of desire for respectability, what we might call the Respectable Mood.
But at this point, I need to draw attention to my chief difficulty in warning about the “long-term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating” the Respectable Mood. The challenge is that while DeYoung can dissect a public NQN video in order to issue his warning, the temptations and dangers of Respectability are largely behind the scenes.
What do I mean? I mean the concerned emails from a fellow pastor if you recommend a Wilson book on parenting. I mean the Christian academic who has his footnotes policed and scrubbed of references to anything from Moscow. I mean the Christian scholar who is warned that he will struggle to get a teaching job if he accepts an invitation to give a lecture at New Saint Andrews. I mean the enormous pressure brought to bear on Christian leaders to not publicly express gratitude or appreciation for Moscow. Contrary to DeYoung, differentiation doesn’t merely happen by sharp antagonism in public; it happens by passive-aggressive pressure, tone-policing, and piles of angst and “concern” expressed in private, all in service of maintaining that “carefully cultivated personality and image” of Respectability.
DeYoung fears that Moscow appeals to what is worldly in us. I have the same fear about the circles that DeYoung runs in. DeYoung worries that the world is burning and Moscow is lighting things on fire. I worry that DeYoung is bringing out a fire extinguisher in the middle of a flood. Because what the concern about Mood betrays is an overweening concern with “what we’re known for,” with a craving for respectability. This is the besetting temptation of evangelicals, and if you doubt its danger, ask yourself this question: How far did Wokeness penetrate into various conservative churches and ministries (including ones that DeYoung is associated with), and how was it able to do so? And did a desire for respectability, reputation, credibility, and “being known for the right things” have anything to do with it?
To return to the earlier point about satire, I recall showing NSA’s “Wokey McWokeface” ad to a pastor friend and asking his thoughts. He responded very simply: “There are some problems that that school will never have.” Indeed. Could it be that the satirical element in the Moscow Mood is part of a healthy immune system, preventing certain respectable kinds of ideological rot from ever taking root?
Because here’s the reality: you cannot control what you’re known for. And this is one of the key benefits of the Moscow Mood to those who will receive it. Moscow has had years of practice in doing many good and faithful things which even sober-minded critics like Kevin DeYoung will only hat tip on the way to insisting that what we’re really all about is snark and pugnaciousness. And so we’ve resolved to continue to do all of those good and faithful things anyway, and not worry about what we’re known for, either in the eyes of the world, or in the eyes of Respectable Christians. As the fellow said, “Let the chips fall where they may.” We’ll leave our reputation in God’s hands.
And in all sincerity, I would appeal to other Christian leaders to adopt the same mentality. Don’t make “what you’re known for” the lodestar for your community. If you do, you’re opening yourself to being steered. You may want to be known for your care for the poor and for your joy in Christ. But in our present cultural context, what you’ll actually be known for is your “hate” for homosexuals and your opposition to women’s “rights.” And since you’ve made “what you’re known for” your guiding light, you will go to enormous lengths to avoid the bad reputation.
Linking Arms and the Right Hand of Fellowship
Which brings me to my last response. DeYoung laments that Moscow has not sought to link arms with other networks, instead opting for cavalier repartee and antagonism toward other Christians. In DeYoung’s mind, the barrier to Christian fellowship lies primarily on Moscow’s side, since Moscow has made fun of some who could be allies.
When I read that, I was quite frankly astounded. I’ve been involved in seeking to build bridges among Reformed evangelicals for over fifteen years. I have friends in a lot of places, from Bethlehem to The Gospel Coalition to 9Marks to the SBC to the Davenant Institute and beyond. I have sought to maintain those friendships and to foster friendships among my friends for that entire time. I helped organize the Evening of Eschatology. I moderated multiple discussions between John Piper and Doug Wilson that focused in detail on the different “moods” or ethoses of their respective communities. In all of these efforts, my aim has been to show and foster a deep fellowship in the gospel and the Scriptures among people with differences in temperament, ethos, and ministry philosophy.
I can honestly say that in all of my efforts the fundamental barrier to linking arms has come from outside of Moscow. The Moscow mentality has long been that of the Narnians in The Horse and His Boy who were “ready to be friends with anyone who is friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.” The main obstacle has been that others have deliberately sought to avoid friendship and association with Moscow, and they have policed their communities accordingly. And they have done so almost always out of a concern for respectability, credibility, and reputation. “Don’t stand too close to Moscow because you’ll get too much Doug on you.”
Yes, Moscow differentiates itself from others in various ways, but without expecting anyone to imitate all of its methods. As we’ve said before, we’re building and defending our portion of the wall in our way, and we are happy that others are building and defending their portion of the wall in theirs. Our attitude toward certain kinds of differences in ethos and approach is well expressed by C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm.
Broaden your mind, Malcolm, broaden your mind! It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell. “One fold” doesn’t mean “one pool.”
So let DeYoung be DeYoung. Let Piper be Piper. Let Mohler be Mohler. Let Wilson be Wilson. We can even offer criticism and challenge each other as friends. But it’s difficult to “link arms with other networks” when the leaders in those networks continually and repeatedly decline invitations to come out and speak at a conference or to participate in an online discussion or to be seen in any way as friendly to Moscow and instead exert substantial peer pressure on others to do the same.
So let me renew an offer that others here in Moscow have made in various ways over the years. We actually think that these discussions matter. We also think that there are opportunities to find a lot of common ground and to disagree with warmth and affection (and some playful jabs). But we think that finding that common ground will actually require some conversations, discussions, debates—the kind of back and forth that brings true clarity to folks in the Reformed world. And so the offer is still open, to DeYoung, to the guys at G3, to Rod Dreher, to any other critics who think these issues matter. Just shoot me a DM. We’re happy to host you, whether in person or online. Or we’re happy to join you on your turf. But either way, as far as Moscow is concerned, the right hand of fellowship is cheerfully extended in all directions.
A Word of Encouragement for Friends of Moscow
Finally, let me say something to those who appreciate the Moscow Mood but who live in communities where such appreciation is a problem. You and I both know that, whatever his intent, DeYoung’s article will be wielded as a tool of keeping you in line, to pressure you to mute your appreciation for Moscow. In some cases, it will be used by friends and colleagues who still recommend resources from Russell Moore and David French, two evangelicals who practically make their living criticizing other Christians to NPR and the New York Times. And, no, they won’t see the irony.
I know you feel frustrated by the pressure and angst that these sorts of discussions bring. But if you’re looking for empathy from me, well, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead, I want to encourage you to take advantage of the pressure. To borrow a phrase from John Piper, “Don’t waste your angst.”
In particular, don’t grumble or complain or whine about how frustrating the pressure is. Instead, give thanks to God for it. You and I both know that the bread and butter of the Moscow Mood is actually gratitude to the living God in all things and for all things. That includes giving thanks to God for the ways that the family of ministries out here have been a blessing to you. And it includes giving thanks to God for the unwelcome pressure from your friends who are concerned about the fact that Moscow has been a blessing to you. If God is gracious, the long-term spiritual effect of that pressure will be to make you a more steady, patient, and grateful person, and that will be a blessing to those around you (whether they appreciate Moscow or not). And if nothing else, your continued cheerful appreciation of Moscow (especially in public) will act as a disinfectant for your community, keeping various progressive cancers from finding a home among your people. This too is a blessing of the Moscow Mood–you don’t have to imitate all of it in order to get the health benefit. You just have to stand close enough and refuse to budge.
Second, resist the temptation to partisanship. Just because others want to police the teachers who help you love Christ and your family and your neighbors better doesn’t mean that you need to respond in kind. Over the years, I’ve benefited greatly from a variety of Christian leaders, including both Doug Wilson and Kevin DeYoung (and John Piper and Mark Dever and Al Mohler and Tim Keller and so on). One of the most refreshing aspects of the Moscow Mood to me is the freedom to benefit from these men for what they’ve done well, and to publicly commend them without any hesitation, and to do so while disagreeing with them when appropriate and necessary. Others may regard these types of difference and disagreement as a barrier to fellowship and Christian camaraderie. But you need not. So don’t be ashamed to acknowledge the teachers that have helped you to follow Christ more closely.
Finally, remember that the proof is in the pudding. Out-rejoice the critics. Love Christ. Delight in your family. Love your neighbors. Rejoice in your tribulations. Cultivate patience and long-suffering when you’re misunderstood. Remember that you can’t control what you’re known for; you can only control what you do and how you live. So walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, calibrate your standards by the word of God, and just keep doing what you’re doing. And don’t forget to chuckle along the way. After all, Jesus is Lord.
Image Credit: Unsplash