Sunday, November 12, 2006

You Had Me at Hello, but Lost Me at Hallelujah

Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an essay intriguingly entitled “God Fearing,” written by one John Wilson. Mr Wilson is identified by the Times as “the editor of Books & Culture.” It’s not a magazine I’m familiar with, but, gee, I like books. I like culture. Let’s see what Mr. Wilson has to say.

The beginning of the essay discusses the unfairness of evangelical stereotypes found in current fiction. In Wilson’s opinion: “... part of the job of a writer in 2006, so it seems, is to comment on evangelicals or ‘conservative Christians’ more generally, the way that many writers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s ... felt obliged to weigh in on blackness, often with embarrassing results.”

That sentence is a ridiculous assertion, unsupported by facts. The author cites four context-free examples of anti-evangelism from current literature. The most noteworthy of these—a character’s 11-word quote in a forthcoming novel by Thomas Pynchon—is taken from a one-page excerpt that appeared in a publisher’s catalog. This bit of advertising is apparently enough to tell Wilson everything he needs to know about the Book and how it will affect our Culture.

In the same unsupported pronouncement quoted above, Wilson also fails to mention by name any writer who wrote on blackness so embarrassingly in the past, or to include a single literary example. The subtext of his innuendo is repugnant, a sneaky attempt to equate the evangelical movement with the movements for civil rights and black pride.

Wilson’s hyperbole propelled me onto the Internet, where a quick search revealed that Books & Culture is subtitled “a Christian Review.” The magazine does not even have its own Web address; it can be found – along with dozens of other holier-than-thou links – on a site called

To be fair to Wilson, he does confess his affiliation—about halfway through the article. Because of my own set of anti-evangelical prejudices, brought on no doubt by all those stereotypes I’ve been reading about in modern literature, I found myself doubting the intellectual and emotional honesty of the author throughout the rest of the essay. He does reveal, although probably not to anyone’s surprise, that evangelicals do not always agree about everything; he says that they are “notoriously riven by disagreement on matters large and small.” That loaded word “notoriously” is disingenuous. The divisions within the evangelical movement are not well-known to the rest of us because they don’t count outside the collection plate. Granting Wilson’s declaration that evangelicals’ opinions diverge on dozens of issues, we can still be certain that there’s one main belief they share unwaveringly: Jesus knows best. Between Christ and the Constitution, there’s not an evangelical in America who would pick the latter.

I managed to glean a few other points from Wilson about American evangelicals:
(1) They are not as dangerous as Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.
(2) Sometimes their children convert to other faiths or stop going to church entirely.
(3) Your mail carrier may be one of them.
(4) They do not proselytize any more than other proselytizers.

What is Wilson's essay, which is about neither books nor culture, doing in The New York Times Book Review? The author's motive in writing his insincere drivel seems to have been to reassure non-evangelicals that the mega-Christians pose no danger to the rest of us. I, for one, remain unrapturous.

Just look around: They’re all over the place, dragging their little metal fish behind them. They’ve taken over whole shelves in mainstream bookshops and CD stores. They jam the country’s airwaves. They use fear tactics to influence major retailers. Why, they’re even given space for their propaganda in eminent national newspapers.

No threat? Evangelists like Wilson remind me of the garden club ladies in "The Manchurian Candidate." The kind of thinking found in Books & Culture already pervades our society and it continues to spread. Soon, there will be very few books and no more culture.