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Betraying the Whole Idea of a Christian Book
Editors and publishers must be beware of compromise from the Left...and from the Right.
On Wednesday I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). The topic of the panel was publisher-author/agent relations. I hope it was helpful. But the highlight of the day for me was the session right before our panel, during which Mary Wiley and Ashley Gorman of Lifeway delivered a stirring, bold, and encouraging call for publishers to safeguard Christian orthodoxy in their books. It was a tremendous presentation, one that took very seriously the theological burden that rests on Christian book publishers.
It probably goes without saying that such a message could be controversial at a gathering such as that. Of course, all the publishers represented at ECPA are Christian publishers. But the temptation to chase dollars at the cost of theological faithfulness is immense, and, let’s just be frank, not all publishers withstand this temptation equally well. Because of that, I was grateful for Mary and Ashley’s strong word.
The importance for publishers of taking the theological content of their books seriously—seriously enough to edit, review, and sometimes pull the plug—was a timely topic, given that earlier in the week I read Brian Mattson’s devastating criticism of The Case for Christian Nationalism.
I have not read Stephen Wolfe’s book. Therefore, I will not “agree” or “disagree” with what Brian said about it. For the record, I disagree strongly with Wolfe’s entire premise; moreover, I have not found him to be a wise or even meaningfully Christian voice in the various contexts in which he has been given a platform. Nonetheless, as I have not read the book, it would be irresponsible for me to completely endorse the review.
I do, however, want to single out a particular part of the review, because it strikes at the heart of what Ashley and Mary were telling a room full of Christian publishers this week. IN the course of Brian’s review, he locates several instances where Wolfe’s book is just flatly incorrect: not wrong in interpretation or overconfident in assertion, but factually untrue. In one section (an important one), Wolfe writes that the truly Reformed view of fallen man holds that “man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good.”
Let’s stop right there. Whether or not this is the right view theologically is beside the point. Wolfe’s assertion that this sentence, as written, represents a truly Reformed view, is absolutely false. It is possible that Wolfe is smuggling in a lot of nuance into the words “original instincts,” “still knows,” and “right action.” But as it is written, this statement is, on its face, totally wrong. As Mattson points out—and brings in Herman Bavinck to point out—the Reformed view of the fall clearly teaches that our instincts are now curved toward sin. Question 18 of the Shorter Catechism asks, “In what consists the sinfulness of that state into which man fell?” The answer:
The sinfulness of that state into which man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions that proceed from it.
Of course, Wolfe probably could and will defend his statement, on the grounds that both Bavinck and the Westminster Shorter Catechism do not actually contradict him when the full meaning and context is spelled out. But my point is simpler than that. An editor who was really trying hard to make a book persuasive and to safeguard it and its readers from error would have insisted that Wolfe alter this sentence. As written, at best it is uselessly unclear, and at worst it is simply not Reformation theology. If Wolfe’s intended meaning absolves him, then this sentence is a horribly open theological wound that leaves the book vulnerable to the kind of crushing critique that Mattson offers. If Wolfe’s intended meaning is more or less what Mattson identifies…the book does not deserve publishing by any Reformed press.
Here’s what I suspect is going on. When a Christian publisher sees itself as a bit player in a cultural game, things like this happen. A Christian publisher can see itself as a bit player in the economic game, and when this happens it will start cutting corners on orthodoxy if the work is likely to find a big audience. But a Christian publisher can also see itself as a bit player in a culture war game. And when this happens, it will relax its standards of clarity and truthfulness. Why? Because clarity and truthfulness aren’t strictly necessary if the point of a book is rally support to a cause that its targeted readership already believes in. In fact, clarity might be a hindrance, and truthfulness might be a stumbling block. The point is to make your readers feel like they are striking a blow against someone they despise by buying and reading the book. Clarity and truthfulness have a way of blunting that effect.
A more serious editorial review process would have identified Wolfe’s claim here as in desperate need of qualification. Did Wolfe’s publishers offer his manuscript to a scholar for review, especially a scholar who could offer counterpoints? I don’t know. But what I do know is that The Case for Christian Nationalism contains more than one statement that is easily falsifiable. This isn’t just about a failure of the author. It’s a failure of the publisher.
And that takes me back full circle to Ashley and Mary’s presentation at ECPA. I was thankful for their bold call for theological carefulness and attention, not least because there were representatives in the room from publishing houses that have compromised on this. But compromising on the Left is not the only kind of compromising. As fractures within evangelicalism widen, the pressure on editors, reviewers, and publishers to abandon their stewardship in order to score points for their side becomes intense. But this is a choice to hurt author and reader. It is a choice to see ideas and discourse though the lens of Twitter and mass media, where facts are elastic and the game is won by whoever has the loudest support. It is a choice to betray the whole idea of a Christian book.