What do you get when you mix up a megachurch sex scandal, a Reformed pastor in a fistfight, an ambitious blonde TV reporter, a zealous but slightly misguided youth worker who likes Brandy (a girl, not a drink), an officiously small-minded middle-ranking accountant, a seasoned detective and an ageing ex-Christian New Ager called Mystic Union? The answer is Evangellyfish, a web novel by American author and pastor Doug Wilson.
What exactly is a web novel? It’s just a good old-fashioned book that’s been published chapter by chapter on the web so that you can access it for free. Now, you may well be suspicious at this point, given that every second person on the planet who hasn’t found a publisher has managed to put their stuff online. But don’t let that put you off; Evangellyfish was published on the web because Wilson, who has written upwards of 30 books, was unable to find a publisher for this one. Why? I suspect it’s because it cuts just a little too close to home, and therefore it’s too hot to handle; Wilson summarizes his rejection letters with “We got a lot of ‘this book is really funny,’ followed by, ‘no, we really better not’”.1
So what is Evangellyfish? It’s a satire of American evangelical life. To quote the website, “It is a satire on a world that defies satire”.2 Despite being a parody of American Evangelicalism, the characters and situations have relevance well beyond their immediate cultural setting; they certainly rang true with me—someone reading on the other side of the world.
If you haven’t guessed already, I loved this book. I don’t remember the last time a story made me laugh out loud so many times. So before I get down to the praise, let me get my two minor quibbles out of the way. Firstly, it could really have done with a good edit. There are places where it needs to be trimmed and tightened, and moments when the language doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s a relatively mild criticism; if someone had chosen to publish it, this wouldn’t have been a problem (aren’t editors wonderful!). Secondly, the book was published in blog form, which means that the first chapter is last and the last chapter first. While being a particularly biblical concept, it makes reading a little frustrating. (Doug Wilson, if you’re reading, please put it up as a PDF.)
Minor quibbles out of the way, the story itself is set in an unspecified Midwestern town, and it revolves around a sex scandal involving Chad Lester, senior pastor of the local megachurch, Camel Creek Community. Ironically, the accusation made against him—that he made sexual advances towards a young man in a counselling session many years before—is false. But the increased public attention and the interest of the local police department threatens to reveal many of the sexual indiscretions that have taken place: Chad has slept with almost half the eldership team, not to mention other assorted staff and congregation members. The book involves a number of subplots and relationships around this central story.
The strength of the book lies in Wilson’s ability to engage your sympathies for nearly all of the characters, while at the same time poking fun at their foibles and inconsistencies. John Mitchell, the pastor of a local Reformed church, is a great example: he obviously loves his wife and family, he’s serious about teaching the Bible and he tries to do the right thing. But he also wrestles with his jealousy, struggles to know how to respond to Chad Lester after he punches him in the nose, and finally ends up eating humble pie. By the end of the book, you like him immensely, despite having laughed heartily at his Christian idiosyncrasies.
Because Wilson has lived inside of Reformed Evangelicalism, he is able to draw some hilariously funny caricatures of church life. For example, in describing Grace Reformed Church and its relationship with Pastor Mitchell, he says that Mitchell
looked severe enough that no one really noticed that he was not severe at all, and this meant that no one had a conscience attack or felt like they were going soft in their Calvinism because he always looked like he was being strict with them. So things were swell at Grace Reformed.3
In another similar passage, Wilson pokes fun at the unspectacular nature of much Reformed ministry. When Mitchell began as the pastor,
…the slow bleed of families away from the church was stopped, the church stabilized for a number of years, and just in the last six months three new families had joined. In Grace Reformed terms, this was considered a massive revival, and everybody was more than content. Pastor Mitchell had been in 2 Corinthians for two years now, and was only in chapter seven. This, compared to his predecessors, made him a speed demon, and the only reason he was going as slowly as this was that he kept getting distracted by pastoral needs, and he kept turning aside to use the text to encourage people.4
The book is also full of some classic one-liners and biting insights. Let me share some of my favourites. The end of one of Mitchell’s sermons is described in these words: “Finally, after repeating several phrases unnecessarily (the sermonic equivalent of a blinking fuel gauge) John decided that he had to wrap up”.5 Later in the book, Wilson introduces us to an annoying bookkeeper as someone with “that rare ability, non-existent in the physical world, to read the teeny bottom line at the bottom of the optometrist’s eye chart at fifty yards, but could not make out that big E thing at the top while standing next to it”.
Another strength of Evangellyfish is its ability to make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. One of those moments came for me when Wilson describes the crisis meeting of the megachurch eldership team just after the sex scandal had broken. Senior Pastor Chad asks Miguel, his corrupt accountant, to open with the word of God and prayer. Miguel, unsure of what to read, remembers a poster of a Californian sunset with Hebrews 13:1 at the bottom of it. Of course, being completely biblically illiterate, he doesn’t realize that a few verses later comes God’s injunction to keep the marriage bed pure. The scene was painfully true and profoundly funny at the same time.
The book clearly has its bad guys (most of whom are associated with Camel Creek Community Church) and good guys (those around Mitchell and his church), but it asks you to laugh at everybody; nobody is safe from Wilson’s pen. He pokes fun at just about everything—from the evangelical hypocrisy of treating homosexuality as worse than heterosexual promiscuity, to New Age home birthing, to the emptiness of religion that has sold out to postmodern relevance. The book is very real in places, and it is not necessarily for the faint-hearted; some of the passages about the sexual conduct of the characters might leave some a little hot under the collar. In addition, I thought that the second half was a little weaker than the first—the funniest single chapter being the chapter on youth ministry halfway through the book. (If you read nothing else, you should read this; it’s chapter VII if you’re interested.6)
But the best thing of all about Evangellyfish is that its humour is purposeful. I was profoundly humbled by its ability to remind me of the grace and mercy of God in the face of our all too human ability to justify our sins. The conversion of two characters late in the book and their example of repentance is not contrived, but a gentle reminder that the gospel makes a real difference. Wilson’s insight, biting humour, yet gentle handling of his characters results in a hilarious, yet uncomfortable tale. If, by the end of the book, you haven’t realized you’re laughing at yourself and your church, you haven’t understood the book. But in the midst of the laughter comes the painful realization that God’s church keeps selling out the gospel. And yet, in spite of that, God’s sovereign grace is transforming his people. If you want to laugh at our humanness and remember the goodness of God in the gospel, you could do far worse than read Evangellyfish.