The Culture of Euphemism

This commentary by John Wilson is taken from the Christianity Today web site, where it was posted July 17, 2000 in the "Books & Culture Corner." Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Every year the Christian Booksellers Association, the trade organization of the evangelical publishing industry, holds a big convention-this year, in New Orleans, where CBA was held last week. And every year, ironic observers are dispatched from the mainline, from the bastions of East Coast secularism, and other assorted centers of enlightenment to report on the latest evangelical grotesqueries. Often, too, evangelical intellectuals get into the act, deploring the latest tide of prophecy books and Christian knicknacks, in turn prompting counter-charges of elitism. Who are you, Mr. Smarty Pants, to say what God can or cannot use to bring the lost into his kingdom?

All this gets pretty formulaic after the twentieth time around, so that one's natural inclination is to dismiss the subject altogether. But that temptation should be resisted. CBA has much to teach us about ourselves-those who answer to "evangelical"-and if the lessons are unwelcome, that's because we would rather not look in the mirror.

To walk the aisles of the floor at CBA, where publishers and all manner of entrepreneurs show their wares; to flip through the official program; to soak in the fragments of conversation among convention-goers: this is to enter a portal into the evangelical mind, the evangelical imagination. You find yourself in a world of Extreme Niceness-preferable to the stench of Bourbon Street, yes, with its scenes from a contemporary Pilgrim's Progress, where Mr. Carnal-Minded waves a crudely painted sign beckoning you to witness "Love Acts," oh most certainly preferable to that, but nonetheless weird, leached of so much of our humanity that it becomes disorienting. There are exceptions-in New Orleans, most notably, Frank Peretti speaking with searing, unforgettable honesty about what he experienced as a boy with a misshapen jaw and a protruding tongue, the butt of cruelty that he remembers as if it were yesterday-but these are few and far between.

What on earth is he talking about? you ask. Does he mean there's no obscenity, no nudity, no sickening imaginary violence-and that makes CBA somehow "unreal"? What an impoverished notion of "reality"! To which I would reply that there's a lot of room between The Marshall Mathers LP and the endless sagas of "Christian fiction," where the appearance of a single rogue Bad Word would trigger retail disaster.

Moreover, and much more important, the "language issue" and other such matters are but the tip of the iceberg. What lurks beneath is a massively deadly culture of euphemism, sentimentalism, and sanctimony: a culture in which commissars of evangelical correctness dictate what can be said and what can't. (You want an example? I would love to give you ten, but they would be edited out before this piece saw the light of day. We wouldn't want to offend someone like [there was a name here, but it was edited out, too-Ed.], say.) Five hundred years ago there was a Reformation premised on the priesthood of all believers. But something happened in the interim. Today evangelicals have their own priesthood and their own squabbling popes.

What makes all this unbearable is the way it is couched in references to Scripture, in talk about the infinite greatness of God. To me this approaches blasphemy.

And we who write about such goings-on: we are complicit. How satisfying it is to be the Designated Gadfly: to issue a passionate protest, which will be overruled-this editorial massaged until all the sting and specificity are gone, that piece quietly scuttled-so that one can have one's cake and eat it too, feel virtuous and keep one's job. We play our appointed role in the drama, and we have the Evangelical Press Association card to prove it.

In many parts of the world, journalism is right at the top of the list of dangerous professions. Hardly a week goes by without news of another journalist killed. People in power don't like what someone has written; an order is discreetly given; end of story. Here in the United States things are different. So what is our excuse?