Kevin DeYoung recently published this widely shared criticism of Doug Wilson and the Moscow Mood. He wrote it in his typical insightful and irenic fashion, and in this sense he was blameless. Criticisms in public discourse are fair game, and a man of Doug Wilson’s “targetability” is no stranger to such attention. In fact, Pastor DeYoung’s article was far more complementary than what a lot of Reformed sages write about the Man from Moscow.
Pastor DeYoung raises some excellent criticisms, but I think he leaves a very important aspect unaddressed: whatever one thinks of Wilson and Canon Press, what is it about the “Moscow Mood” that young Christian men find particularly attractive? As I interact with some DeYoung’s article, I will be pursuing an answer to that question.
Pastor DeYoung wrote, “In short, people are moving to Moscow—whether literally or spiritually—because of a mood. It’s a mood 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.” Unless you adhere to something like Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith, these words will surely resonate with you. Normal American Christians are tired of the degenerating depravity bombarding us each and every day. We live in a world where supreme court justices will not define what a woman is, where a modern-day Marcion named Andy Stanley is one of the most popular “preachers” in America, and where society is being overrun by transvestites and Marxists. These problems rampant in society are also wreaking havoc in the church. Many Christians are looking around wondering if anyone else sees the problem. More than that, they are wondering if anyone is doing anything about it.
Wilson and company provides for many of the restless in the reformed and evangelical world what Jordan Peterson provides for North Americans at large: cultural insight spoken from a head firmly affixed to a piece of anatomy sorely lacking in the men of our society: the backbone. In other words, it is unembarrassed, forward-thinking-and-moving Christianity (referring to Wilson there, not Peterson; pray for the latter’s conversion). Now, you may not like everything that comes out of their mouths, you may find some of it offensive, but it is undeniable that many find it appealing.
Here is a helpful caution from DeYoung: “If you are a mature, grounded Christian in a good church, with a good sense of discernment, you can find a number of helpful things from the world of Moscow. But there’s a difference between snacking on Moscow once you are already full of good Christian discipleship and feasting on Moscow for three square meals a day.” I agree completely. Having read this article, I realized that I am what you might call a “selective snacker” from the Canon Press smorgasbord. To be sure, there are very important doctrinal and ecclesiastical things emphasized there for which I have strong distaste. Yet even as DeYoung noted, many of the things Canon produces about the family, about cultural engagement, about education and discipleship are not only useful, but exceedingly helpful.
That being said, the Psalms take it as axiomatic that we will have more than one teacher. For instance, note the plural teachers in Psalm 119:99. When we adhere too closely to one man or one source, we will assimilate some strengths; but when we adhere too closely, or unquestioningly, we will pick up the idiosyncrasies too. In the age of the internet, where people are more able to select a wide array of teachers with ease, this creates a challenge. We naturally gravitate to what we like, and it is easy to engage only what we like.
As with everything, we must be discerning, humble, and test all things by the Word of God. Additionally, the bulk of discipleship needs to happen at the local church, in the flesh and face to face. The staple diet for any Christian ought to be good public worship Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, and also private and family worship. If there is room and time left for other things, be selective, and be certain that you are ingesting good doctrine.
A third observation where DeYoung is partially on point is this: “My bigger concern is with the long-term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating the Moscow mood.” On a certain level, it is not Doug Wilson’s fault that people emulate him. He has created a product and a persona that appeals to as many as it agitates. Young men, many with daddy issues, see in Doug Wilson a strong, confident, articulate man who is easy to admire. And that admiration can quickly turn into indiscriminate imitation.
While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, it is not always conducive to becoming your own man, nor to having a healthy ability to scrutinize the man you are imitating. If all people imitate of Wilson is his snark, then shame on them. He would likely say the same thing. This is where I will address the onus of a lot of Wilson’s criticism: his language. Inevitably, his critics find the flies floating in the ointment of his work and talk about them. A lot. Wilson would help himself if he would exercise some more prudence when it comes to this. However, in terms of total volume, much of what Wilson says and writes is quite good.
I do need to add that I have seen from those inclined to the Moscow mimicry a rather unmanly inability (or unwillingness) to endure criticism. In this, ironically, they need to learn more from their fearless, bearded leader. Like him or hate him, the man has grown some thick skin. And at least he has the integrity to own it when he royally messes up.
Anything to be Learned from Moscow?
All that said, here is where I believe DeYoung needs to rethink some of his criticism, or perhaps better, we all need to think more about the occasion of so much criticism. I am an OPC minister, and many of my OPC brothers in the ministry seem to have an instinctive revulsion to Wilson and company. Of course, the heated controversies of Federal Vision loom large in the background and must not be ignored. But on another level, I think we need to ask some heart and ministry searching questions. Here I will use my own denomination as something of a sounding board, a comparative study if you like. What is it about the Moscow Mood that attracts so many of those young men? What do they find in Moscow that they may perhaps not be finding in Philadelphia (the OPC) or in Atlanta (the PCA, DeYoung’s denomination)? I suggest that two things stand out that makes the Moscow Mood attractive: courage and engagement.
Our churches greatly lack courage. When we are more afraid that the world is watching than the fact that judgment is coming, there is a problem. Is Wilson’s public image soured by some unwholesome language? Perhaps, but I commend his willingness to reject being a weather-vane, pointing in whatever way the cultural wind is blowing. Courage requires clarity, directness of speech, and a willingness to say what is unpopular in a manner that pleases God, not that pleases the world. This is sorely needed in my denomination.
As an OPC minister, what am I supposed to tell frustrated young men looking for direction while hearing such criticism about Wilson in our terribly confused and muddled age? Many in my own denomination bent over backward to prop up Aimee Byrd and her deteriorating writing project, but cannot stand a guy like Wilson because of snark, his views on gender roles, and in his emphasis on bringing God’s Word to the public square. These are topics about which we need great clarity today. Consider this: earlier in 2023 a session in the OPC published this report for its church, defending women teaching men in Sunday school. When a congregant filed a formal complaint, not only did the session deny it, but the presbytery did as well on appeal. That is deeply troubling. Consider the ecclesiastical responses to the 2020 tyranny. At the very least, Wilson’s denomination sought to protect its members from overreaching mandates, whereas this overture went down like a lead-balloon at the 2021 OPC General Assembly. If men in my denomination (or related ones) are going to criticize Moscow and Canon Press, there might need to be some ecclesiastical plank removal that happens along with it.
Pastors and elders in the OPC and PCA may not like what Wilson is saying or how he says it, but at least he is saying something—and a lot of that something is spot on truth. This is roughly parallel to the crusty hyper-Calvinist criticizing the Arminian’s not-so-orthodox-but-at-least-they-are-doing-something evangelism. If we do not like the product coming from Wilson, and if we do not like how many people are running in that direction, then provide something better. Now, this does not mean we must fall into the “just do something” trap; no, we need to be analytical, not spastic, but surely we must be more than critical.
In my Moscow snacking, I find much of what they produce about family, education, and society far more appealing than retreatist, civic antinomianism dressed up as “the spirituality of the church.” Canon Press speaks to the common man, while the OPC wants to talk about the common kingdom. How many pulpits in my denomination only offer hot-air balloon preaching, sending redemptive historical themes shooting through the sky while never applying that penetrating Word to the heart and life, and heaven forbid, society?
John Calvin wrote, “Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the Church, by whatever name they are called, should be invested, namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God, compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom, and rank of the world to yield and obey its majesty; to command all from the highest to the lowest trusting to its power to build up the house of Christ and overthrow the house of Satan; to feed the sheep and chase away the wolves; to instruct and exhort the docile, to accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and petulant, to bind and loose; in fine, if need be, to fire and fulminate, but all in the word of God” (Institutes, 4.8.9)
The Lord’s Church must hold fast to the Word of God and hold forth the Word of God before the dying world. When she refuses to be—or worse, retreats from being—engaged as the pillar and buttress of the truth, she exchanges her prophetic witness for a pathetic one. Remember, if salt loses its flavor, it is only good for being trodden under foot (Matthew 5:13). To broaden this out a little bit, and with all due respect to Pastor DeYoung, it seems to me that The Gospel Coalition is long overdue for some reform and criticism as well. Now granted, the Taylor Swift article was taken down quickly, but one wonders how it was posted in the first place! I also can ask, what will be the “long-term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating” the TGC Mood?
Authority flows to those who take responsibility, and influence follows close behind. Has Wilson said things poorly? Sure, but to be honest, I am more annoyed with the reformed pearl clutching that takes so much offense at speech when it tolerates open and obvious worldly drifts within its own walls. It is time to take responsibility for the worship and witness of the church, and for this article I would emphasize the latter.
Some accuse Wilson of profiteering, for being a huckster only trying to make money. But this reminds me of something that Paul wrote, “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18). Maybe instead of spending so much time being offended by what Wilson has said, we could give thanks for the name of Christ being lifted high.
Paul also wrote. “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Col 4:5-6). For those who do not engage our world, or do so only very tepidly, it is easy to forget sometimes that salt stings like the dickens when it hits a gaping wound, and the world is covered with them, and maybe the church too. Doug Wilson’s language may be more salty than some would like, but at least his salt is making contact. He might shoot a flamethrower before the world’s eyes—and the church’s eyes—but at least he is shining, and not sipping his scotch under a bushel.