Examining Doug Wilson’s Response to Karen Swallow Prior

Normally, I don’t bother with personal skirmishes between other bloggers. I don’t like petty squabbles, and I’d much rather discuss ideas than people.

But there’s been a growing brouhaha around author, blogger, and presiding minister of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) Doug Wilson. Aside from being under fire for marrying off a young woman to a pedophile and shaming a victim of child rape by one of his seminary students (horrific, HORRIFIC stuff), Wilson is also drawing ire for a recent blog post on the physical beauty of Christian women.

Karen Swallow Prior, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog once before, published a response to Wilson’s post on the Her.menutics blog. In summation, she says that Wilson’s statements were inappropriate because:

  1. He focused only on physical beauty, failing to relate beauty to the whole self.
  2. He focused only on how Christianity beautifies women, not men.
  3. He focused only on his personal definition of feminine beauty.
  4. Biblically, it’s not his place as a male pastor to instruct younger women on matters of physical beauty. That task is reserved for older women.

When I read her post, I corresponded with her on Twitter, saying that I believed Wilson wouldn’t respond as generously in kind or take her seriously because of his poor attitude toward women. One of Wilson’s supporters immediately accused me of slander. How dare I suggest that Wilson would be disrespectful toward Prior–despite the mountain of evidence that suggested its very real possibility.

Now that Wilson has published his response, his supporters are calling for a retraction of my statement. Well, here it is: Wilson was not savage in his response to Prior. On the contrary, his tone is quite flattering. But just because it sounded nice doesn’t mean it was respectful or serious. I’ll tell you why.

Wilson starts off lavishly praising Prior for her fact-checking. Prior had contacted him while working on her article to confirm what Wilson had meant in his original statement. Because one thing Wilson tends to do quite often is accuse his critics of misunderstanding him. In a case where he wrote to a judge requesting “measured and limited” punishments for a pedophile Wilson was counseling, Wilson has claimed that he was actually encouraging the judge to be harsh. You know, because he was using those words in their “legal sense.”

So Wilson is overjoyed that Prior isn’t like all those other nasty people with god-forsaken dictionaries. She knows to ask a man what he really means before hitting the “publish” button. And she hits a second wicket as well: she uses a scripture that he likes, and her interpretation of it is in agreement with his.

Quoted from Wilson’s blog:

This is the other reason I appreciated Karen’s riposte — she actually agreed with the central point I was making, and had made that same observation herself.

These are the reasons Wilson gives for appreciating–and, therefore, responding in a respectful tone to–Prior’s critique. It’s not that she made a good point. It’s not that her observation was theologically on point. It’s not that she sought to wisely and gently admonish a brother in the faith to take care in his statements about women in order to protect his pastoral reputation. It’s that she agreed with his main point.

Indeed, this becomes the focus of Wilson’s entire response:

At the center, I don’t think there is a disagreement.
And to the extent any disagreement remains, I really appreciate the way she brought it.

In short, Wilson never actually engages any of Prior’s objections or even suggests that he might have been wrong. In fact, Wilson paints Prior as the one who, after all that thorough fact-checking, still got it wrong somehow [bold emphasis mine].

Her objection was that my post was an unfortunate example of the offensive behavior writ large, applied to a demographic group instead of simply to Suzy Q. Her critique saw my post as simply a larger version of the problematic behavior. Now if what I wrote made women of my acquaintance think that I spent a good portion of my time silently checking all the ladies out, she would be quite correct. That would be bad.

Wilson says his only mistake was not putting “more…than just one sentence” in his original statement “to head off the implication that I was doing on a large scale what would be unsettling on a small scale.” In the end, he doubles down on his original statement, making Prior appear to be nodding along with no real complaint. Meanwhile, note that Wilson carefully avoids naming the “offensive behavior,” which is inappropriate ogling/sexual harassment.

The one time Wilson even comes close to admitting he’s wrong, he brushes it off as a joke:

To this admirable sentiment of mine, one editor at CT retorted by saying, in effect, that in her mind nothing is creepier than saying “I am not being creepy right now.”

And actually, I think that this might be a fair cop. Show, don’t tell. Instead of “I am not being creepy,” it should have been something more like “I am not being creepy.” Just kidding. Just a little humor to lighten things a bit. Stultum iocum

This is where Wilson’s true attitude towards this exchange with Prior seeps through. But instead of showing his outright disdain toward Prior, Wilson makes this female editor his target instead. Notice, the editor has said something fairly similar to Prior: Wilson’s comments were creepy and inappropriate. And Wilson’s response to this is to get sarcastic and then redirect the reader with a “just joking, here’s some Latin you can google.”

His statement about not being creepy was “admirable,” after all. How dare this feminist editor say otherwise.

After all of this, Wilson then switches gears to address Rachel Held Evans, another popular blogger and author. Wilson has heard through the grapevine that Evans is upset at Prior for engaging in this exchange of niceties. Evans’ problem? Wilson used an anti-gay slur to disparage half of all non-Christian women–women who aren’t conforming to Wilson’s standard of inner or outer beauty. Wilson devotes the entire second half of his post to Evans. It’s almost as if he couldn’t wait to finish with Prior so he could get to her.

I could go on for another 500 words pointing out the atrocious gaps in reasoning, offensive language, and utter lack of charity that Wilson displays in his rant on Evans. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is this even doing in Wilson’s response to Prior?

And then it hit me: Wilson’s entire response to Prior is not a response at all. It’s a self-serving dichotomy.

See, in his lavish praise of Prior, Wilson sets her up as an archetype–the archetype of the women he will pretend to take seriously and respond to nicely. And that archetype is women who agree with him. Women who will play nice and call to ask his opinion before they publish anything critical about him. I don’t say this to disparage Prior, at all. She was being smart. Very smart. Wilson simply saw a way to play this game to his advantage.

Evans is Prior’s foil, the flip side of the coin. She gets Wilson’s unmasked ire and blatant disrespect because she fundamentally disagrees with him. Evans sees lesbians as women with the same legitimacy and beauty as straight women, and Wilson does not. And Evans had the temerity to complain that his use of the word “dyke” was horribly demeaning and offensive to them. In Wilson’s view, Evans is one of those women who is deserving of abuse because she 1) won’t submit to Wilson’s “authority,” and 2) defends the lesbians Wilson says are an attack on “legitimate” women. In effect, Wilson labels Evans and her lesbian friends anti-women…and then ends his post with a big photo of a large “butch” woman with tattoos, smoking a cigar and riding a motorcycle, as if to prove his point about “ugly lesbians.”

She totally looks like someone I’d love to have over for coffee. 🙂

With this “response,” Wilson is sending a clear message to his female followers and critics: agree with me and I’ll pat your head and give you kudos. Don’t, and I’ll treat you like the trash you are.

Why does this matter? Because Wilson IS A PASTOR with many followers and a great deal of influence. And in all the times I’ve seen others approach him about offensive statements, lapses in judgment and erroneous teachings–especially when said others are womenI have not once seen Wilson unequivocally admit wrong, issue a retraction or offer an apology. And a pastor who shows that level of resistance to humility, public accountability, and repentance should not be in ministry. His soul is in danger. And he will lead an entire flock of sheep straight off a cliff and into the ocean.

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6 responses to “Examining Doug Wilson’s Response to Karen Swallow Prior

  1. My husband and I had initially considered taking Li’l D to a Christian school near my work. A coworker brought to attention an unfortunate (sex-related) incident the school’s principal could have handled differently. I was shocked but still open; a few years was more than enough time to learn from the terrible prior experience and adopt better approaches, right? But then I found a quote from the principal, and I saw my (evangelical) dad in the words. Basically, the quote lobbed at a newspaper said, the newspaper was doing the devil’s work by creating division instead of focusing on unity. I can’t remember the exact words, because their translation remains more prominent to me: “I accept no accountability, and anyone who demands it is the real problem.” I got the same sense reading Wilson’s words, and feel now a little better able to identify the (critical, non-devil!) source of unease with certain … failures of accountability. Thank you.

  2. I grew up very close to this attitude – studying the Wilsons’ texts on courtship and the relationship between father/daughter and wife/husband during my formative teen years…it has taken years to rebuild the damage to my self-esteem. (Being told that as a woman, you have to be under authority in order to have any legitimacy. Being told that as a woman, you must submit to whatever your ‘head’ requests/demands.)

    Thank God for my loving, supportive, Dad who did not buy into these extreme views, pushed me to make my own decisions and choices to foster self-respect and confidence.

    Thank God for my husband who respects and loves me as an equal – who even though we were trained under complementarian values, has forged an equal alliance with me in our 7 years of marriage.

    You’re exactly right in this fundamental attitude:
    Agree with me – pat on the head.
    Disagree – I tear you apart.

    Thank God for women (like you) who are secure enough to disagree and shed light on this abusive and manipulative attitude.

    • Great post! So glad you are out of those sick ideas and have a loving marriage. I am out of a sick church with patriarchal ideas that were foisted on us for 8 years. (Church plant. NeoCalvinism.) Here is a video that somebody posted over on Tim Fall’s blog just recently. Ron Pierce, well known theology professor and author, and a former comp doctrine proponent changed his mind after a close study of the Scriptures and he does not find it Biblical.

  3. Pingback: Seeing Through the Fog: A Pastor’s Hate Unmasked | Revolutionary Faith