Thursday, October 08, 2009

Book Review - God In The Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Broken Dreams by David F. Wells

Introduction

I am almost embarrassed to admit that this review is my first exposure to the work of such a distinguished author and scholar. It would appear that a broadening of my reading selections is certainly in order! While others may be quite familiar with the author and his previous work, I approach this review as one newly exposed to Dr. Wells’ work and such harsh criticism of evangelicalism. That such criticism existed in 1994 and even earlier, however, comes as no surprise.

God in the Wasteland: the Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams is Dr. David F. Wells’[1] sequel to 1993’s No Place for Truth and is the second in a four book series. Like the first book in the series, God in the Wasteland is a stinging indictment of the decline of evangelicalism. Wells contends that this is caused primarily by the widespread adoption of modernism in Western culture. In his book, Wells clearly defines modernism and explains how Western consumerism has altered modern culture leaving God weightless in the lives of so-called believers who are instead focused on the culture rather than theology. In short, what evangelicals have become are self-centered consumers of religion freed from the constraints of antiquated doctrine. Offering a solution to the conflict between Christ and culture, Wells suggests a good old-fashioned return to Biblical doctrine.

God in the Wasteland Summarized

Dr. Wells opens the book with a 28 page prologue in which he expresses a highly unfavorable view of what he terms a “world cliché culture” where the process of modernization is driven by capitalism, technology, urbanization, and modern telecommunications.[2] As a result, modernity, now global, must necessarily be thin culturally reducing life to mere clichés. Wells accuses modern society of being diluted ethically leaving moderns shallow and empty. With the rise of modernization, Wells states, “we may now have everything, but none of it means anything anymore.”[3] Wells goes on to briefly make the case that both conservatives and liberals have been pursuing a form of civil religion where evangelicals derive their “power” from their culture rather than from their theology.[4]

In the closing paragraphs of his prologue, Wells states very clearly that the central theme of his book is the relationship between Christ and culture. The reason, according to Wells’, that evangelicalism is in decline is modernity or, in Biblical terms, the worldliness of Our Times. Modernism is viewed by evangelical churches as one of many issues facing the church that deserve some consideration from time to time instead of recognizing modernism as the issue facing the church today. The problem in our churches lies not in our technique or poor organization or music that is out of date. Rather, contends Wells, the issue at the heart of the problem is that God’s truth is too distant and His gospel is too easy.[5] Acknowledging that the answers he proposes in this work are incomplete, Wells makes the case that his book is a first step that starts in the right place – with God!

Wells spends the next 150 pages, or a full two-thirds of his book, discussing in detail modernity, its negative impact on the church, and a shift towards the managerial and therapeutic tendencies that modern evangelical churches are by and large adopting.[6] This has given rise to megachurches and what Wells quite unfavorably refers to as the “religious economy” where church growth has become big business which proposes the use of modern techniques found in business and marketing to achieve artificial growth goals. It is during this large section of the book that Wells uses an unfamiliar phrase: “the weightlessness of God”.[7] Wells explains his intended meaning being God no longer weighs on our culture in any meaningful way.

God in the Wasteland Critiqued

Clearly, Wells approaches his subject matter from a very conservative theological point of view. As a professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary[8], this comes as no surprise. Wells is also a Council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals[9], an organization focused on changing the focus of the church from the worldliness to Christ. In his very well researched book, Wells seeks nothing short of shocking the evangelical community into the realization that modernity has succeeded in infiltrating their ranks and to point out the painful truth that our own churches have opening embraced this worldliness. Wells attacks the notion of seeking to employ business and marketing solutions for church growth as worldly but reserves his harshest words for George Barna.[10] It is Barna’s reshaping the church to meet the needs of the religious consumer that Wells takes exception to and soundly rejects to assertion that treating the church as a business with a “product” to “sell” is moving the church further away from God’s truth. In his review of Wells’ book, David Johnson uses softer language to describe Barna and Wells’ basic notion that allowing megachurches and so-called church growth specialists to set the agenda for pastoral training.[11] Jurgens Hendricks summarizes Wells view that the success of Barna and of the megachurches has been at the expense of the truth.[12]

As Wells’ book draws to a close, he discusses the coming generation of church leaders that were in seminary at the time of his writing. While seemingly pleased that current seminary students surveyed appeared to have remained solidly conservative compared to a similar survey conducted 10 years prior, Wells expresses concern over the fact that survey respondents seemed to make a distinction between human nature on one hand and human culture on the other.[13]

Wells warns that the church is going to have to learn to detect worldliness and wean itself from it. He goes on to state that the church must become more serious about itself and stop trying to be a supermarket serving the needs of religious consumers. Wells expresses hope that the church can become a counter-cultural force once again but points out that it will be up to the next generation of leaders to make that happen.[14] A great deal is made of the results of two surveys of seminarians taken in 1983 and 1993. Wells draws conclusions based on the data that include: seminarians are nearly as conservative in 1993 as they were in 1983 though they seem to separate theology in view of the world from theology in their own lives.[15] It is interesting that high hopes are placed on the generation to come while openly questioning the beliefs, both personal and theological, that those leaders would one day bring. Wells is much kinder to the seminarians upon whom so much hope is placed than the work of George Barna at that period in time. Contained in this part of Wells’ discussion is data suggesting that nearly half of seminarians surveyed in 1993 believed that the church would polarize producing a split between more liberal and more conservative Christians. Just such a split happened in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1990-91 when a large number of churches formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship[16] which oddly is not mentioned by Wells. Perhaps he visited the topic in a preceding work with which I am unfamiliar. In any event, it directly supports the views expressed by the seminarians surveyed.

In his review of Wells book, John Bolt succinctly summarizes what Wells believes to be the most profound consequence of modernization; the reordering and redefinition of the self.[17] Modern societies’ inclination towards consumerism and the therapeutic mindset is a direct result of this reordering and redefinition. Bolt largely agrees with the positions taken by Wells though suggests that the book does not fully satisfy the demand for it suggested by No Place for Truth? concluding that further sequels are needed.[18] Even Amos Yong, writing from a Pentecostal/Charismatic point of view largely agrees with much of what Wells states in his book.[19] Bolt and Yong are largely favorable towards Wells’ work in their respective reviews. Hendricks and Robert Johnston are a bit more critical of Wells in their respective reviews. Johnston suggests that Wells, while correct to try and move evangelicalism back toward more biblical theology, goes too far in the other direction and has a propensity for overstatement and revulsion for contemporary culture. [20]

Wells’ research is quite extensive and is a wealth of information for pastors and other leaders in churches struggling with this very issue. Issues such as style of music and worship are very much hot-button topics some fifteen years after Wells published his book. Lay leaders may also benefit from reading Wells’ work if for no reason other than getting a very thorough, detailed description of modernity. Even those brothers and sisters outside of evangelical circles can certainly benefit from Wells’ work as evidenced by Amos Yong’s review.

Conclusion

Reading God in the Wasteland left me with mixed feelings of the subject matter. While on the one hand Wells’ articulates a well researched argument, I find myself in some small measure agreeing with Robert Johnston in that perhaps Wells condemnation of contemporary culture is a bit overstated. Modernism certainly exists and likely should be considered more often than many church leaders have in recent years. For Wells’ part, his book certainly achieves everything he set out to while leaving the reader with a desire to pick up the next installment. As a solution, a return to God and His truth is certainly in order but it seems to be a bit oversimplified. Getting back to God’s truth is always good advice in any given set of circumstances. Perhaps this is unpacked a bit further in Wells’ later works. The reader is given some sense that Wells has hope for the future but that hope is seemingly tepid at best. One is also left wondering if Wells’ views have changed since the publication of this work in 1994. An interview from 2006 reveals that Wells is standing more firmly than ever though rather than condemning modernism, postmodernism is his current topic. Wells’ sentiments have, if anything, become more critical of the megachurch and pastors-as-CEO’s; in my humble opinion, rightly so. Wells is certainly right about one thing, the focus should be on God and not on religious consumerism.

ENDNOTES

[1] David F. Wells is professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. An ordained Congregational minister, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Manchester; Th.M. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School); B.D. (University of London); post-doctoral Research Fellow (Yale Divinity School). Among his many publications are: Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (William B. Eerdmans, 2004); Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology from an Evangelical Point of View (Eerdmans, 1998); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (William B. Eerdmans, 1994); No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (William B. Eerdmans, 1993); The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (Marshall Theological Library: Marshall, Morgan and Scott; Crossway, 1984); co-editor and part author with Mark Nofl, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and John Woodbridge, Eerdmans Handbook to Christianity in America, (Eerdmans, 1983); The Prophetic Theology of George Tyrrell (American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, Scholars Press, 1982); The Search for Salvation (InterVarsity Press, 1978); co-editor with Clark Pinnock, Toward a Theology for the Future (Creation House, 1977); co-editor with John D. Woodbridge, The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, How They Are Changing (Abingdon,1975); Revolution in Rome (InterVarsity Press, 1972).

[2] Wells, David F. God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams.
Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, U. K. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 7-9.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid, 29-31.

[6] Though the page count of Wells’ book is 285 including the table of contents, preface, appendix, selected bibliography, and index, in calculating the two-thirds figure of the book dedicated to Wells’ discussion of modernity, I have excluded these sections and only included the 224 pages of actual text. This seems logical given the combined length of the other sections mentioned total 61 pages. Including the additional pages, Wells still spends over 50 percent of his book defining modernity and discussing the effects it has had on Western culture beginning in the 19th century.

[7] Ibid, 88-117.

[8] Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary - Prospective Students. 2009.

[9] Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. David Wells - Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 2009.

[10] Wells, David F. God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams.
Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, U. K. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 72-76.

[11] Johnson, David H. 1995. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.), 6, no. 2: 86-88.

[12] Hendriks, Jurgens. 1996. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Journal of Theology for Southern Africa no. 96: 99-101

[13] Ibid, 196-201.

[14] Ibid, 226-27.

[15] Ibid, 206-07

[16] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship - Frequently Asked Questions. (2009), http://www.thefellowship.info/About-Us/FAQ (accessed September 30, 2009).

[17] Bolt, John. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." (Theology Today 52, no. 4), 540-44.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Yong, Amos. 1996. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Pneuma 18, no. 2: 239-243.

[20] Johnston, Robert K. 1995. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63, no. 4: 872-875

Bibliography

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. David Wells - Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 2009. http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086%7CCHID5593 76%7CCIID1952858,00.html (accessed October 1, 2009).

Bolt, John. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams."
Theology Today 52, no. 4 (January 1996): 540. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 3, 2009).

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship - Frequently Asked Questions. 2009. http://www.thefellowship.info/About-Us/FAQ (accessed September 30, 2009).

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary - Prospective Students. 2009. http://www.gcts.edu/prospective_students/david_f_wells (accessed October 1, 2009).

Hendriks, Jurgens. 1996. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Journal of Theology for Southern Africa no. 96: 99-101. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 29, 2009).

Johnson, David H. 1995. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 6, no. 2: 86-88. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2009).

Johnston, Robert K. 1995. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63, no. 4: 872-875. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2009)

Wells, David F. God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams.
Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, U. K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Eerdmans.com/Interviews. January 2006. http://www.eerdmans.com/Interviews/wellsinterview.htm (accessed October 2, 2009).

Yong, Amos. 1996. "God in the wasteland: the reality of truth in a world of fading dreams." Pneuma 18, no. 2: 239-243. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 28, 2009).

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Actually, I have just a short comment on this book. The argument had my total attention and "amens" as I thoroughly read the first one third of the book at which point I began asking myself what answer he is going to give for this terrible situation the evangelicals find themselves in in the last two thirds of the book. Then I read page 114 which seemed to give me a clue as to where Wells is going with this: "Our first theme, then, is our need to move away from the prevailing modern anthropology, to convert our understanding of ourselves as consumers of inner experiences and things religious to an understanding of ourselves as moreal knowers and actors." This is something that anyone can do - it requires no salvation or inner experience of God. The Pharasees were exceptionally good at this as many are today. Just to know and to act is not going to fit the bill for me. At this point, I am thinking that he is willing to throw out experiential Christianity in order to fix our cultural problem of modernism and postmoderism.

This morning as I prayed about this I was impressed that whatever the culture might throw at us is of no consequence to God. The message of the Gospel (with inner experiential evidence!) is still going to be the same and as frail human beings can do nothing to change the world's culture. We expend far too much time trying to get God's work done on the back of our own reason and manipulative ploys. Wells, I think, is a bit too pessimistic about what can happen in the midst of a wicked and perverse generation. All we have to do is think about the situation in Paul's day and our hope will return.
Grant

Chris Sanchez said...

Thanks for your thoughts Grant!