In our churches and in our outreach, questions of ‘truth’ don’t seem so important any more. Is this is a loss, an irrelevance or an opportunity? Tony Payne reviews two significant books on this subject by David F Wells.
Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, David F Wells, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006, 339pp
No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, David F Wells, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1993, 318pp
There is a question being posed by Christians all over the Western world. It comes in different forms and with different words. It is sparked by different specific problems and arises in different situations, but it is, in essence, the same question.
It might be phrased like this: “How can we connect with our society when Christianity and its gospel are increasingly marginalized within it?” Or it might take this form: “How can we preach ‘the truth’ anymore when the very concept of ‘truth’ is derided or considered irrelevant by most people?” Or perhaps: “How can we call on people to serve a heavenly Lord and Master when most people see their lives as their own personal project?” Or it might take a practical turn: “How can we even begin to attract Demographic X to our church when, on the whole, they dislike and distrust institutions and religious institutions above all?”
It is the question, in other words, of whether there is any place for Christ and his gospel in our ultra-modern world. David Wells has been thinking and writing about this question for most of the last two decades.
The modern banishment of truth
In 1994, Wells published No Place for Truth, the first of what was to be four acclaimed books that, in different ways, sought to answer ‘the question’.
No Place for Truth opens with Professor Wells delivering the first lecture in a theology course to a batch of eager young students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the US. After the class, a young, somewhat agitated seminarian comes up to thank him for his words:
He told me that he was one of those I had described who felt petrified by the prospect of having to take this course. As a matter of fact, he said, he had had a mighty struggle with his conscience about it. Was it right to spend so much money on a course of study that was so irrelevant to his desire to minister to people in the Church? He plainly intended no insult. As a matter of fact, this confession, which I rather think he had not intended to blurt out, had begun as a compliment. That was the day I decided that I had to write this book. (p. 4)
How did it come to this, Wells wonders, that theology is regarded as irrelevant to ministry and church life? How did we come to a place where ‘truth’ is neither prized nor known, where our links to historical Christian orthodoxy are blithely abandoned or ignored, and where pastors have become managers and therapists? In other words, Wells’s quest to understand and explain Christ in our world was initially sparked not so much by the challenge of reaching out to an increasingly fractured, postmodern culture, but by the stark realization that this culture had done some reaching out of its own … into the church.
Wells’s approach to this question is striking both for its subtlety and plausibility. He goes back, first of all, to the Enlightenment of the 18th century and to the key ideas that it bequeathed to our culture: the autonomy of the individual, the triumph of unaided human reason, the optimistic assessment of humanity’s capacity and potential, and the idea that only the real, physical world, viewed scientifically, was a proper object of knowledge. It was the Enlightenment that really gave birth to the modern man—someone fiercely protective of his individuality, sceptical of religious orthodoxies, rebellious against authority, and with little awareness of, or dependence upon, an omnipotent God.
However, here Wells makes a telling point about the progress of modernity that is also significant for his subsequent analysis of postmodernity—namely, that the ‘modern’ worldview, and the modern person, arose not simply from the currency of certain ideas but from social change—from rapid industrialization, urbanization and the rise of market capitalism. These sweeping technological and economic forces produced a psychological environment which neatly paralleled the intellectual environment of the Enlightenment. To oppose one was to be seen to oppose the other—to stand in the path of an inevitable onrushing history of human freedom, development and progress. So ‘modernist’ Enlightenment ideas were reinforced, spread and made utterly normal not so much by the triumph of rhetoric or philosophy as by the triumph of technology and modern market capitalism.
The irony that Wells highlights is that, just as the forces of modernization were surging to global dominance, the Enlightenment ideology of modernism was dying. During the 20th century, the academy awoke from its long dream to discover that, without God or any other external authority, they were left with just themselves, and their interests and dispositions. However, the death of intellectual modernism did very little to slow the creation of the culture of popular ‘modernity’. The social forces had been unleashed, and the massive cultural changes continued to do their work, even as the ideology atrophied and died.
In all of this, Wells follows a form of Peter Berger’s ‘sociology of knowledge’, the idea that social structures, norms and forces play an important role in shaping consciousness. Wells argues that the forces of modernization and the accompanying secularization of society created the climate—the culture—which we might call ‘modernity’:
- in which everything is impermanent and disconnected;
- where we all belong not to one stable community with a ‘centre’, but to a multitude of disparate sub-worlds (work, home, commerce, leisure, entertainment) which we glide in and out of;
- where the advance of technology leads us to believe that we will solve humanity’s problems, even though the modern dream of progress lies in ruins;
- in which the city has risen to dominance—a place in which people aggregate for the purpose of consumption and industry, and in which everything is impersonal;
- in which numerous ethnic, religious and cultural groups are lumped in together in cities, thus making pluralism and relativism almost unavoidable;
- in which there is massive daily global transfer of information;
- in which production, marketing and consumption is also now global;
- in which there is a gulf between manufacturer and consumer, such that there is no personal relationship or accountability;
- in which a chasm has opened up between the public and the private, with religion and belief banished to the private, and in which the government rules the public sphere with a level of detail and intrusiveness unprecedented in history.
In this climate of ‘modernity’, secularism seems natural and normal. Christianity seems odd and out of place. This, Wells argues, is what tilts people against belief in the Christian God—not particular intellectual arguments, but a social environment that marginalizes and excludes the biblical God at every turn. The only ‘truths’ in this environment are scientific, empirical, pragmatic truths. The only significant reality is the cold reality of what works. As people live and breathe in this environment, they cannot but help absorb the natural default position of our time—that the world runs according to its own laws, and is free to fashion its own destiny without God.
Christians live and breath in this environment too, and much of the latter half of No Place for Truth examines how the church has been influenced and changed dramatically by the pervasive influence of modernity. The most striking effect, according to Wells, is the disappearance of theology from the life of the church, and from the Christian academy. Theology, he suggests, has three essential characteristics: it is confessional (declaring the public doctrinal truth of the authoritative Word of God), it is reflective (thinking about all that Scripture says and all that Christians have said down the ages to better understand and explain the truth we confess), and it promotes virtues that spring from confession and reflection.
However, when the confessional element disappears in the academy (as it has gradually over the past 100 years), all that is left is reflection, cut loose from its moorings and free to roam wherever it will, with a set of virtues that ends up looking remarkably like the dominant ‘values’ of the time. Likewise, when the confession of God’s truth disappears from the church, reflection turns towards the self, and preaching becomes psychology and self-improvement. The cultivation of virtue becomes, instead, the pragmatic pursuit of personal and spiritual success. Ministers are no longer scholars, thinkers and pastoral theologians, but managers, professionals and therapists.
Wells looks out with undisguised dismay at the rapid advance of these trends in American evangelicalism. There was a time, he suggests, earlier in the 20th century when the great sin for evangelicals was ‘compromise’, and every effort was made to raise the barricades against a hostile, modernist world. Now, the great sin of evangelicalism is to be ‘narrow’.
Theology and the declaration of God’s truth has disappeared from churches, he argues, not by abduction or denial, but by marginalization. The mass of Christian people (and their pastors) have not decided suddenly that the Bible is not true, or that orthodox Christian theology is now false (although many in the academy may have). What has happened instead under the juggernaut weight of modernity is that ‘truth’ and ‘theology’ are pushed to the margins and gradually forgotten about:
[W]hile these items of belief are professed, they are increasingly being removed from the centre of evangelical life where they defined what that life was, and they are now being relegated to the periphery where their power to define what evangelical life should be is lost … It is evangelical practice rather than evangelical profession that reveals the change. (p. 108)
Theology is no longer at the centre, and into the vacuum rushes modernity and pragmatics.
It is hard to disagree with this assessment and with Wells’s persuasive suggestion as to how it came about. He writes mainly about American evangelicalism, but one of the very characteristics of our modernized world is that it is global: trends transfer quickly. When leading American evangelical Rick Warren spoke on the platform at the 2006 Hillsong Conference in Sydney, he delighted his Australian audience when he prayed, “We’re never going to unite around doctrine or style, but we pray that you help us to unite around the eternal purpose of God”. Truth will never bond us together. Social action and cooperation around a loosely defined set of broad goals will have to do.
In this climate, those evangelicals who are sufficiently anti-modern to cling to the importance of theology and the confession of the truth find themselves styled as the nasty party. This has certainly been my experience during the 20 or so years I have been editing The Briefing. We have often published articles declaring, celebrating, exploring and applying the truth of the Bible, and very, very occasionally we have published articles critical of some Christian teachers, authors or groups on the basis that their teachings or practices fall dangerously short of biblical orthodoxy. Now the number of these more critical articles has been extremely small—especially in proportion to all the positive, encouraging and practical material that has surrounded them—but this has not prevented us from earning a reputation in some circles for being critical and negative. Thinking back through the letters we have received over the years complaining about this sort of material, only rarely did a correspondent take the time to argue the toss with us over the actual content of the articles. Instead, the complaint was almost universally the mere fact that we had made the criticism in the first place! It’s just not right to criticize other Christian people. How arrogant must you be to claim to know the truth and to find fault with others! These people love Jesus just as much as you do—if not more!
Taking Wells’s analysis as our guide, this reaction is not only understandable, it is inevitable. If truth has disappeared from the centre, arguing about the truth, debating the truth, or criticizing an alternative version of the truth is nonsensical and abhorrent. It’s making an issue out of what has become, in our world, a non-issue.
No Place for Truth is a fine book. The depth and insight of its argument is matched by an elegant and very readable style. We can be grateful that Professor Wells was so moved to write it. We can be doubly grateful that he didn’t stop there.
The postmodern Facebook of truth
It is a cliché, of course, that we have outgrown modernity—that we are all now postmodern. And there is no doubt that the cultural landscape has changed over the last quarter of a century. The modernist dream promised that humanity would craft its own wonderful destiny, and that science and education would lead us all into a unified bright new tomorrow. We were promised progress, enlightenment, knowledge and a humanist quest for truth. Instead, we got the Holocaust, propaganda, a nuclear arms race and global warming.
Thus we have come to the postmodern mood, which is sour about progress, alarmed about the future, even more fiercely individualistic in our worldviews, dismissive of overarching claims to truth, and increasingly desperate for the meaning and purpose that has somehow evaporated before our eyes.
This, it must be pointed out, is not a radical departure, or something entirely new. It is simply the culture of late modernity coming to terms with the death of some of its dreams. It is also the direct consequence of the massive social, technological and economic changes of the last 25 years.
In his most recent book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, David Wells charts these social forces and their role in shaping our consciousness. As with his analysis of the progress of modernity, Wells suggests that we have moved to ‘postmodernity’ not so much because people have all started reading Derrida or Foucault with their cornflakes, but because of the pervasive influence of social change.
The very experience of 21st-century living, with its utterly bewildering array of nearly limitless choice (in knowledge, information, entertainment, commodities, interests, lifestyles, and so on) has the psychological effect of fragmenting our lives, and destroying any illusion that there might be one overarching truth or ‘big story’. There is no fixed truth, no unifying story, no galvanizing purpose. There is nothing that explains me, or locates me in the world as part of a fixed tradition or community. Everything is difference, diversity, plasticity, fluidity. The waves of multicultural immigration that have changed the face of most Western countries have only heightened this effect. It is up the individual to try to fashion some satisfactory ‘self’—some thing that is uniquely and authentically ‘me’—by selecting from the google-sized cultural menu.
It seems to me that the social networking website Facebook is the perfect metaphor for the trends Wells describes. Each person on Facebook crafts and builds their own Facebook identity, which consists of my status, my photos, my music, my friends, my travels, my cat, my movies, my books, my virtual aquarium and virtual garden, and all the other minutiae of me. This is what life is about: each of the individual millions seeking to create an identity in an anonymous, meaningless world by attaching enough genitives to themselves. By choosing all the things that are mine, perhaps I might have substance in the world. I might be special.
This, of course, is what shopping has become: an almost limitless and ever-expanding range of options through which I can distract myself from the meaninglessness of life and the abyss of death, and with which, perhaps, I can make a little statement about who I really am. I am a Rivers-wearing, Prince tennis racquet-wielding, 70s rock-listening, literature-reading, all football codes-loving, Ibanez guitar-playing, West Wing-watching, digital SLR-owning, Mac user. Now who are you?
However, the quest for meaning and satisfaction in a de-theologized world has its drawbacks. The quest for satisfaction through what we own and consume is an elusive one. Wells quotes Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals:
It is possible for multitudes in time of peace and security to exist agreeably—somewhat incoherently, perhaps, but without convulsions—to dream a little and not unpleasantly, to have only now and then a nightmare, and only occasionally a rude awakening. It is possible to drift along somewhat nervously, somewhat anxiously, somewhat confusedly, hoping for the best, and believing in nothing very much. It is possible to be a passable citizen. But it is not possible to be wholly at peace. For serenity of soul requires some better organization of life than a man can attain by pursuing casual ambitions, satisfying his hungers, and for the rest accepting destiny as an idiot’s tale in which one dumb sensation succeeds another to no known end. (p. 40)
Where is the postmodern person to go for this “serenity of soul”? For an increasing number, the answer is ‘spirituality’.
Christ and our postmodern spiritual yearnings
The postmodern mindset might be distrustful of authorities, including—or perhaps especially—religious authorities, but it remains very interested in spirituality. In Britain, in the final decades of the 20th century, regular church attendance plunged from 28% of the populous to just 8%. In the same period, those who described themselves as ‘spiritual’ or having had ‘spiritual experiences’ rose from 48% to 76%.
This brings us (at last, you might say) back to the big question we started with—the question of Christ and the postmodern world. How are we to connect with and reach out to postmodernity? Could the answer be via the spiritual yearning that many postmoderns now profess to feel? Indeed, as many have been saying over the past decade, perhaps postmodernity represents a bright new opportunity for the gospel in the new millennium. Perhaps a world that realizes it can’t find meaning or truth or a ‘centre’, and which is open to spiritual searching, is a world ready to respond to a fresh, compelling presentation of Christ.
Unlike many who have sought to explore this question, Wells begins by asking a crucial question: just what kind of spiritual yearning does the postmodern person typically have? As Wells describes it (and his analysis rings very true), the current spiritual quest is intensely personalized, individualized and eclectic. It is part of the postmodern person’s project to make their life happy, satisfying, fulfilled and meaningful. It is about finding something real and meaningful in my life, given that I have lost confidence in a big Answer coming from someone else—whether from God or from the rational ideals of the Enlightenment. It’s like another panel on my Facebook page: my spirituality. And I can draw on whatever tidbits of spiritual knowledge or technique that might help with the search.
Here Wells comes to one of the key insights of Above All Earthly Pow’rs. He argues that while the postmodern spiritual yearning has unique features thrown up by the particular cultural forces of our time, in its core structure and nature, it bears a striking resemblance to a kind of spirituality that Christians have done battle with long before in the second and third centuries AD: the ancient form of primal spirituality that took the form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was also a spirituality intensely distrustful of dogma and external revelation. It too was a deeply privatized spirituality where the sacred was approached through the self. And it too was a spirituality that reached from man to God, attempting to find salvation and blessing apart from the ‘downward’ grace of God in Christ.
In other words, Gnosticism was not a close cousin to Christian spirituality—a kind of fellow-traveller or precursor to Christian understanding; it was its diametric opposite and enemy. And when such a rival is on the field, adaptation, dialogue and tactical engagement are not viable strategies. The only appropriate response, argues Wells, is confrontation—otherwise known as “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).
The early church perceived this, vigorously opposed Gnosticism, and was granted in God’s kindness a history-making victory. On the other hand, the church at the end of the 20th century has seen the self-focused, anti-revelational, lifestyle-oriented spirituality of our time as a phenomenon not to be confronted but to be accommodated. By seeing merely the surface attitude of ‘seeking’, and not the deep antipathy between the two kinds of spirituality, modern evangelicals have filled megachurches with people who don’t trust revelation, filter their experience of God through the self and its desires, and come along because the breezy, interactive, virtually content-less meetings make them feel good, and contribute to the project that is their lifestyle.
This is a vital point as we think about reaching our culture with the gospel. The desires, wants and spiritual yearnings of postmodernity are not a variation on Christian spirituality. They are as starkly opposite and as deadly to Christian thought and practice as was Gnosticism. Wells is right: when two deeply opposed worldviews take the field, it is not the time for accommodation, negotiation and tactical engagement; it can only be a time for battle.
Wells criticizes the ‘seeker-service’ movement sharply for not perceiving this, and for offering a revelation-less, repentance-lite, therapeutic spirituality which gives unchurched baby boomers exactly the spiritual package they want—one that helps them to sustain relationships, handle stress, improve their lives, and all without relinquishing their fundamental autonomy over their lives.
Ironically, suggests Wells, the turn that modern evangelicalism has taken exactly mirrors the disaster of liberalism more than a century ago. The liberals sought to adapt Christianity to stay in step with the high-culture intellectuals, for whom the truths of Christianity were unpalatable. Modern evangelicals are adapting Christianity to stay in step with the more popular end of culture, with all its therapeutic and consumerist desires.
This is the danger for evangelicals as we think about how Christ can be preached to a postmodern world. Under the relentless social and cultural pressure of our time, we feel very tempted to push the core confessional words of truth from the centre to the margins. And as we do so, pragmatics and marketing rush in to fill the vacuum.
We see a particular demographic group before us (Generation X or Y or Z, or seniors or juniors or whoever it might be) and we begin to feel that if we could only find the key to their hearts—the cultural pheromones that would attract them to us—then we would surely be able to win them over to Christ. If we can craft our package in such a way as to show them Christ is the answer to their spiritual yearnings (for meaning, for relationships, for community), then to Christ they will turn.
But, as Wells points out, this approach doesn’t account for the small matter of sin. The dissatisfied, searching postmodern self is not innocent. The vanity, emptiness and futility it experiences is God’s present judgement on its rebellion and idolatry. And its desires and yearnings are not for submission to Christ, but for satisfaction and self-fulfilment.
This perception of the state of the human heart—postmodern or otherwise—comes from the revealed truth of God. But it is an increasingly marginalized perception, even within evangelical Christianity, because truth has been pushed to the margins. We have become amicable partners with postmodernity, rather than the kind of cultural dissidents and commandoes that the apostles were in the first century. They preached an outlandish, counter-cultural message about a crucified and risen Messiah—a message that was despised as weak and stupid. They didn’t try to varnish or market it. They simply kept proclaiming it in the plain language of their hearers, with their lives bearing witness that they utterly believed what they were preaching, and sought to live accordingly.
This, in the end, must be our path. The postmodern ethos may be allergic to truth claims, but we cannot surrender to this without surrendering the good confession of the gospel because the gospel is a truth claim.
The world may seek a million ways to live, but we preach two ways to live.
 No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993), God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994), Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1999) and Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005)—all published by Eerdmans.