Of late I have been feeling a lot of sympathy for old Augustine as he sat in Hippo watching the world that he knew disintegrating around him as the seven centuries of Roman power collapsed. When it came, Rome's end happened relatively quickly, ushering in several centuries of confusion and uncertainty before Europe started to climb out of the hole, dust itself off, and start moving in a somewhat different (and far less developed) direction.
I have this nasty kind of feeling that we are living through the lead up to a similar kind of collapse as Western culture trivializes or entertains itself to death, with swathes of the Christian tradition following rapid suit. Reading David Wells's Above All Earthly Pow'rs during the last couple of weeks has merely intensified such thoughts.
The Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and a mentoree of John Stott, completes his four book series on the way in which the faith encounters the emerging culture with this remarkable tour de force. In it he undertakes a remarkably clear analysis of postmodernism, and then how the classical formulation of the faith addresses Jesus Christ into today's environment.
There are few really trying to grapple with such topics, and there are fewer still whose grasp of both faith and Zeitgeist is deep and extensive enough that the end product is of use to both pastoral and preaching facets of ministry.
I have been reading Wells during the build up to the Primates' Meeting in Tanzania, replete with posturing, politicking, and prediction, but there has been little theological analysis and reflection on the decisions and actions that have brought us to this present pass. I think that Wells's book does a sterling job in crafting a picture of the environment that has spawned this crisis, and what the faithful response might look like in this setting.
What makes David Wells' latest work so fascinating is that he is not exactly addressing either the Episcopal Church or the other mainline denominations, but rather is talking to those who self-select as evangelicals. Fifteen years ago Wells wrote movingly of the way in which biblical faith in America had been, over several centuries, turned from something meaty and substantial into little more than a thin veneer. In this book he goes beyond that to show how postmodernity's infiltration of the churches has cracked the veneer -- indeed, many of those who present what they assert is a biblical faith are toying with little more than a pale shadow, a parody of the real thing.
In effect, Wells is saying that in a slightly different way the evangelicals have set off down exactly the same road as the minimizers of earlier generations, the so-called "liberals" who have got the mainline denominations into such serious trouble. If the father of the liberals was Schleiermacher, the parents of this evangelical slide are marketing and seeker sensitivity.
Wells is far from opposed to proclaiming the faith in such a manner that the unreached are reached and lives are transformed as they enter a grace-filled relationship with Jesus Christ. What he asserts, however, is that in their efforts to make Christ accessible there has been a flushing of the baby with the bathwater for they are "operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology" (p. 265).
The seeker sensitive approach panders to the consumer mentality with the intention of gathering numbers, but the accumulating evidence suggests that fewer truly life-transforming conversions taking place, with self-surrendering disciples being made. Professor Wells is horrified by evangelical willingness to look for "success" by using the methodologies and business models like those of the folks at Disney. The result is that we are dishing out pablum, when all the time we are ignoring a robust, meaty, biblical faith, strong and serious enough to encounter the ennui and afflictions of the postmodern world.
Truth not technique is the resource God has given us as we weave our way through today's landscape in which the self, whatever that is, has become the be all and the end all. Wells demonstrates how the richness of truth actually addresses the shallowness of our world.
The brilliant core of the book are several chapters in which Wells expounds a meaty Christology and how it addresses how the children of postmodernity, radical individualism and relativity, who have swept aside the substance of what remained of Christian and Enlightenment cultures. Relativism and radical individualism are now in the process of reshaping almost every facet of the Western person's life within the context of a bored culture, but the answer to their corrosiveness is immediately available in our biblical heritage.
As you read you have the impression of a skilled physician carefully explaining what he is doing to his patient as he goes forward with the right treatment of a nasty ailment. What he is trying to tell us is that BandAids, whether liberal or conservative, will not do the trick. His exposition of both God's grace and Christ's atoning work is among the best that I have seen in a very long time. These doctrines are strong medicine, especially when compared with the shallowness of seeker sensitivity and the vacuousness of those that veer off down the progressive, liberal, radical, or whatever you want to call it road.
I came away from this with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at what God has achieved on our behalf through the work of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, and a deepened commitment never ever to settle for anything less. In this determination I sometimes feel in my own denomination that if I am not a lone voice, then I am part of a tiny minority. All around me I can see the heart-breaking damage that has been done when we settle for little, this leading inexorably toward the destructiveness of error that now prevails.
As I have watched, I have had this growing sense over recent years that the conservative churches, in a different way, are making all the same mistakes made in our tradition several generations ago, and that ultimately unless they alter their modus operandi they are going to finish up with similar kinds of unfaithful and erroneous outcomes. This is bad news indeed.
Which brings me back to Tanzania, and the gathering of the Primates. Part of their task will be to continue pointing out to the North American churches the error of their believing and their doing, and that actions have profound consequences. Action of some kind will in all likelihood be taken, but we are a long way yet from the body ceasing to writhe.
The very emptiness of those on the left illustrates Professor Wells's case for him. All he needs to do is to point out to his evangelical constituency the pitiful creature that the Episcopal Church is and to say to them, "Now do you really want to be like that?" At the same time, however, he needs to look at the Global South churches, as well as conservatives, evangelicals, catholics who remain in ECUSA or who have recently split from the denomination and say to them, "Never, ever, ever forget these great truths -- you do so at your own peril."