Friday, January 12, 2007

Above All Earthly Pow'rs by David F. Wells

Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in A Postmodern World
by David F. Wells, Eerdmans/IVP, 2005

This book is the conclusion of a series of works in which Wells dissects the relationship between Evangelicalism and Western culture. The other titles are No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994) and Losing our Virtue (1998). We need volumes like this to force us to reflect on our place in the world at this particular point in history. Without a penetrating, Biblical analysis of Western culture, the Church faces two main dangers. She may loose her distinctive witness by unwittingly becoming absorbed into the culture. Or the Church may retreat into its own little sub-culture, and find itself increasingly out-of-touch and bewildered by a fast changing world.

In the first two chapters, Wells charts the decline of the modern world and the emergence of postmodernism. The modern world was shaped by the twin forces of Enlightenment rationalism and technological advance. Western culture did not become "modern" simply because the thinking of the philosophers gradually permeated the rest of society. Wells shows how the Industrial Revolution radically transformed Western culture. What intellectuals were saying about the power of human potential was seemingly reinforced by abundant economic growth and rapid technological improvement. This gave birth to a mechanised, capitalist world in which happiness was measured by consumer choice. In this brave new society, God was banished to the margins of life and human beings were placed at the centre. But the turn from God to humanity debased rather than enhanced the true value of human life. We have been reduced to mere consumers, there to be manipulated by the advertising industry, or to victims in need of the latest self-help programme. But the modern consensus, reinforced as it was by the convergence of philosophy and technology is now falling apart. Modernism is so last century. Welcome to postmodernism.

Postmodernism is a reaction against the hubris of modernism. Where modern people were confident of man's ability to discover universal truth, postmoderns dismiss universal truth as a proud fiction. Just like modernism, postmodernism is the product of a new intellectual climate and shifts in society. Jacques Derrida's view that there is no truth, only subjective interpretations of reality is given credence by the shape of contemporary society. In a world of bewildering consumer choice, who is to say that only one worldview is right? Wells also analyses the effect of immigration on societies like America and the UK. As immigration accelerated during the mid-twentieth century, Western people found themselves mixing with adherents of other religions and cultures. The Judeo-Christian consensus was shattered on the rocks of multiculturalism. Such influences lead to a widespread rejection of traditional organised religion and the adoption of pastiche spirituality, where the consumer chooses those bits of religion that he likes best.
The postmodern world is void of deep meaning and significance. But the void is filled with a mixture of rampant consumerism and vague spirituality. Against this background, Wells discusses Christ in a Meaningless World. He helpfully differentiates between postmodern Eros spirituality that is centred on the self and Biblical Agape spirituality that is all about God reaching down to sinners in majestic saving grace. The Bible explains why postmodern life feels so empty and futile. Life without God is meaningless. But God has acted in Christ to save sinners from the judgement they deserve. Wells focuses on eschatology- the inbreaking of "the age to come" (here), christology - the doctrine of Christ, and justification by faith as the core truths that the Church needs to reassert in our postmodern society. In a decentered world, we must boldly proclaim the centrality of Christ.
Thus it is that we have two diametrically opposed visions of life. In the one, there is no centre; in the other there is and it is Christ. In the one, life is but a succession of random events; in the other, life is lived out under the sovereign rule of Christ. (p. 262)
The Church has not always responded wisely to the challenges of postmodernism. Wells critiques Open Theism. This view divests God of his sovereignty in the name of human freedom. Clark Pinnock, a leading advocate of this position says that Open Theism is an attempt to "make peace with the culture of modernity". (p. 247). But has the Church been called to make peace with the world at the expense of the freedom and sovereignty of God? The God of Open Theism may be culturally acceptable, but is he the glorious triune God who has revealed himself in Scripture?
Wells turns his attention to the "seeker sensitive" Megachurches as an example of what happens when the Church accommodates the postmodern world. This new way of doing Church tends to focus on one particular segment of society - usually young, white and middle class. The true multiethnicity of the Church is thus undermined. Church life is built around the felt needs of these spiritual consumers. Culturally awkward aspects of the gospel such as sin and judgement are downplayed. The demanding aspects of the gospel such as repentance, godliness and discipleship are not emphasised. The Megachurches are pragmatic in their approach and are geared towards success. But we have not been called to peddle the gospel, to win as many consumers as possible. Our task is to confront people with the claims of Christ and call them to repentance and faith.
There is a challenge here for the Church in the West. We must not be culturally indistinguishable from the world. We must dare to be different as God's holy people, his new humanity. Our only hope of reaching postmodern people is that we live authentically as the Church of God and remain faithful to the Biblical gospel. This important book helps us to understand our own times and calls us to Christ-centred authenticity. The Christ we serve and proclaim is indeed 'Above all earthly pow'rs'. He has triumphed over the forces of sin and evil. It is as we humbly rely on him that we will see the gospel triumph in our postmodern world.


michael jensen said...

Hmm. I never found Wells's interpretation of postmodernism actually very accurate (nor Don C's neither...). They tend to equate it with relativism and cling to a kind of modernist epistemology which is not Christian either... much as both guys are great ones.

Exiled Preacher said...

Wells is as hard on modernism as he is on postmodernism in this book. At a couple of points, he draws on Vanhoozer's critique of the posties.

I think he makes an interesting point on the way in which intellectual theories converged with trends in society to produce both the modern and postmodern world.