Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The lay of the evangelical land

Today, we begin blogging through The Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells. If you're reading along, you'll want to read the preface and chapter one for today's discussion.

My first comment is actually about the dust jacket. Does anyone know what this is a picture of? Is it a set of ladders pointing into the sky, symbolizing our vain attempts to reach God? Is it a piece of postmodern art, representing the postmodern worldview of our age? Am I reading way too much into this? Oh well, let's get into the book...

Chapter one is called "The Lay of the Evangelical Land," and Wells' opening statement is really a summary of the whole book: "It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant. After all, millions have done so throughout the West. They are not in any peril. To live by the truths of historical Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today's context" (p. 1). How interesting. We're told right away that the label of a professing Protestant and the lifestyle of a true Protestant are sometimes two very different things.

In this first chapter, Wells is giving a big picture of the modern evangelical church. Over the last 75 years, he says the church has split into three different groups or "constituencies":

  • Classic evangelicals, who are marked by doctrinal seriousness. Their two core theological beliefs are "the full authority of the inspired Scripture and the necessity and centrality of Christ's penal substitution" (p. 5). Leaders over the decades have included Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham, John Stott, and Francis Schaeffer. They have produced many fine publications and institutions, but as the centrality of doctrine and the church have diminished, so has their influence.
  • Marketers, who have tried to re-package the old evangelical message in new ways. Attempting to reach new people and grow the church, they have borrowed many marketing techniques and entertainment formats (music, drama, video, etc.) from the world. This movement appeals to the boomer generation and has been led by Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church. The problem here is that "form greatly modifies the content...the form, put together to be pleasing, actually undercuts the seriousness of faith" (p. 14). I hope Wells will talk more about this later in the book.
  • Emergents, who acknowledge the failures of modernity, preferring instead a spiritual "community" and "conversation." They are more open to other faith traditions and unorthodox worship styles. They are skeptical of power and its structures, and often see truth claims as "pretentious, fraudulent, and arrogant" (p. 16). Despite these dangers, emergents are attracting many in the Gen X and millennial crowd.
These three categories are very helpful. They give me a better awareness of what's going on in the church, and where different church growth ideas and methods are coming from. It's interesting to see how all three constituencies are at work, and in some ways competing, on a large scale in a place like the Southern Baptist Convention. I'm reminded of how important it is to be discerning in what I read and who I imitate.

I'm very interested to hear what else Wells has to say about the emergent church in this book. His last book, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, was published in 2005. It did a great job defining postmodernism, but did not interact much with the emergent church, per se. So, I'm eager to hear more of his critique of emergents in coming chapters.

Wells closes out the chapter by saying our only hope in a postmodern world is a return to the solas of the Protestant Reformation: that Scripture alone is God's authoritative truth; and that salvation is found by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. "This will take some courage," Wells admits, but "the key to the future is not the capitulation that we see in both the marketers and the emergents. It is courage. The courage to be faithful to what Christianity in its biblical forms has always stood for across the ages" (p. 20-21).

For next Wednesday, please read chapter two, "Christianity for Sale." But right now, it's your turn. What do you like or dislike about the book so far? What have you learned? Did you have a favorite quote from the chapter? A book club isn't any fun unless there's some participation, so click on the "comments" link below, and write your thoughts!

4 comments:

M.L. McCullah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M.L. McCullah said...

*Sorry I left information at the end of the deleted post that did not pertain to the discussion.

After a some research about the photo I found out that the picture is of a sculpture in Seattle. The picture is called metal grass. The meaning of the picture is currently under investigation for the correct interpretation (I am joking).

So far there is not really anything that I have disliked, but he has made me feel out of the loop. He uses a great deal of terms with the pre-fix post-. I have to say that I am lacking in my understanding about postconservatives, and postliberals. I am not sure exactly who these two groups are, but I am going to find out.

I appreciate his keen insight into each constituence. He has helped me to better understand what is going on in the church today. In addition, I think he has accurately assessed each movement, at least that is what I gather from reading the back cover, which has comments from the magazines that he says that they have lost doctrinal faithfulness.

Also, he has reminded me that our understanding of God is not complete, or even scratching the surface unless we have and are studying the Word of God. This first chapter is a great indictment, communicating that if we compromise by believing that we can know and live according to God apart from the Bible, we have lost our minds.

Moreover, Wells communicates that emergents think that because a person believes that they can know truth for certain, that such thinking is arrogant. How do you handle this type of faulty thinking? This is the devils idea to continue to blind men and women to their ultimate death in hell. Since the devil is the father of lies and a deceiver I have to say that he has won in the theological thinking (or lack there of) of emergents. Only the spiritually blind would believe such things.

I think that one of my favorite quotes is on pg 11, para 3 about the how the marketers have diminished the church in there quest for reaching people. Wells right says, "This conquest by the market, accomplished silently and without any fanfare, has not only greatly diminished the church but, one has to say, has also greatly diminished what it means to be a Christian believer".

This truly is a sad situation. Since the church is Christ's bride, marketers have produced a bride that is only committed when "things" are going their way.

Patrick said...

I applaud Wells for being willing to address a very difficult issue: i.e. assessing cultural shifts in Christianity with the goal of pointing people to the foundational doctrines of the faith.
I must say, however, that I was disappointed with Wells on two accounts. First, he chose to publish this book without any footnotes or endnotes. Any major work ought to give credit where credit is due. Furthermore, by opting not to include notes regarding research completed and quotations used, Wells greatly diminishes the strength of his case. Any one could discredit his arguments and claims as fallacious because there is no evidence to support his case.
Second, I was disappointed by what I perceived to a critical spirit rather than scholarly critic of the various Christian movements which have transpired over the last century or so. It is right and good to evaluate and critic trends and shifts in the philosophical landscape of the church, but any such evaluation should be done in a spirit of love and should avoid blanket statements. Maybe I simply read too much into what Wells was writing, but criticizing “marketers” and “emergents” as standing outside the evangelical house (p. 18) is a bit harsh and does not account for godly men who while using various methodologies remain doctrinally sound.
I did like the conclusion to chapter one. He states on page 21, “I do not know what the evangelical future will be, but I am certain evangelicalism has no good future unless it finds this [i.e. historical doctrine] kind of direction again.” There is a continual need to point the church back to the truths of scripture and I agree that unless the church in America tethers itself to the Supremacy of God and the historical doctrines of the faith, then it will follow in the steps of Europe and become a post-Christian culture.

A note on the emergent/emerging church
Having recently looked into the “emerging church” movement, I submit that Wells does not deal fairly with this movement. He does the vary thing that he says the secular media does with evangelicalism – lumps liberals and conservatives all together. If one were to take a closer look, he would find at least three streams of thought: 1) Emergent Churches – those who willingly redefine doctrine for the sake of reaching a post-modern culture 2) Emerging Churches – those who maintain the doctrines of the faith by holding scripture as the inspired Word of God, but employ various methods for reaching the next generation 3) Marketer/Emergents – those who like the look of the emergent/emerging church, but appropriate it as a marketing tool in their seeker friendly churches. (look up “mark driscoll emerging vs. emergents” on youtube for a Q&A with Driscoll or follow this link www.desiringgod.org/news_events/dgm_national/2006/videos.htm and then listen to Mark Driscoll (an emerging church pastor) who spoke at the Desiring God Conference. Ironically enough, David Wells spoke at this very same conference with Driscoll.

Stephen Jones said...

Marty - thanks for your research on the metal grass sculpture. Very interesting! I know what you mean about feeling out of the loop, and think some of these terms postconservative, postliberal, etc. he's probably made up himself to try to explain our modern culture. Thanks for your other comments and insights in the chapter.

Patrick - thanks for your great thoughts. I too would prefer to see some footnotes or endnotes. I think Wells is probably trying to make the book appear less scholarly and more popular and readable. However, he includes so many quotes, references, statistics, anecdotal examples, etc. that it really would be nice to see some sources. One could, of course, flip back through the 1200 pages of his previous four books and find it all carefully documented there, but how many people will really take the time to do so?

Interesting point about p. 18. I don't know if emergents would agree with Wells about standing "outside the house" of classical evangelicalism. They do seem to want to distance themselves from the historical church. But I don't think Wells is claiming they're all unbelievers.

Thanks for pointing out the different strands and varieties of emergents. The emergent movement is indeed very broad and has churches and pastors that range from Calvinistic and doctrinally conservative all the way to outright heretical. Trying to lump all emergents together is a formidable task. To make matters worse, I think many emergents take pride in being difficult to define and elusive of any specific labels or beliefs. Then they often accuse their critics of misunderstanding or misrepresenting them. But I think Wells is trying to deal with the underlying motives and presuppositions of the emergent movement as a whole. I'm sure not every single "emergent" or "emerging" pastor would agree with him, but painting with broad strokes, I think he's doing a pretty fair job so far.

Though Wells shared the stage with Driscoll at the 2006 Desiring God conference, I did get the sense from a David Wells/Mark Dever interview that Wells still has some strong philosophical disagreements with what Driscoll is doing.