A Voice Calling in the Wasteland?

Those on Facebook and/or Goodreads will already have read the guts of this post as it is largely a review of David F. Wells book "God in the Wasteland" Subtitled "The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams". You can imagine from that that it doesn't have many laughs in it, indeed as I posted on Facebook it is a tough read... I bought it nearly 10 years ago originally and it took me 3 or 4 false starts before I got through it. But it is worthwhile, because, again as I said on my facebook post about it, I believe when it was written nearly 20 years ago now, it was a prophetic word in the wilderness of contemporary evangelicalism... and one that has, sadly, largely gone unheeded...
On Goodreads I gave it a 3/5 rating, which, for those uninitiated in that site means "I liked it" but it also reflects the fact that throughout the book I found myself agreeing with the author and being frustrated by him in roughly equal measures... 
Dealing with the frustrations first I found that he was treading similar ground to that covered by both Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness from an overtly evangelical context, yet there were only two fleeting references to the latter's work and none to the former... The fact that many of the warnings of these earlier writers, who were both deep thinkers and powerful communicators have also been ignored by the church did not bode well for the impact of this much less populist tome.
Secondly, as a Wesleyan I was also never going to entirely buy his thoroughly Calvinist perspective - his recommendation that the church needs to focus on holiness and truth, comes across slightly differently in a Wesleyan tradition that defines holiness in terms of "perfect love", however, taking that into account, I think he may be on to something... and the insights of writers like Hauerwas and Wink may be helpful in exploring what that actually looks like. [By the way, I write this in a week when Walter Wink has died. Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.]
But the biggest frustration was his contention that many of the ills he was identifying were features of modernity, whereas most would suggest that they were classic features of post-modernity... I put a lot of that down to the fact it was written in 1994, before thinking on post-modernity was particularly widespread in the church. Then, towards the end of the book he revealed that he didn't see the sharp discontinuity between modernity and post-modernity that others do, which is actually something I could accept... It would, however, have been helpful to have explained that before launching in to his critique of modernity and the church... and saved me a lot of ink devoted to scribbling in the margin...
But having aired all that, I say again that much of what he writes about is truly prophetic, raising important questions regarding various aspects of contemporary evangelicalism, including the church growth movement, "seeker sensitive worship", "the church in the markeplace", individualism and the retreat from the public sphere into the private. Actually, I found his definition of the private sphere an interesting and perhaps even more devastating one than that which is usually held, ie. that of a reduction of Christian faith into a system of personal piety... He would also see the church's retreat into dealing purely with local outreach as a feature of the privatisation of Christian faith, which is something few would recognise. 
In an era where there is much whining about the secularisation of society and how the church is being pushed out of the public sphere (and there is a concerted attempt by some militant secular humanists to do this), the thesis of this book might suggest that we are retreating from the public sphere as quickly as we are being actively expelled. It is, I believe, an exercise of spiritual/theological and intellectual cowardice... a position close to that repeatedly outlined by Guinness. I would also contend that in many ways the culture-war battles  of the past 2 decades are a smokescreen to cover that retreat... Stir up contention and that makes it seem that we are being forced out of areas of society where we already feel ill-equipped to contribute/thrive, while in other areas where we can get people to adopt a pre-modern analysis, then we can maintain the illusion that Christendom is alive and well... I would be interested to read his analysis of the "culture-war" approach to the public sphere... its advocates may claim that they are simply "speaking with a different voice", as Wells argues that we should do in his book... but he argues for intellectual rigour (or should that be rigor since he is an American?) which has not been a feature of those on the conservative side of the culture wars.
Getting back to the book there are times when I believe he unhelpfully confuses the psycho-social/therapeutic model of the contemporary church with the consumerist/commercial thinking which pervades the church growth approach, although they both probably stem from the same ills of the modern world ie. the narcissistic need for individuals to have their own personal needs met in everything... This reaches its zenith (or nadir depending on your perspective) in the more post-modern manifestations of the contemporary church, and, again, it might be interesting to have his take on some aspects of the Emergent movement.
There aren't many reasons to be cheerful in this book, or, to be honest, many easy answers. Most depressing was the fact that towards the end of the book he looks at some research done among American evangelical seminarians in the early 1990s... effectively my transatlantic peers... showing that like students in every age they saw the failings of the church then and had identified a theological deficit as a key problem... Many predicted a further division within evangelicalism between conservative and "liberal", and some were sadly comfortable with that... It is interesting to see, 20 years on that those college insights are coming to fruition, with the neo-Calvinists and the fracturing of evangelicalism along various faultlines... However, another finding was that despite their theological professions, their beliefs didn't actually make much difference to their practice... at the end of the day, there was a huge element of pragmatic compromise with the world at work... And that is still true in many ways...
As a result the wasteland has become yet more wasted... But God is still in the midst of it... the wasteland that is the church itself and the wider world... He's still speaking through his prophets in the wasteland... The question is whether we are ready to listen and respond?!
Shalom

Comments

Andrew Kenny said…
Hi David, you might like to consider putting a wee search engine on your blog so that your readers can check up what you opinion is on all things sublime and ... They're also useful for yourself to check up previous posts. Certainly I've found it useful on my own blog.
By the way how is your big son getting on? I hope he's well on the mend.
had previously used the blogger search tool in the top left hand corner, but following your advice I have now installed the Google tool in the sidebar... Thanks.

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