Dr. David Wells's new book, The Courage to Be Protestant, was written as a summary of his last four, though he says in the introduction that it took on a life of its own, needing updating, and prodding Wells to get
to the heart of what he was about in the four books. I met Wells before my first year at Gordon-Conwell, and he was looking forward to the sabbatical when he would be doing the research that led to his book No Place for Truth. He explained that he wanted to look into why evangelicals were not doing theology. His hypothesis was that the media culture had changed the way people processed information. He was looking forward to delving deeper. He offered this hypothesis before I had read Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Ellul, and I found implausible the idea that we had been "rewired." Now I am almost certain that Wells was right. When people in the church think that cultural factors like this are neutral, I now think they are hopelessly naive.
No Place for Truth and the books following offered a rich analysis of how changes in culture had infiltrated the church. A description of an earlier church culture in Wenham, Massachusetts, with its Congregational churches and Sabbath schools and other institutions where people would be raised in a coherent set of Christian moral assumptions, would allow a sympathetic reader who knew there had been changes in the preceding decades to see this as part of a larger decline. The book took in too grand a slice of history to be a Jeremiad. The look backward was wistful. The "Delicious Paradise Lost"-where Wells describes how the Wenham woman's desserts, like cupid's arrow, pierced stomach and heart-was one that still existed in small enclaves, like Wells's own home. He wanted others to be able to enjoy it, for reasons from the most weighty to the most mundane.
The current book is stripped not only of footnotes and obscure references that might have intimidated some potential readers of his earlier books. It is also stripped of much of the specificity that made those books charming-at least to a reader like me. The target audience of this book is clearly different. A reader who enjoyed Wells's last four books and wants a treatment of something such as the title The Courage to Be Protestant suggests is probably looking for a book more like Darryl Hart's Deconstructing Evangelicalism. But The Courage to Be Protestant is one that such a reader can pass onto other colleagues who would be put off by Wells's other books or Hart's book.
If Wells's first book was an attempt to get those who were sympathetic to his outlook to see what the late twentieth century was doing to evangelicalism, the new book seems to be geared to informing those on the verge of taking the next step to pause. Wells asks church growth adherents and Emergents to look at history long enough to note that what they are stepping into is really a Protestant liberalism that is not likely to last more than a generation. If the experiment is bound to fail, then why subject yourself to it? Wells asks his reader to have, as the title suggests, the courage to be Protestant. In our time this may not lead many to martyrdom. But it will require courage to ignore the marketing statistics and all the other demands to be relevant and keep a steady course rooted in eternal truth.
Wells himself notes how his critics have faulted him in the past for having much more to offer by way of diagnosis than prescription. He argues that many kinds of prescriptions suffer from the very illnesses with which we are afflicted. They are the world of technique. He continues in his section on the church to offer some theological reflections that might help us, if not in practice, at least in outlook. It is here I think that the consequences of some early choices make the book somewhat confusing. As a Lutheran, I am bound to disagree with Wells's treatment of the sacraments. But there is a deeper problem. Some of this stems from an irony in his original project. When Wells decided to ask why evangelicals weren't doing theology, that itself was not a theological question. You could ask it as a theological question if you were expecting a theological answer of the sort that Dana Carvey's church lady from Saturday Night Live might have offered, i.e. "Could it be Satan?" No. Wells was out to study the matter in a more sociological vein. What cultural factors were making evangelicals less inclined to do theology? I think that initial question was worth asking. If I remember correctly from class, Wells also had a definition of theology where it was a timely response to current questions, in distinction from doctrine, which was a timeless response to an age-old question. So the initial book seemed to straddle the boundaries between genres, and to a good end. It wanted to discover why in our given cultural moment evangelicals were not doing theology, and tried at points to bring some theological insights into the conversation that might at least partially rectify the situation.
The current book does so less successfully, I think. Some sections seem to be headings one could find in a dogmatics book (e.g., God, Christ, and Church). And you can find mention of church doctrines in these sections; for example, Wells's intriguing discussion of how Luther's "hidden" and "revealed" categories for the church might be more useful than the often misused "visible" and "invisible." But these sections are not really positive theological statements. In Wells's discussion of the marks of the church, when he discusses the sacraments being properly administered, he limits the discussion to a warning against understanding the sacraments in a way that would work against "Christ alone." His treatment is so general that while "sacraments" has six entries in the index, neither "baptism" nor "Lord's Supper" has an entry. ("Moral norms" has 42 entries!) Now why did Wells do this? The reason could be theological. Wells might honestly believe that this is the only live way in which churches are commonly threatened with not being true churches through their sacramental practice. Only when the sacraments are offered as rival saviors are they injurious. All sorts of practices may be done that may not be exactly on target biblically, but they don't threaten the community's status as a true church. This is one possibility. In fact, I find it quite likely he holds this. But the reader also sees the possibility that writing to evangelicals meant that speaking of distinctive doctrines was inappropriate, as it would break the contract with the reader as to what would be civil. The rules are different when clearly written from a confessional community. It is one thing for a Presbyterian book to press upon a reader that the sacraments are to be dispensed only by a minister lawfully ordained. And an old Presbyterian might really believe that this disqualified a community that had a contrary practice from being a true church. If I read a Presbyterian book, I may run into distinctive doctrines. I should expect this. But what is the contract when I open an evangelical book? That is a tough question. All the tougher if the book is already straddling genres. Several of Wells's decisions about general approach may be defended. But I think they converge to obscure what he is doing here in a way that should have been recognized and addressed more directly. I am never surprised when Wells has an answer for his critics. I think that some of the questions they bring up, however, are the result of expectations raised by the forms of discourse chosen.
Thankfully, the reader to whom the book is addressed is not likely to read the book in this fashion. If you don't generally read theology books, you won't know what to expect from these headings. If you haven't been in discussions of the marks of the church, you won't know what is at stake when a community is missing those marks. The intended reader will likely run into insights of a sort not available in the local megachurch. And I'll be happy if such conversations are stirred. If writing books like this is able to draw some back from joining Emergent churches or megachurches because they sense an intellectual solidity rooted in generations of theological reflection, so much the better.
When No Place for Truth came out, it made a huge splash. This was possible in part because Wells took his own advice: ignore the marketing gurus and do what you know to be inherently worthwhile. His current book is good wherever it followed that course. Where it was tailored to be more accessible, I think it lost some of its savor. I look forward with greatest anticipation to David Wells's next inaccessible book.
Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Issue: "Evangelicalism's Winter?" Nov./Dec. 2008 Vol. 17 No. 6 Page number(s): 52-53
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