Exegeting Our Self-Worshiping Culture
The massacre in Littleton, Colorado, is branded vividly on our collective consciousness, as are the senseless killings in Jonesborough, Arkansas; Paducah, Kentucky; and Oklahoma City. I began this review as reports flashed across television screens that stock trader Mark Barton had murdered his family of three before going on a murderous rampage through Atlanta's day-trading community. Before I finished, Buford Furrow, impassioned by neo-Nazi convictions, sprayed bullets at Jewish toddlers in Los Angeles. What has gone wrong in our country? Is America on the verge of moral meltdown?
In this maelstrom of moral decline, David Wells's latest book, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, could not be more appropriate. This is the third in a series of books exploring the cultural context of the American evangelical church. His first book, No Place for Truth, functioned as his cultural prolegomenon. It was followed by a second, God in the Wasteland, in which he analyzed the contemporary understanding of God, and now, in this third volume, he turns his attention to a cultural analysis of theological anthropology. Wells justifies his foray into sociology by arguing that the theologian's task is not only to articulate doctrinal truths (as important as that is) but also to interpret the culture in order to determine how it affects the Church.
In a nutshell, Wells's book is about the decline and fall of modern American culture and what this means for the evangelical church. He brings forward a plethora of sociological studies, both sacred and secular, which make the case that our modern society has abandoned all for one single absolute-the individual self. Although most are aware of such statistics, it is nevertheless startling to read that "67 percent of Americans do not believe in the existence of moral absolutes." With such moral bankruptcy in view, Wells argues that Americans have exchanged a right understanding of the self as a moral being created in the image of God for a self-absorption that has lost its connectedness to God and, thus, to any moral absolute. Sin, he believes, has been "domesticated to accommodate secular theories of the self." The results would be comical if they were not so sad. In the place of the Redeemer, modern culture has sought its salvation in therapy, materialism, consumption, fashion, and cosmetic surgery. Our narcissistic culture, says Wells, is therefore traveling blindly with no moral compass.
One of the consequences of the cultural shift in moral terrain has been the way in which guilt has been exchanged for shame. For Wells, our sense of guilt, which alerts us to our sin, has been replaced by an amoral and amorphous feeling of shame. If guilt calls for forgiveness, shame seeks self-acceptance. This shift from guilt to shame creates a worldview in which the self becomes the fulcrum and good or bad is determined by whether or not the self is served. When guilt morphs into shame, our orientation fixes on how we are being viewed by others, rather than by God.
This cultural reorientation creates enormous internal contradictions between our creation in the image of God and the wreckage of that image by sin. No matter how much one may repress his or her moral sense, Wells argues, the image of God ensures that tension will result. In the final analysis, creatures made in the image of God cannot live as if there were no moral absolutes without spiritual-psychological dissonance.
Wells does not exegete the decline of contemporary culture for its own sake, but for its significance for the Church. Indeed, the Church rather than the culture is his main interest. On the one hand, he sees the rotting of modern morality as an "opportunity" for the Church to address the moral decay in our culture. "As evening descends upon America," he writes, "the prospects for Christian faith, I believe, could be bright." But on the other hand, this opportunity could slip through evangelical fingers if it does not recapture its moral authenticity. Wells worries that the evangelical church is ill-equipped to address the real issues. He observes in the Church the "erosion of its theological character, its unwitting worldliness and its inability to think clearly and incisively about the culture and the growing barbarism of that culture." He argues that in our modern evangelical churches "God is now so much more mellow than he used to be and the focus of our interest in him centers in the relief he can provide for our frayed private lives." Putting it rather bluntly, he concludes that the evangelical American church is a "moral pygmy," and he issues this sober warning: "Unless it recovers some spiritual gravity, some seriousness, some authenticity, indeed unless it recovers the substance of classical spirituality, the evangelical church will rapidly become an irrelevance in the modern world."
He offers this remedy to a prosperous but aimless evangelical church: Return to classical Christian theology and recover the high morality and intellectual vigor of the sixteenth and seventeenth century church. Then, and only then, will the Church be able to address the moral malaise that threatens to topple American culture. That, he argues, is the only possible hope for a culture in moral free fall. Like the fall of the Roman Empire, American culture is teetering on the verge of moral collapse. The evangelical church is the only hope for a culture in moral decline. But if the Church is lost in the fog of postmodernism, if it has no firm theology to offer this collapsing empire, then the Church can do nothing to prevent this downward spiral. Wells is convinced that Christianity does indeed have a solid answer to the moral collapse of America-it is classical Reformed theology. The message of his book is that a church without a solid theology has nothing to say to a culture in moral decline.
In this book, as in the previous two, Wells writes as a modern-day prophet crying in the wilderness for the evangelical church to return to theological faithfulness. Wells is torn between his ecclesiology (with St. Matthew's ringing affirmation that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church) and his Augustinian anthropology. On the one hand, his Reformed outlook compels him to see the Church as the only hope for a self-worshiping culture. But on the other hand, alarmed by foreboding statistics and the stark reality of an anemic and sometimes pathetic Church, his powerful pessimism parades between every line of the book. In a sense, Wells's melancholy reminds us that we are living in the already-not yet tension of this age. I suspect many of us (whether we care to admit it or not) live our lives in a kind of purgatory between hope and despair, where we are frustrated with the rank Pelagianism of the TV preachers, yet at other times are encouraged by the thoughtful and penetrating cultural analysis of theologians such as David Wells. One may grow weary of the relentless pessimism, but we need to take this book seriously if we are rightly to understand modern America and seek the only remedy for what ails her.
The underlying question which haunts every sentence in this book is this: Does the evangelical church have the theological depth to speak to the important issues of the day? Wells's answer is unsettling, for he fears that the evangelical church itself has succumbed to the moral relativism in this postmodern age and thus is morally adrift and at a loss to provide leadership. Despite his discouragement about the Church, Wells holds out a glimmer of hope. "Could it be that the evangelical faith, once again made serious, once again possessed of biblical truth and moral fiber, could serve America today as it did England in the eighteenth century, when slavery was abolished and that nation was turned back from its barbarism?" Wells is right. The Church has the answer to the barbarism of Littleton, Colorado, the pervasive moral indifference and the rampant dysfunctionalism of our culture; it is nothing other than the life-transforming, intellectually stimulating, historic Gospel. That, as Luther might say, "is to grab the goose by the neck."