Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Book Review: David Wells' God in the Wasteland

I recently completed David F. Wells’ excellent book God in the Wasteland; The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. This book was intended as a sequel to the author’s earlier book No Place for Truth. The book is particularly good and makes a variety of excellent points. Wells’ central point is that the church is too affected by secular culture and seems almost unaware of the effects the world is having on it. Among these effects is that the church no longer takes morality, character or theology seriously enough. Instead, people who call themselves Christians tend to really be consumers who assemble an eclectic set of religious beliefs to their own liking. Many churches in turn seek to cater to this because of their very modern attitude that all problems in life can be dealt with through psychology, management and marketing (even though this is not true). Wells correctly identifies the solution to this problem as a re-emphasis on proper doctrine and good theology. If we are going to see the world as it really is, we need to look to God and seek Him first. If we begin to see God clearly, everything else will come into proper perspective. Wells suggests that we have underestimated the holiness of God and failed to fully appreciate His transcendence, while at the same time we have overemphasized the imminence of God to the point of seeing Him as a magical genie who exists to provide us with self-fulfillment and what Francis Schaeffer would call “personal peace and affluence.” (Speaking of Schaeffer, his classic The Church in the 20th Century is an even more excellent book on the same sort of subject.)

My only criticism of Wells is two-fold. First, he is very critical of the structure of modern capitalism without what I would consider the necessary disclaimers. While it is true that there are things in this economic system that hurt the poor and create among ordinary people an attitude that everything is for their personal benefit, it is also true that every other economic system known to the world has even worse side effects, drawbacks and problems. Perhaps Wells is well aware of this, but I don’t believe that he addressed it adequately in the book. One got the impression that it might be that it would be a happy thing to return to feudalism or to have socialism. Under those systems the poor are even worse off and there are even greater inequities and problems. But this first criticism of mine is not a criticism of what Wells said, but rather, of what he did not say.

Second, in some ways Wells is affected by the very modernism he criticizes. He criticizes the modernism of Hobbs, while falling at times into what appears to be the modernism of Rousseau. At least that is the impression created in my mind by the tone of his critiques of modernism and post-modernism. Part of his own modernism is also his use of extensive polling data. A close examination of the questions of the polling data shows that they were overly ambiguous and could be interpreted as resulting from a variety of internal polling phenomena as opposed to being an accurate reflection of the worldview and thought processes of the people surveyed. Since Wells did not write the surveys, he had to take what he was given. But I am not sure that the data he had to work with are completely accurate or explainable in the ways he supposes.

Nevertheless, these are minor quibbling criticisms. Overall, this is an excellent book and I recommend that people read it. Wells is really correct in stating that we need to recognize that we have been overly affected by the assumptions of the world in which we live. We have too often come to assume that “if it works for me” that is enough to accept something or believe in it. At the same time, we allow other people to do “what works for them” without criticism or objective evaluation. Ignoring the fact that God is the center and meaning of life, we effectively deprive life of its meaning, living as though we were “like those who have no hope.” We have been far too willing to compromise doctrine and objective truth in order to get a larger market share of Christians attending our church. We have been far too willing to conform to the group expectations of the world while at the same time being individualistic and rebellious against God’s moral principles.

While Wells’ theology would cause him to reject the label of prophet, his book is a timely, prophetic scolding of an errant church. Instead of seeking market share, the church needs to seek God and take both God and His revealed word far more seriously. God’s truth and commands need to be more important to us than the “felt needs” of our post-modern congregants. As I have often said in this blog, we need to return to a belief in and pursuit of objective propositional truth. We need the real Jesus, the God of the whole Bible, not an idol that mirrors our own desires. We need sound theology based on what we can see in the Bible, not a philosophy of how little we can know because we focus on man. God must be the center.

2 comments:

Dean McConnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dean McConnell said...

If you are interested in God in the Wasteland, you should read Well's chapter in the new book God and Governing.