Category Archives: Books

Truth

Today, we pick up in chapter three of The Courage to Be Protestant. This week’s chapter is simply entitled “Truth.”

David Wells spends the first half of this chapter showing how people have become terribly disconnected in our postmodern world. Although we have achieved lightning-fast communication, new technologies for social networking, and unprecedented choices and material comforts, we have somehow lost our “transcendent point of reference” (p. 61). All sense of tradition, virtue, and value has been lost. The essential roles of craft, community, and family, in shaping a person have been replaced by mass production, urbanization, and empty individualism.

This is what David Myers calls the “American paradox” – that we have so much, and yet so little. People are wealthy, but all alone. And this “self into which all reality has contracted is now empty and insubstantial but tinged with the sacred” (p. 69). In other words, people are searching for something spiritual and sacred within themselves, but have lost all sense of absolute truth.

Rather than confronting this situation and offering a real alternative, many churches have exacerbated the problem. Pastors are now saying things like “We need to be more modest” (p. 77) and “Christianity is about the search, not about the discovery (p. 77). [Similarly, I heard Rick Warren say in an interview that a “fundamentalist is somebody who stops listening.” That sounds very much like the idea that absolute truth is arrogant and extremist, and that we should always remain “open” to the validity of other beliefs and perspectives].

The common thread among many academic scholars and emergent church leaders is that “Scripture cannot be fully authoritative at the level of its functioning in the life of the church today. We are in fact autonomous, freed from its language and constraints as we shape our own understanding, in our own way, in the postmodern world” (p. 87). Wells says that most people treat truth like the speed limit. It is somewhat arbitrary and bendable (p. 79).

The Bible, on the other hand, gives a far different perspective on truth. God Himself is utterly true and pure, and thus His self-revelation is entirely truthful (p. 75). The message of the gospel was “a proclamation about truth for all. The gospel, which is the same gospel for all people, in all ages, and at all times, is ‘the word of truth’ ” (p. 76). “Christianity, in short, is from first to last all about truth! It is about he who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (p. 76). We should engage the culture, but never capitulate our claim to truth (p. 92). After all, the church is the very “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

So, far from ignoring or denying or being embarrassed by truth, the church of God should boldly stand up and proclaim the truth. “What truth?,” you may ask. Truth about God, Self, and Christ, the very topics that Wells will address in coming chapters. We will look at chapter four together next week.

This chapter is a critical one. I cannot think of a more important subject than what Wells is addressing here. It really becomes the foundation for everything else that he will say. Please take a moment now to click on the “comments” link and share your own thoughts of the chapter. Don’t feel obligated to write something long or profound. Just a quick impression or short quote is sufficient. I look forward to hearing from you.

Christianity for sale

This week, we come to chapter two of David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant. This chapter is titled “Christianity for Sale.” Having given a basic overview of evangelicalism in chapter one, Wells now hones in on the “marketer” or “seeker-sensitive” church movement.

Wells says that marketers try to operate the church much like a corporation runs its business. In this case, the church is the supplier, attenders are the consumers, and the gospel is the product for sale. Traditional ways of “doing church” are proving to be no longer effective, so like any other business, we must be willing to adapt our image and repackage our product to regain consumer confidence. In a rapidly-changing, image-driven culture, that means adopting new methods like upbeat music, entertaining videos, therapeutic chats, inspiring drama, relaxing coffee houses, slick advertisements, and an open and affirming atmosphere to reach a whole new generation. Some of the more bizarre examples Wells gives are a pastor’s Superman costume (p. 23-24), sacred graffiti (p. 29), and play-doh sculptures to express one’s feelings (p. 29).

Wells pauses his critique briefly on pp. 42-44 to identify two good motives that guide some marketers. First, many churches are rightly concerned that the evangelical faith has stagnated, if not declined, in America over the past thirty years. Many surveys by Gallup and Barna confirm this. (As does the 2007 ACP.) Second, churches are called by God to engage their culture; it would be insensitive to disregard the felt needs and perceptions of first-time visitors. But after this short “cease-fire,” Wells reloads his weapon and says “despite these two main virtues,” the seeker-church model is built on “naivete” that is “breathtakingly unrealistic and untrue” (p. 44).

It seems to me there are two great problems with the market-driven church:

  • First, this model gives authority to the consumer rather than to Holy Scripture. Wells says, “All consumers, we need to remember, are sovereign, and the consuming impulse, once it enters a church, makes individual preferences the deciding factor, the driving factor in what that church becomes. These preferences become the standard by which the church is measured” (p. 38). No longer is success measured by God’s Word. No longer are decisions made by a plurality of wise and godly leaders. Everything is dictated by the felt needs and fickle demands of the people in the pew. This is the exact opposite of what Paul instructed Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:2-3.
  • Second, this model de-emphasizes the importance of doctrinal truth and a biblical worldview. “What we have here are churches reconfigured around evangelism that abandon much of the fabric of biblical faith to succeed…Here is a methodology for success that can succeed with very little truth; indeed, its success seems to depend on not showing much truth” (pp. 51-52). And why is this such a problem? Because the gospel is not a product to be consumed, but a command to be obeyed. “The gospel calls us not to use it but to submit to the God of the universe through his Son. A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith” (p. 52). We cannot downplay doctrine without compromising the gospel message itself.

For next Wednesday, please read chapter three, “Truth.” In the mean time, please share your thoughts and impressions about chapter two by leaving a comment below. I really enjoyed those of you who left comments last week. This is a great iron-sharpening process.

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!

It’s time to read

A few weeks ago, I announced I would be blogging through David Wells’ new book The Courage to Be Protestant and invited you to go on this journey with me.

I know that several people from our church are planning to read the book, and I ordered some copies from Amazon. They shipped last week and should arrive any day. So, I think we are finally ready to begin. Anyone else reading this blog is welcome to participate in our online “book club” as well. The book is divided into seven chapters, and we will read one chapter per week.

For next Wednesday (May 14), please read the Preface and Chapter One: “The Lay of the Evangelical Land.” I will post a blog that day giving a short summary and a few of my thoughts on the chapter. Then, you will be encouraged to share in the comments section a favorite quote or something that struck you.

Here are a couple endorsements of the book to whet your appetite:

“This book has profound and far reaching implications for the church. It helps us understand the roots and differences of the seeker-sensitive, the emergent and the Reformed branches of ‘evangelicalism’ … and then points to the biblical Christ and His grace as the only road to recovery of the gospel.” – www.monergism.com

“Every page is important and every chapter is packed with fascinating content. Rare is the page in my copy of the book that is not stained with substantial amounts of highlighter.” – Tim Challies