The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World
by David F. Wells
Grand Rapds: Eerdmans, 2008, 248 pp., hardcover.
Emergents - at least those who read theology - seem to have stumbled on the postliberals...They have taken up this fad as if it were the most current, cutting-edge expression in contemporary thought, though in the academic world it has already disappeared (16).I've heard a leading emerging writer mock those who compare them to old-school liberalism, and then follow that up with a talk that fit perfectly with mainline liberal beliefs, so I think Wells is accurate here, and while emerging types can vary a great deal in their conversation, the defining characteristics of liberalism define them as well. That is, a contempt for inerrancy, a fondness for a Darwinian evolutionary approach to science, a desire to be tolerant in areas where the Bible is firm, and much talk of the poor and social justice without much emphasis on sin that may be a root cause for many of those problems.
Much "born again" religion is simply cultural spirituality that has no doctrinal moorings, inspires little or no Christian commitment, and often opposes itself to the institutional church and to Christian truth. As a slice of American religion, it is interesting. As a barometer of Christian believing, it should be taken with a grain of salt (43).Wells then skewers the common church-marketing view that doctrine is a problem. Referencing Thom Rainer's studies, Wells reports that 88% of the formerly unchurched who began attending were looking for doctrine. He continues,
The beliefs of the church were important to 91 percent (55).That's encouraging, except that too many churches aren't providing sound Biblical teaching.
Truth is the correspondence between an object and our knowledge of it...This understanding of truth makes two assumptions. The first is the existence of an observable, objective world outside the human subject. This world is not the construction of the mind...Second, it is assumed that we can know the events of life in a way that corresponds to what happened, fallible though we are (72, 73).This view is simply common sense and reflects how sane people live, even if they claim not to believe the correspondence view. That's why traffic lights generally work to control the flow of traffic, and why most people are horrified when someone attempts to creates their own reality in which a red light is an invitation to accelerate.
A line connects (I. Howard) Marshall and (N. T.) Wright to (Rob) Bell and (Brian) McLaren. It is that the authority of God functions separately from the written Scriptures. Marshall thinks the Spirit has liberated us from some of what is in Scripture; Wright thinks the Scriptures were never given to function as absolute truth in our world in the first place; Bell thinks the Scriptures simply send us on our way to do our own thinking; McLaren thinks historic faith needs to be de-constructed for postmoderns so that the baggage of enduring truth can be dropped (87).The remainder of the chapter discusses this rejection of Scriptural authority in more detail.
The cross was not an accident. It was planned in eternity, and it was for this, Jesus said, that he had come. He had come to die. And in his moment of death the holiness of God and our sin collided (129).He goes on to emphasize the Biblical call to holiness:
If we could see more clearly God in the full blaze of his burning purity, we would not be on easy terms with all the sins that now infect our souls and breed easy compromises with the spirit of the postmodern age...If we could see this more clearly, the church would be filled with much more repentance and, in consequence, much more joy, and much more authenticity (133).The chapter ends with a call to return to a rediscovery of the "outside" God revealed in Scripture.
In one College Board survey of almost a million high school children in America, only 2 percent rated themselves below average in leadership ability. When it came to getting along with others, 0 percent (yes, zero!) rated themselves below average, 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent and 25 percent in the top 1 percent! (139)No shortage of self-esteeem there, just as we see in subjects like math where Americans view themselves highly while scoring poorly on standardized tests. Too bad success isn't guaranteed by self-esteem, nor is bad behavior tied to poor self-esteem--quite the opposite. A read of a study (not in this book) showing that many criminals in prison have an above-average sense of self-esteem.
A renewed Protestantism...will have about it a joyous sense of knowing God, of knowing him through his Son, of being able to live in his world on his terms and celebrating his sovereign rule over all of it (174).Chapter VI brings us to Christ. Wells first examines general spirituality, and then dives into the Biblical description of Christ. The section From Above describes what sets Christ apart from our fallen world and then explains,
The incarnation was for the atonement. The atonement was about Christ's conquest over sin, death, and the devil so that the whole of life might be cleansed and restored, that Christ's reign might be established, uncontested, and unobstructed. We are not there yet, but we are moving toward this great moment (197).An explanation of justification and penal substitution follows, and the chapter concludes with a powerful call to Biblical preaching:
It was truth, not private spirituality, that apostolic Christianity was about. It was Christ, not the self, who offered access into the sacred. It was Christ, with all his painful demands of obedience, not comfortable country clubs, that early Christianity was about. What God had done in space and time when the world was stood on its head was Christianity's preoccupation, not the multiplication of programs, strobe lights, and slick drama. Images we may want, entertainment we may desire, but it is the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen that is the church's truth to tell (207).If you didn't appreciate that, don't read this book.
...is an outpost of the kingdom, a sign of things to come in God's sovereign rule...it lives in this world, but it lives because is has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. This is the knowledge that changes everything. Business savvy, organizational wizardry, cultural relevance are simply no substitute for this. Unless the Lord rebuilds the evangelical church today, as we humble ourselves before him and hear afresh his Word, it will not be rebuilt (248).Amen! I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the state of evangelicalism in a world and church adrift in postmodern thought.