David Wells’ latest book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, is one that I found next to impossible to put down once I started reading it. This work truly is the culmination of his theological thought. Wells has published a book that describes the essence of postmodern thought as well as a remedy that enables the Church to return to her historical underpinnings. While I found all three of his works filled with helpful insights and profound analyses, his latest work stands head and shoulders above the others, although it evidently builds on them.
In eight chapters Wells covers a wide range of components and philosophies of modern and postmodern societies. He introduces chapter 1 (Miracles of Modern Splendor) with a captivating line: “We think little about the world. We think about the things that it imposes upon us. We must think about the workplace, about appointments we have made, people we will meet, and jobs that must get done” (p. 13). His opening sentence typifies modern man as well as the 21st century church. For far too many, life is lived almost totally unreflectively. The cheap, tawdry, and superficial gets our attention, but that which requires effort and reflection is easily jettisoned.
Wells tackles the nature of culture and demands that we reflect with him on what it entails and how it affects our lives. As his approach unfolds, he leads us into one of the “watershed” times in the history of the world: the Enlightenment. He juxtaposes Enlightenment thought with the “premodern” era as well as what is called modernism, while at the same time, clearly demonstrating the links between the two eras.
One of the key tenets of Enlightenment thinking has to do with discarding the “God hypothesis.” Man, using his enlightened reason, will bring about a bright future. Wells points out that, “The experience of our modernized world leads us to think of it not only as the absence of God, but as it turns out, the absence of human nature. This is no coincidence. The death of God is always followed by the death of the human being” (p. 48).
Citing C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Wells demonstrates how the evisceration of human nature resulted in the world being “emptied of the possibility of real, objective goodness and real, objective evil” (ibid.).
It was precisely in the “modern period” that three major paradigm shifts occurred. First, there was “the replacement of Virtue by values” (p. 49). Second, there was a shift from “a focus on character to one on personality” (p. 50). In general, this shift was a movement away from the older moral concern with personal restraint and sacrifice and toward self-absorption in the forms of self-realization and self-expression. Finally, these two shifts paved the way for the third major change: “that of speaking of the self in place of human nature” (ibid.). All of this was merely the culmination of Enlightenment thought. Previously, what people believed only God could do, “the Enlightenment now placed within human reach” (p. 53) — at least theoretically. Man’s “belief in human omnicompetence” was supplanted by postmodernism.
I have read quite extensively on postmodernism, but have found Wells’ analysis to be the most helpful by far. He entitles the second chapter “Postmodern Rebellion,” which is apt in a number of ways. Pointing to the secular roots of postmodernism, Wells delineates several cultural contributors including pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, language theory, and theories about science (p. 61).
Yet even though postmodernists desire to sever the ties with the modern past, Wells questions whether they actually accomplish their desires. In fact, he argues that “modernity and postmodernity are actually reflecting different aspects of our modernized culture. They are more siblings in the same family than rival gangs in the same neighborhood” (p. 62). He also makes the valid observation that for the longest time Christianity and Christian scholars were critical of the tenets championed by the Enlightenment. It is not as if there is an equivalent correspondence between Christian living after the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment itself.
What intrigues Wells is how the influence of postmodern intellectuals like Foucault and Derrida filters down to MTV or how the pragmatism of American philosopher Richard Rorty surfaces in our movies. This is what Wells sets out to explain in his cultural analysis.
One of the foundational pillars of postmodern thought is the notion that there are no longer any “meta-narratives.” What is that? A meta-narrative is what gives meaning to life and makes life cohere rather than be fragmented and disjunctive. It is similar to an overarching “presupposition.” Postmodernism rejects any and all meta-narratives (except the meta-narrative that there are no meta-narratives), which lands them directly in nihilism, autonomy, and pragmatism/existentialism.
This, in turn, wreaks havoc on one’s worldview, since postmodernism rejects absolute truth and purpose. Postmodernism is the death knell to all worldviews, except that postmoderns realize that no one can live consistently within such a framework. So their “surrogate” for the modern life and worldview is a privatized version where they “set themselves up autonomously as the acknowledged legislators of the world” so that they can conceptualize reality and shape the nature of life as they please (p. 74).
It is instructive to note that the language and principles of the postmodern philosophers are, more and more, evident in mega-church leaders and their congregations as well as in what is known as the emergent church movement. This consists, among other things, of attempting to join what is really not “join-able.” For example, many emergent leaders wish to deny, discount, or downplay the history of the Church. Wells devotes an informative section in chapter 4 (Christ in a Spiritual World) on the spirituality of postmodernity (The Empty Landscape, My Own Little Voice, and It’s About Me).
He proceeds to discuss Christ in a meaningless world (chapter 5) as well as Christ in a decentered world (chapter 6). In the latter chapter Wells supplies a trenchant analysis of open theology. In the seventh chapter (Megachurches, Paradigm Shifts, and the New Spiritual Quest), Wells examines the “new way of doing church” in postmodernism and offers an excellent critique of serious misgivings and shortfalls of modern evangelicalism as it has been influenced by postmodernism. As a historian, Wells calls us to reflect upon the demise of the churches in Europe and to ask ourselves if modern evangelicalism might not be heading down the same path as its European counterparts.
Wells is convinced that our almost-obsession with reinventing and reengineering the Church (often called “doing church”) in order to reach the postmodern is clearly not the way to go (p. 265). Why? To his mind, the common element in modern evangelical “seeker-sensitive, user-friendly” churches is that “success requires little or no theology” (ibid.). This approach is tantamount to marketing the Christian faith and turning the local congregation into a business more than a church. Of note is that “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite credal affirmations to the contrary” (p. 299).
What is the remedy? What are churches existing in the 21st century to do? Wells makes this conclusion about the place of God’s truth in our modern society: “The fact is that as dazzling as the modern world has become, it has never outgrown its need for this kind of truth, never invalidates it, and therefore the liberal (and now seeker-sensitive) fear of becoming outdated is as groundless as the small child’s nervousness about a monster in the closet” (pp. 300–301).
It is time for the various churches of Jesus Christ to engage in some serious “values clarification.” “If they cannot clarify for themselves who is sovereign—God or the religious consumer?—what is authoritative in practice—Scripture or culture?—and what is important—faithfulness or success?—they will find themselves walking the same road and facing the same fate as the churches that failed before because whatever seriousness now remains will dissolve into triviality” (p. 301). We’ve been warned and warned well.
- Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.