Wells on Christianity and Culture

(Disclaimer: I do not have a degree in philosophy, sociology or history. These are just my reactions and thoughts on a book I’m reading for school.  I welcome conversation. Please feel free to push me on any of these issues… or correct me, if need be. Thanks.)

I am attempting to read ahead for class next week, so I picked up the book Above all earthly pow’rs: Christ in a postmodern world by David F. Wells (professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary).  So far, is has been an interesting read.  He tackles the issue of the shift in culture from modernity to postmodernity and does not hesitate to give his opinion, as a Christian, on the virtue or the ills of either cultural wave.

He makes some excellent points about the Enlightenment’s misplaced faith in human nature and human ability to solve problems and pursue truth.  He also lays out what I believe to be a much-needed critique of capitalism and its relentless pursuit of profit, the value it places on consumerism, pleasure and choice.  He even calls into question the American right to happiness, placed so prominently in our Constitution. My spirit resonates with these critiques and insights.

Wells does not work very hard to hide his bitter attitude toward modern or postmodern culture.  He speaks in glowing terms of the years BEFORE modernity, before the Enlightenment took hold and “exorcised God” from culture. He speaks of the “innocence” of America before industrialization and technology.  Can’t say I completely agree technology certainly makes it easier for the average person to access pornography or the personal information of pretty much anyone anywhere; makes it possible for them to do whatever they want to do (good or bad).  However, I am not so sure human beings were any more innocent before the Enlightenment.  I am not a history expert, or even a history buff, but from the little I’ve read and from the conversations I have had with professors of history, I believe human beings have always found ways to be selfish, to be consumers, gluttonous and evil.  We have also always found some ways to be good (glimpses of the image of God still present here and there?). Technology makes it possible for us to help more people in more places who are suffering.  It enables us to connect with people far away, to learn about them and from them.  Any new cultural shift or cultural wave has its godly and ungodly aspects.

In our recent church history class, I learned that perhaps the rise of “Reason” above “faith” (in the 16/1700’s) was due to the violence and corruption of that period in European history.  The years following the reformation were bloody and groups of people were clamoring for power and wealth, as they always will— including Christians of various stripes.  Perhaps the lauding of reason was a needed corrective at that time.  Maybe it was a good and right thing to call for reasonable thought and action, as opposed to waging bloody war over doctrine.  But it was not all good.  The Enlightenment certainly created an idol in human reason.

Back to the issue of society’s innocence before the Enlightenment set us on the course toward modernism… I disagree strongly with this assumption from Wells.  I believe it depends on perspective.  Perhaps for those in positions of comfort and privilege this was true. Perhaps they lived quiet, moral lives and participated in society as good citizens would, following the rules that were for the good of all.  But injustice and oppression and greed and violence have been around since human rebellion against God.  I find it naive to say that human beings (or society) were more innocent before the Enlightenment than after.  Children, slaves and women, people of certain ethnicities and beliefs were abused and oppressed before the Enlightenment.  The poor were neglected and jailed before the Enlightenment.  Is it worse to actively do these things, or to fail to respond to them and remain good quiet citizens who mind their own business? I’m not sure.  My question: How exactly were we more innocent then?

Wells also takes issue with the rise of “self” in modern culture. He views the self as a fabrication, a replacement for moral virtue, having its own inherent value and personality, freeing us from need to be good.  Again, I agree that this emergence of “self” has a downside… a very large narcissistic (hedonistic?) downside.  But, again, from the perspective of someone from a voiceless group or an oppressed group, this rise of self, of individual voice, is a great gift.  It allows them the dignity to speak, to be a dissenting voice against oppression and injustice.

I have only just begun to read his section on postmodernity, but so far, he appears extremely critical of the dominance of the “micro-narrative” above the moral “meta-narrative.”  And again, I have to say that for those who have seen or experienced the immorality of the moral majority, I can understand why they hold on to their “micro-narrative.”  Any narrative has its problems, its sinful nature, for they are all tainted by our human nature, our vulnerability to corruption when we get our hands on power (and this includes some Christian groups, past and present).

Okay, to end the rambling and wrap this up– I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a little frustrated by Well’s generalizations and raving against these cultural waves.  Each have come upon the Western world for a reason. Each have responded to the problems of society in their own fallen way.  I guess what I was hoping for in a book such as this, is a critique of culture that recognizes how God is at work despite our many failings in human society… and might I say, our failings as the Church in society.  We are not perfect and have been vulnerable to immorality as well. The stories are real and demand our humility, even while we do our best to communicate God’s Love, Grace and Truth.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dennis Kuhns (Dad)
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 20:31:31

    I really enjoyed your review and interaction with Wells. You are developing a very insightful and critical mind. Keep it up!!


  2. Sarah
    Apr 19, 2008 @ 14:14:24

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts very much. I like the idea of giving voice to narratives that have been marginalized, or at least rereading texts that have been (mis)interpreted and that have had meaning imposed onto them. What I do like about postmodernism is the notion of deconstruction. There are many aspects of the Bible that people are not reading. The beauty of God’s text is that it will hold up. We should not be afraid to deeply interrogate the narratives contained there. We should analyze the word choices, narrative techniques, etc. The deeper you dig, the richer it is.


  3. krisanneswartley
    Apr 19, 2008 @ 16:32:44

    Agreed! I have really enjoyed that aspect of my seminary experience at Biblical Seminary. They have some great profs who teach the narrative approach, and I have found it inspiring… I never looked for the beautiful patterns in the stories before (never really knew or understood story patterns). I also never realized the power and meaning in repetition of symbols or even action. It’s amazing stuff!


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