In his newest book, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), David Wells launches a stinging critique of contemporary evangelicalism, particularly in its market-driven and Emerging forms. Bundling together the insights from his previous books, Wells advocates a return to doctrinal fidelity and a renewed trust in Scriptural authority.
David Wells reminds me of a curmudgeonly grandfather – a man full of wisdom who is also highly opinionated. The Courage to Be Protestant contains piercing insights into the problems of today’s evangelical movement along with a good dose of “attitude” that keeps the book entertaining. (Take for example Wells’ description of the hip-hop culture “set apart by their getups, their tattoos, their piercings, jewelry, hoodies, off-kilter baseball caps, and pants that look like they were made by a drunken tailor.” )
Wells is at his best when offering insight into why our culture is going through its contemporary turmoil. He rightly notices how our terminology has shifted (for example, we no longer look at lost people as “unconverted” but as merely “unchurched” .) He sees through the market-driven mentality of many churches, where “the benefits of believing [Christianity] are marketed, not the truth from which the benefits derive. (53)”
Wells’ chapter on God is terrific. He writes: “Culture does not give the church its agenda. All it gives the church is its context. The church’s belief and mission come from the Word of God.” (98) He argues that we have lost our center, and this because we have lost the God that is outside of ourselves. We have misunderstood God’s nearness and immanence as if he were inside us. The truth of the God that stands outside of us is what gives us the Law, defines sin, and makes the cross necessary. Here, Wells calls us to recover God’s transcendence.
In later chapters, he makes his case for the public nature of Christian truth claims. Particularly insightful is the way that Wells shows how many Christians have become both secular and spiritual. “Secularization does not mean that all religion and spirituality must wither away. It simply means that all religion and spirituality need to be kept private.” (187) Wells articulates a robust understanding of the penal substitutionary atonement, and yet he nuances it in all the right places. For instance, he believes we should make the distinction that Christ took upon himself the penalty of our sin, not that he was punished for sin. (201). In other words, God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus; God did not condemn Jesus.
Yet The Courage to Be Protestant has several problems. Wells puts too much stock in surveys and polls. For example, he worries that only 32 percent of evangelicals believe in absolutes (93). I cannot help but wonder if most evangelicals even speak in these categories enough to be able to answer such a survey question accurately.
Other times, he makes sweeping generalizations without the documentation to back up his point. For example, he argues (without any documentation) that the overwhelming majority of evangelical pastors have become seeker-sensitive (44). A brief glance at the layout of the large number of smaller, rural evangelical churches might change that perception.
Or take his common refrain that Americans are “spiritual, but not religious” (60, 185). Researchers are beginning to see how this generalization is not only undocumented, but simply untrue. (See Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers for some surprising statistics.)
Throughout the book, Wells advocates a return to the doctrinal convictions of previous eras, but he sometimes conflates doctrinal conviction with the re-adoption of certain forms and traditions not specifically prescribed in Scripture. In a terrific chapter that takes the evangelical church to task for making Christianity “for sale” through the embrace of a market mentality, Wells shows how consumerism has changed American evangelicalism. But the chapter is marred by his lament over the contemporary preacher who sits on a barstool (which replaced the Plexiglas stand, which earlier replaced the pulpit). Wells seems to think the pulpit is the most sacred place for a pastor to stand (29). The absence of pulpits might indeed be due to the market mentality of some mega-churches, but surely the answer to our consumerism is not merely returning to the pulpit!
Other problems surface in some of Wells’ contradictions. For example, on page 80, he argues that “Scripture is… the truth. Scripture is not only a measure, not only a standard, but is also truth.” Two pages later, he distinguishes between Jesus and Scripture by saying “Scripture is true, but he is the truth.” And then, “…only of Christ can it be said that he is the truth.” Without further elaboration, the reader is left wondering what the relationship between Jesus and the Bible might be.
The Courage to Be Protestant is a book that should be read and digested by evangelical leaders today. Most of Wells’ analysis is correct. He puts his finger on many of the foundational problems that are corroding our evangelical identity. Though his tone is often pessimistic and he offers little evidence or hope for a resurgence of biblical orthodoxy, Wells’ counsel and instruction are worthy of receiving and hearing. Readers may disagree at times with the “grumpy Grandpa,” but I, for one, am glad that the wise curmudgeon had the courage to write such a book.
written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.
Check out SaidatSouthern.com for a chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Courage to Be Protestant.