Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David F. Wells

In my quest to read all of the series of David F. Wells’ quartet of books (No Place for TruthGod in the Wasteland, and the Courage to be Protestant including this book) led me to “Losing Our Virtue” where Wells continues his critique of modernity and the Church. This book begins with a brief recapitulation of what was discussed in “No Place” and “Wasteland” before descending into his main thesis: the loss of virtue in our postmodern culture.

In times past, virtue was seen as in the community. These were traits, like honor, that were universally accepted by a community and were seen as objective sources of truth. Through the ages, particularly in modernization, this turned into “virtue” and then finally, “values.” Today, values are things that literally, people value. But values cannot be objective because each individual has their preference on which values they… value. Therein lies the conundrum of modernity: we have left the realm of objectivity to a subjective baseline that relegates the once high status of virtues for a “have it your way” system that is reminiscent of our fast food choices. The individual reigns supreme as overlord of our own personal world, where each touchy subject is not based on any truth, but rather on preference. In essence, God has been replaced by moral self centeredness and individualism in our country and, even more frighteningly, our Churches.

Wells demonstrates this through several mediums. First, he shows how litigation has become a way to avoid the acceptance of blame. Instead of taking responsibility for one’s actions, our first instinct is to have a lawyer argue in your favor to shift the blame somewhere else. Second, he speaks about how psychology today has become a way of salvation for modernity. If you have a problem in your marriage, simply go to a psychotherapist who will ensure you that you are not to blame for your problems but your parents or some other person was at fault. They even have a gospel message that tells you that the evil you experience in life is a by-product of not getting in touch with the “real you” and that by tapping into your inner potential, you can become successful and rich. Third, Wells’ sees a similar problem in the medium of advertisements. The gospel message here is that you are deficient because you do not have this or that product. But, you can attain the ideal (read: salvation) only after you buy and use this or that product.

Wells speaks at length at how shame and guilt have been redefined by our culture. Wells argues that shame and guilt are necessary by-products of each other in a world dominated by moral decisions. Wells defines the two in saying: “…guilt is normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm, and shame is our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (page 130). In other words, guilt is a response to sin and shame is a response to not being what we ought to be. Therefore, shame runs supreme in our culture because when we make mistakes or violate moral codes, we are ashamed not because we believe we have done anything wrong but because we are not fulfilling the potential within ourselves. Guilt then, is a response to being unacceptable before a holy God. It is clear to see then, that shame does not always act in a moral medium but is rather subjective from the individual. Wells argues that we have transitioned out of a phase of feeling guilty over our wrongs to one that is shameful that we are not our ideal.

The crescendo of Wells’ book happens when he looks at honor in the context of the Bible. It is God who bestowed on us honor at creation by giving us human capacities (the conscious and therefore the soul). Then again, even more gloriously, at the rebirth of salvation. Therefore, Christ bore the shame (remember: the “disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are”) of our lives on the cross and has clothed us with righteousness. He then says that someday there will be a judgement and everything will be exposed. But for the Christian, this will be much less difficult for we are justified through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.

Lastly, he explores what this means for the Church. He speaks of the pervasive individualism of our psychologized culture with their false gospels. He rightly suggests that today subjects like sin are often times greatly downplayed because it will not appeal to a generation of people who like to feel good about themselves instead of facing the harsh reality that we are a fallen people. He says,

“In a highly pluralistic, commercially driven, secular culture such as ours, this kind of understanding of the human predicament seems to be a remote possibility, because all of its coordinates are gone. Gone is the God against whom sin is measured. Gone is the understanding, though not the experience, that we are all made to be moral actors by creation. Gone is truth and, as part of that, moral norms. It is this cultural reality that is bending Christian thinking and evangelistic Christian faith that tries to adapt itself to this culture in order to win a ‘hearing’ is a Christian faith that will be left with nothing to say. The ally of faith is not culture but creation, not the ethos and trends of modernity, but the stubbornly present imago Dei. For it is the image of God that persists in raising questions that must be answered, even as it is modernity, in union with our fallen proclivities, that works to obscure these questions.”

For only the second time does Wells’ make any mention of how we can reclaim the Church in this culture. He says the Church needs to go back to the Bible to discover the proper place of biblical anthropology in these postmodern times. He demonstrates this by explaining the discovery of the law in King Josiah’s time in the Bible.

Really brilliant book. I am very impressed with this series so far and I am looking forward to re-reading “The Courage to be Protestant.”

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