#31 – Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, David F. Wells, 317 pages
I’ve come to David F. Wells 4th book in his series on the Church (after No Place For Truth, God in the Wasteland, and Losing Our Virtue) and it is a doozy. More than the previous three books, I believe Wells brings the church into his crosshairs and not just the culture. In No Place, Wells talks extensively on how we got to the place that we are (primarily through modernity, postmodernism, capitalism, and urbanization). God in the Wasteland expounds more on the Church as a whole than any particular movements within it as does Losing Our Virtue (which describes how values have usurped virtue in our postmodern society). Above Earthly Pow’rs centers in on the seeker sensitive movement of the Evangelical Church after Wells talks at length about our postmodern world.
Wells begins by a short synopsis of everything he has discussed so far in the previous 3 books (which I will not extensively describe here but be sure to check out the linked book reviews). What is of significance in this volume is centered on postmodernism. He has to logically connect how we got to where we are today by demonstrating how postmodern thought has infiltrated 1) American culture, 2) the Church. He shows primarily by capitalism: the existence of preferential choice that we have today is astounding when compared to any other age in human history. Religion then, becomes a commodity in which the consumer (the one seeking spirituality [note I did not say “church” or “God” or even “enlightenment”, but simply spirituality which is a smokescreen that men try to fill with “good vibes” in order to appease their conscious]) is able to “shop around” for whatever pleases them. This produces a lack of objective truth, or in some cases, truth at all becomes the casualty in which the postmodern mind has laid down to propitiate the conscious in order to live a life that is free to do whatever the individual believes is right. Wells says this is the “…underlying motifs of the postmodern mind. They constitute a gravitational pull toward three simple affirmations: no (comprehensive worldview, no truth, and no purpose” (page 90).
Wells focuses on immigration in one chapter, showing how the postmodern dilemma was exacerbated by influences of immigrants coming to America, particularly Eastern spirituality. He argues that while in times past, men and women understood religion within the context of a structure, namely the church, that was an outward expression of their faith. Today, “faith” or any belief in a higher power is no longer outward, but an inward “spirituality” that is uniquely tailored for the individual. This is sometimes called “pluralism” by theologians: just as America is the “melting pot” of various different nationalities, the inward spiritual state of her people has become a “melting pot” of varying different beliefs that are concocted together to form a syncretistic worldview, adapted specifically for that individual that is to appease the demons of guilt and produce a happy, healthy energy. Obviously, from a Christian worldview, we see the problem in the fact that we are guilty before God and are of in need of a savior, that being Jesus Christ. But more to come.
Dr. Wells presents an interesting correlation between these differing views of spirituality that become a theme through the rest of the book illustrated in the Greek words for love: eros and agape. Eros love is traditionally romantic love between two people while agape love is divine or self-sacrificing love. Eros love is what we see in romantic movies where two people move from dating to marriage while agape is seen when a soldier or Marine lays their life down for their friends. The spirituality of eros, therefore, is in wanting or where man is at the center. Agape spirituality is God who is at the center: eros is upward where the sinner finds God and agape is downward where God finds the sinner.
Dr. Wells goes on to say much more about the postmodern mind, but I want to shift emphasis to what this all means to the church. Dr. Wells spends the last two chapters of this book on a particular movement of the Church who call themselves “seeker sensitive.” The premise of this movement is based off of the postmodern ideals of the supremeness of the individual. Since we live in a capitalistic saturated society where the individual’s preferences, likes, and dislikes are taken into consideration by advertisements and surveys, why waste time on an aging and ultimately archaic way of doing church that is doomed to irrelevance? Much like the everyday shopping malls we go to, Church can also appeal to the masses by curbing certain practices and inventing new ones so that when people are “church shopping,” they will find a vibrant community, hip music, coffee shops and more that resonate with their inward sense of self-fulfillment rather than be changed by the Gospel. Seeker sensitive Churches often times will send out surveys to the local community to find out what type of music they like, what turns them off of organized religion, what would make them feel most comfortable etc. in order to adjust their liturgy to appease the biggest group of people possible. The problem with all of this? It sacrifices doctrine, theology, and ultimately the Gospel for shallow, ineffective Christians. In order to get the largest Church possible requires pastors to withhold some information about the Gospel that is also central to it: namely, the doctrine of sin. How cliche would it be to do all the work to bring people TO Church if, when they got there, they were turned away by a pastor teaching hell and brimstone? Thus, the individual continues to reign supreme and the Church becomes malnourished by a lack of solid teaching. Dr. Wells says, “It is that the only means to survival in the modern world is to adapt Christian faith in some way. The liberals did this by modifying its doctrinal content; seeker-sensitive evangelicals claim not to be doing this, but, rather modifying its form of delivery… Seeker churches, then, represent a coalition bound together not by a theological vision of the world but by a common strategy for reaching particular segments of society…” (page 281).
This, I believe, is one of the worst threats to Evangelicalism today. Seeker sensitives mask the truth in everyday “hip” language that does not challenge, nurture, or grow a congregation but simply lets them feel like their weekly commitment to God has been fulfilled. There is no fear of God, no daily exercise of Christian disciplines, no inward struggle between sin and God but rather a feel-good message that makes everyone happy. This is not how the Apostles Paul, John or Peter spoke; this was not how the Prophets of the Old Testament spoke; and this is not how Jesus spoke.
Much more to be said about seeker sensitives, but I think you will have to get the book to read more. Dr. Wells follow up book, “The Courage to be Protestant” also deals with this issue.