David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. 253pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8028-4007-3. $26.00.
Did you ever try to catch an eel slithering through the water? Did you ever try to squeeze a chunk of jello in you hand? This is what David Wells, distinguished professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is trying to do in this book. He is contrasting historical Protestant orthodox theology with the postmodernism of our culture. This is the fifth book in a series that he has written dealing with this subject. The others are: No Place for Truth; or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998); and Above All Earthy Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005). Concerning the series, he writes, “Running through these four books have been five themes that I am taking up here” (Truth, God, Self, Christ and Church). “Since this is so, I am not, for the most part, documenting the literature and research upon which this book rests since that has already been done. It therefore has no footnotes” (xiii).
In the first chapter, Dr. Wells discusses the state of evangelicalism today. He contends that it is no longer what it used to be, committed exclusively to the doctrines of historic Reformation Protestantism. Instead, the term covers a broader spectrum. There are those who are “classical” evangelicals, but there are also two other classes of evangelicals. The first is the marketers, whom he discusses in chapter 2. The second are the emergents, whom he discusses in chapters 3-7 in contrast with orthodox truth and postmodernism.
The marketers are adjusting Christian orthodoxy by attracting the attention of the “unchurched” by marketing techniques. They do so by making their church “seeker friendly” and the message easy to understand, i.e., dumbed down in content. However, the so-called customers, according to the church-marketing polls, don’t really want that. Instead they say (by about 90%) that they desire to hear about doctrine or belief (55). By adjusting the message to just get people to their church, they get many who will come only for the experience, but never truly believe. Instead of looking for unchurched people, they should be looking for unconverted people (44).
In chapters 3-7, he discusses the emergents, but not as the central concern. He shows that as the emergents react to the present postmodern society, they relativize Christianity by gutting it of its content and making it something that it really is not. They have so compromised Christian teaching that it is no longer Christian. In each chapter, he discusses one of the following doctrines contrasting it with postmodernism: Truth, God, Self, Christ, and Church.
There are many reasons to like this book. Among them, it deals with a core problem of life in the United States. It analyzes postmodern relativism very well and comes to good conclusions about it. Wells grabs the eel by the tail. Furthermore, he does not water down the historic Christian faith. Rather, he contrasts its absolutes with postmodernism’s relativism. And the book is eminently readable. You can hand it to your friend, who is enamored with all of the personal choices and openness of our society, and yet who does not want to answer to God. You can know he or she is going to get challenged with substance in these pages.
I have one caveat. On p. 116, Wells writes, “My focus here is not apologetic or evangelistic….My focus is the church. It is on what happens after the apologetic questions have been resolved and the gospel has been believed. It is not on the terrain that has to be crossed before belief happens. My focus here is what happens afterward.” I think I understand what he is getting at, namely, that he wants to have the church shape up. All well and good. However, every time the Bible is presented, it has a message for the believer and the unbeliever, whether in the church or outside the church. It is a savor of life to the living and a savor of death to the dying (2 Cor. 2:15-16). But also, nature is God’s revelation of truth as well. God’s revelation of himself in nature is known to everyone including the postmodernist. God’s footprints are everywhere. It is his creation. Furthermore, man is his creation as well and he knows God intuitively. As a result, he suppresses that knowledge and worships false gods and false ideas (Rom. 1:18-20). This knowledge with its subsequent response by sinful man destroys all relativity because it is sin that blinds man and only God can change that. And God does through Jesus Christ! This truth gives a firm foundation for all that Dr. Wells expounds in this book.
—J. Peter Vosteen