A review of Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World by David Wells

Eerdmans, 2005

David Wells is both a capable theologian and a very astute analyst of contemporary culture. His previous volumes have combined sociological, cultural and theological assessments of the Western world and the contemporary church. His 1993 volume, No Place for Truth, along with his 1994 and 1998 works, God in the Wasteland and Losing Our Virtue all made valuable contributions to the Christian assessment of church and culture.

How church and culture rub off on each other is an important topic which all believers should have some understanding of. Unfortunately, as Wells shows, in the interchange, it is often the surrounding secular culture that has the most impact on the church, instead of the other way around. This new volume continues this theme that has been covered in the previous three.

Wells argues that the church today cannot properly understand itself and its mission unless it understands just how much both modernism, and its illegitimate son, postmodernism have affected it. And this is especially so in the area of truth.

Modernism of course truncated truth, declaring that what is true is only that which can be measured empirically. Anything that cannot be verified by the scientific method is relegated to the realm of feeling, myth or opinion.

Unfortunately much of the Western church would succumb to the siren call of philosophical naturalism, renouncing its supernatural trajectory in the name of relevance and acceptability. But it is exactly those churches that have embraced the modernist worldview which are now in deep decline.

The attempt to accommodate to the best of the world’s wisdom led to an anemic and lifeless church. So what about the onslaught of postmodernism? Wells rightly recognizes the several strengths of it: its rejection of ungrounded optimism, the belief in science as saviour, and the unwarranted belief in progress, all the hallmarks of modernism.

But postmodernism, for all of its rightful critiques of modernism, is also a poisoned chalice. It even further decimates truth, by declaring that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Not only is there no such thing as truth, but there are no moral absolutes as well. Thus the postmodern world has lost its ability to speak of evil, let alone recognize it. Yet events like September 11 remind us that something is amiss, even though we have lost the vocabulary and worldview to discuss it.

This book then is about how the twin worldviews of modernism and postmodernism have wreaked havoc not only on the Western world but on the Western church. These two worldviews have severely crippled the church, and as a result, our impact has been greatly lessened.

Religion has been replaced by spirituality; doctrine by feelings; the transcendent by the immanent; the Other by Self. Much of Christianity today has been reduced to the triumph of the therapeutic, as one commentator noted. Personal satisfaction, self-esteem and individual fulfillment have become for many believers the end of their faith.

Add the emergence of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, and the church finds itself struggling to offer a distinctive voice, or a rationale for its own existence. The inroads of New Age thought, moral relativity and the erosion of truth have all taken their toll on the churches, as Wells so incisively documents.

Marketing the church

As an Evangelical, Wells is perhaps most forceful in his critique of aspects of Evangelicalism. This is especially so in his assessment of the church growth and the megachurch movement. He argues that in many ways these movements are simply a parroting of the ways of the world, with the stress on technique and methodology.

One of the main bitter fruits of the church’s surrender to both modernism and postmodernism is the way in which God has been banished from the public square. Modern secular societies are quite happy to tolerate Christianity, as long as it remains a privatized and solely personal affair. It will not allow the faith to speak out on the issues of the day, or to make an impact in the social/political arenas.

Part of the church’s response to this has been the church growth movement and the marketing of the church. In order to regain a place in the public arena, the church has resorted to emulating the world in terms of marketing, advertising and selling its own goods. Thus the gospel has been carefully packaged and marketed to compete with the rest of Western consumerist culture.

The result has not been good, argues Wells. If the preoccupation of the West today is the self, that is exactly what many in the megachurch movement have focused on. It now offers therapeutic spirituality, instead of robust theology. It panders to our felt needs, instead of our real needs, which include dying to self and renouncing sin.

Our seeker-sensitive services are catering to those who wish to have religion-lite: nothing too demanding or self-denying. Indeed, it is a self-affirming spirituality that often makes one feel comfortable with oneself, instead of the self-loathing that a full view of God’s holiness will have on our sin-soaked selves.

Indeed, the language of sin, judgment, hell and self-denial are largely absent from these seeker-sensitive churches. Instead, there are promises of finding peace, fulfillment and happiness, something the genuine gospel never directly promises. They may well come as a by-product, but are not to be sought for as an end in themselves.

Thus the modern church has focused on marketing, entertainment and therapy, while abandoning theology, creed and the hard sayings of Jesus. Christianity therefore just becomes another offering in the religious smorgasbord we find today.

Needless to say, while such an anemic faith may attract many, its lasting effects are questionable. How many of these new believers are actually real disciples remains a moot question. And the privatisation of the faith continues unabated. In the search for relevance and acceptance, the church ends up having nothing real to offer a needy culture.

Says Wells, “When the consumer is allowed to be sovereign in Church, the Church is abdicating from its responsibility because it is allowing truth to become displaced by spiritual and psychological desire.” He continues:

“Retailing help for felt needs is what the massive self-help industry is about. What distinguishes the Church from the industry is truth. It is truth about God and about ourselves that displaces the consumer from his or her current perch of sovereignty in the Church and places God in the place where he should be.”

It is the recovery of truth that is the need of the hour, says Wells. Not gimmicks, techniques, methodology and emulating the world’s salesmen. It is reaffirming the historic truths of the faith in an age that has long ago stopped thinking about truth. The message, not just its marketing, is the real need for today’s church. Hopefully this book will help us get back on to that much-needed path.

[1144 words]

One Reply to “A review of Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World by David Wells”

  1. The Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord over all things since the beginning and over all things at the end, in a time frame that is but a little drop in the ocean of God’s eternal realms.
    If Christians would come to Christ and feed on Christ alone they would see EVERYTHING clearly.
    Modernism, postmodernism, ever-so-very-silly-the-morning-after-postmodernism, whatever.
    I encourage you dear Bro, keep writing, keep dialoging, Jesus’ words are above all, Logical, Radical, Etymological – (you heard it said but I say) Sensible, Reasonable, Intelligible, Deliverable, Impeccable and True. Boy do they hurt the pride sometimes!
    Love you Jesus. Love you Bro.
    Mark Golding

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