Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: The Courage to be Protestant

It's certainly an arresting, and perhaps especially in Northern Ireland, a controversial title. However, let's be clear from the start, it's not remotely sectarian or political, and nothing at all to do with how we view ourselves or others in Northern Ireland.

What the book by David Wells has to do with is the issue of the assumptions, motivations and methods of the church in seeking to reach the world with the good news about Jesus Christ. As Wells has observed the protestant churches, he sees three main groups:

1. Classical evangelicals - people like John Stott and others, who are united on the key Protestant doctrines such as the authority of the Bible and penal substitution, and who agree to differ on secondary issues which are considered less important (e.g. baptism). Wells argues that as the importance of doctrine has been shrunk, so too does our understanding of the church, which led to a second group appearing:

2. Marketers - churches like Willow Creek, where the church has been reconfigured around the sales pitch, where the form modifies the content in order to win the 'sale' and keep the customer happy. This may have worked for an affluent American boomer generation, but now, Wells argues, the next generations are dissatisfied with such commercial Christianity.

3. Emergents are into deconstruction, doubting of truth completely, where the loss of truth is offset by adventurous worship and trying to recover a lost sense of mystery.

His analysis of the church is, I think, perceptive, but what is perhaps even more helpful, is how he critiques the wider culture. The church has sought to be driven by the culture rather than critiquing it (in both marketing and emerging forms), so Wells seeks to redress the balance and examine the postmodern mind and culture.

The heart of the postmodern rebellion is unveiled: 'It turned away from meaning that is fixed and universal and turned toward meaning that is private and subjective.' All external forms of authority are rejected, so that pomo's are only looking to the self for values (not virtues!) and truth.

This was a particularly thought-provoking statement on secularisation: 'What the secularisation of life does it to demand that all belief in a God or the saved be kept private and not appear in the public square.' This leads to two worlds developing - the public and the private, with different behaviours, values and norms. For the church, a retreat into the privatised leads to relating to the immanent God as therapeutic and near, but ignores God's transcendence and authority over all.

The conclusions towards which he draws leads to a wake-up call to the churches to consider again their relation to the culture they are seeking to reach. The question of authority and truth is a key one to be sure on - 'Images we may want, entertainment we may desire, but it is the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen that is the church's truth to tell.'

This is a valuable book for those in church leadership - both pastors, elders and committee members, as well as the thoughtful church member seeking to understand culture better. It's not overly technical, and fairly easy to follow the argument right through. The Courage to be Protestant will help to impress the reader with the urgency of standing in the line of historical Protestantism on the solas of the Reformation as we proclaim the truth to a watching world.

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