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David Wells's Response to Carl Trueman's Review of His Five Books

David F. Wells

I am not sure that any author should have the opportunity to engage with a review such as this. Once a book is written, it is out there for people to read and say what they want!

However, if I were to respond, I think I would want to correct just a little—one or two things.

Let me begin by connecting two things which you say and which I don't really think are accurate. They are 1) that I am a pessimist and 2) the matter of capitalism and consumerism.

Some people have accused me of longing for a golden age of some kind which has now disappeared, and you come close to that. I don't actually believe in golden ages at all, nor do I lament the passing of the world our grandparents inhabited. What I have always said is that as we pass from age to age there is a balance sheet of pluses and minuses. I have written that there are enormous benefits to living in the modernized world, beginning with the fact, if we are looking at the U.S., that in 1900 the average life expectancy was forty-nine and now it is just above eighty. And who, I have said as you also say, would turn back from the medical advances, the brilliant technology, all the conveniences and so on? These are all enormous pluses, and I don't deny it or want to say that they are not.

On the other hand, because these benefits are so splendiferous, we do not always realize the costs of living in a context like this. The costs are hidden and psychological. They have to do with the loss of connections to place, family, and a structure of values that once were somewhat "there." Now, everything is up for negotiation. And in this context, it is very difficult for Christian faith to sustain itself. Not impossible. But simply as a description I think we have to say that it must be difficult, otherwise we would find it easier to know why we are not doing very well. I treat statistical work a little cautiously but when "The World Christian Encyclopedia" shows a massive flight of Christian faith out of the West, that certainly comports with what I think I have observed from my little corner of the church-world. Today, in the West, there is a crisis in believing and behaving.

Being a pessimist simply means that in one's disposition one is inclined to think that things are bad, going to the dogs, going downhill, and so forth. My analysis may suggest that picture, but, I would argue, it has nothing to do with my disposition and everything to do with the difficulty Christian faith has in sustaining itself here in the modernized West.

Then as to capitalism and consumerism. I don't think it is correct to equate them. Capitalism is the system which makes consumerism possible. Indeed, it makes consumerism likely, but not inevitable. I also believe that capitalism is the hope, humanly speaking, for the Third World (where I work each summer in Africa). It is the creation of markets which generates the capital which makes medical care possible, builds infrastructures, sustains education, and makes the wealth that enables people to escape some of the harshness of life (which you also speak about). I believe this strongly. Until Africa can produce the social conditions that will allow for the right environment for markets to emerge, it will be without any hope of addressing its most distressing human problems.

The trick is to be able to use the fruit of capitalism without falling into the trap of consumption, of defining life by the things possessed, of flitting from product to product in such a relentless fashion that we even begin to think of life in these terms, and of seeing Christ and the gospel as themselves products there for our satisfaction. That is when capitalism has become truly damaging to us—it has become consumerism. Can we live in a context of capitalism without this happening? I am not a Marxist and do not believe that our internal consciousness is inevitably, deterministically, formed by the external economic and class structure, so I answer "yes"—but it is not easy. Obviously it is difficult, because look where the evangelical world is today!

David F. Wells is Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant, April 2009.