God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World, by David F. Wells. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, 266 pages, $24.99.
For the last two decades, David Wells has been the stern conscience and prophetic critic of the culture of conservative American Protestantism. In a series of books, he has laid bare the theological and moral bankruptcy of much of evangelicalism. Critics of his work have accused him of simply saying the same things over and over again, and of offering critique without any positive or constructive principles. In his latest book, God in the Whirlwind, he attempts to do precisely that: to map out a way forward for the church into the twenty-first century.
I have offered more general thoughts on the book elsewhere (here and here). In this brief reflection, I want to offer a short summary of his thesis and then to focus on one or two key points. Essentially, Wells regards evangelicalism as worldly and as having lost sight of a central tenet in Christian orthodoxy: the “holy-love” of God. Tendencies to prioritize either the former or the latter part of that term lead either to legalism or to license. Both are functions of the worldly mindset and both involve a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s grace. The examples in the American world might be old style fundamentalism, with its litany of taboos, and new style evangelicalism, where anything goes (as long as it does not look like old style fundamentalism). Wells has articulated the basic outlines of this thesis before; here he adds the theological dimension by focusing on God’s holy-love.
New subplots emerge in Wells’s narrative, too. The distracting and kaleidoscopic role of information technology and the rise of the politics of sexual identity are both prominent themes in the early chapters and supplement the emphasis on the culture of therapeutic consumerism of earlier books. Over against these, Wells pits the narrative of biblical theology and the sheer Godness of God. A holy God who loves us without compromising that holiness is not a God who has any time for the therapist’s chair. If the world is broken, the answer is not to be found by turning inwards to our own psychological foibles but rather outward to the God who has acted, who acts, and who will act, to bring creation back to himself in the consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast.
What is clear from Wells’s analysis is that the tragedy of much modern life is that it has no sense of tragedy. Evangelical Christianity is in general no exception to this. Consumerism is built on the idea that all problems can be solved by purchasing the right product. Therapy is built on the idea that happiness can be achieved by looking inwards and unlocking latent potential or healing inner damage. Secular politics is built on the idea that making the government just the right size (whether bigger or smaller) will cure all social ills. The blithe atheism of a Hitchens or a Dawkins sees life as nothing more than a glorious firework display which fades painlessly into the ether. Nowhere in the liturgies of the secular world does one find acknowledgment of the fundamental tragedy of human existence: we all die; and death is devastating. In short, every human life is doomed to end in failure. One does not have to believe in an afterlife to see that: death reduces those left behind in cruel and painful ways. The mind that produced the Mass in B Minor or the theory of relativity or simply brought joy to another human being by a loving glance or an affectionate word finds its destiny in the grave. Yet such is life— contemporary life, at least—that this basic reality is denied or hidden for as long as possible everywhere one looks.
There is an obvious way in which this touches on the contemporary conservative evangelical scene. One of the hardest lessons now being learned by the so-called New Calvinists is that the power of our consumerist culture is such that anything, even orthodox theology, can be turned into a commodity. The power aesthetic of the Mars Hill rock bands is ultimately as subversive of the ethos of orthodoxy as the prosperity gospel is of its content. That we now see a rapprochement of the two, combined with the confused silence of those who once rode on the coattails of the former, is scarcely a surprise. Wells has warned for two decades of the pernicious ubiquity of consumerism in the church. It has finally come close to the Calvinist home and we can only lament the fact that most powerful voices within the movement seem even now unwilling to take a clear public stand.
Yet here is the problem: the power of consumerism is such that none can be complacent. If pop megachurch Calvinism is a soft target, then high Presbyterianism too can prove vulnerable to consumerism. Any liturgy in any idiom can potentially degenerate into mere formality; and traditional worship can end up merely providing a superficial aesthetic gratification all of its own. This is where the centrality of preaching is important. Biblical preaching mediates the presence of God, reminds the people of who they are by reminding them of whom they stand before, and points them to their life in Christ.
This is surely where the vital importance of the local church comes in to play. There is perhaps an irony that Wells has spent much of his life connected to big tent conservative evangelical movements when it is arguable that the kind of vital Christianity, involving elaborate doctrinal confession and everyday practical expression, can only really be realized in the particularity of the local church context. The Christian as consumer is a much more practical option in large churches, where a full time staff keep the operation running, than in a congregation of two hundred or less, where everyone is required to take turns in the day-to-day chores. And doctrinal breadth or laxity is much more tolerable in such large churches as well, where there is an increasing degree of anonymity in the congregation. This is not to say that large churches necessarily fall into these sins, any more than smaller churches are necessarily immune to them. But it is to say that the possibility of such a fall is that much greater.
This is perhaps the one place where I would have wished for more practical direction from Wells. The answer to the church’s ills cannot be reduced simply to getting the doctrine and the preaching straight. He does not suggest that it is; but he does not provide a larger vision of what faithful churches might practically look like on a weekly basis beyond this. My concern would be that those of us who place a premium on preaching and doctrine might well not see ourselves as indicted by the book. That would represent a failure to understand the deep-seated cultural malaise to which Wells points. We can all turn our particular convictions into consumerism commodities and forms of therapy and our personal tastes into transcendental imperatives.
This is a fine book. It deserves a wide readership. It should not be read by Orthodox Presbyterians with an attitude of “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.” Rather, a judicious “Is it I, Lord?” would be more appropriate.
Carl Trueman is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler, Pennsylvania, and as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2014.