David F. Wells has written his book again. Indeed, reading a new book by Wells is something like my experience of reading new books by Anne Lamott. About 15 pages in, I find myself asking: Isn't this the same book, again?
Readers who pick up Wells's latest, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Crossway), will find themselves covering the same ground he's covered since No Place for Truth (1993).
Wells—a historical and systematic theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—has a fairly simple "big idea": a tale of loss and recovery. Culture has corrupted the church, and renewal means returning to a set of views we have lost. The argument is couched in potted histories that paint thinly with broad brushes, highlighting how the church has been corrupted by modernity and, especially, postmodernity. For Wells, the word is shorthand for everything-wrong-with-the-world.
The genre is pitched somewhere between jeremiad and rant, with predictable protests, retreaded clichés, and lots of complaints about the 1960s. It's like how I would expect a theological grandfather to harrumph about "kids these days." It will convince no one who doesn't already agree.
Because we've listened to the culture rather than Scripture, we've been suckered into a therapeutic rather than a moral view of God: God is reduced to a Therapist and Concierge. Even many conservative evangelicals effectively worship the god of Oprah. On this point, Wells's diagnosis is helpful.
But what's the antidote? As in his previous books, God in the Whirlwind outlines the "view" that needs to be recovered. This view has two countercultural features.
First, we need to recover a sense of the objectivity of God, the otherness and transcendence of God. "God stands before us," Wells emphasizes. "He summons us to come out of ourselves and to know him. And yet our culture is pushing us into exactly the opposite pattern. It is that we must go into ourselves to know God." Elsewhere, Wells writes, "When God—the external God—dies, then the self immediately moves in to fill the vacuum." God begins to look like us writ large.
Second, we need to learn to focus on the character of God, which Wells describes as "holy-love." By doing so, he is trying to hold together what we too often separate: Our therapeutic gods are loving but not holy; and our moralistic and legalistic gods are holy but not loving. But the biblical understanding of God, revealed above all in Jesus Christ, is holy-love. Wells ranges across the Bible to show how this holy-love runs counter to the erroneous cultural habits we've acquired.
But this also locates the book's limitations. Let me highlight two.
First, both the analysis and the prescription traffic in false dichotomies. "The shaping of our life is to come from Scripture and not from culture," Wells writes. But isn't Scripture itself the product of a culture (many cultures), and doesn't the gospel invite us into the alternative culture of the body of Christ? Our goal is not a biblical viewpoint bereft of culture, but a cultural formation that's biblically infused.
Perhaps the most puzzling (false) dichotomy is Wells's emphasis on the objective versus the subjective. This would confuse Augustine, for instance, who wrote: "Do not go outside yourself, but enter into yourself, for truth dwells in the interior self." Yet no one would confuse Augustine with Oprah.
Indeed, Augustine's Confessions recount the interior journey of a soul toward the majesty of God, culminating in the meditations of Book 10: "Through my soul I will ascend to him." By turning inward, Augustine's self-confidence is destabilized. "People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on river, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested." Yet he finds his own interiority more awesome precisely because it is unfathomable: "I find my own self hard to grasp. . . . I never reach the end."
But in this internal vertigo, he also finds the One who is greater: "You are my true life." "Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you."
Instead of reverting to Wells's dichotomy of the objective versus the subjective, what if we engaged modernity with this kind of Augustinian strategy? What if we invited our neighbors (who are, admittedly, focused on the self) to honestly probe their depths? Might they learn to recognize—yes, even feel—the Creator who beckons from within?
The inward turn is not the problem. It's that people don't go far enough to experience the inadequacy of the self. They might be better served by exploring the writings of David Foster Wallace than by reading God in the Whirlwind.
Beat of a Different Drummer
If the book's diagnosis of our cultural situation is off the mark, so too is its prescription. Wells rightly appreciates that we Christians have absorbed the cult of the self by osmosis. Nobody convinced us to view God as our concierge; to the contrary, this is more like what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a "social imaginary" that we absorb unconsciously through the stories, images, and mythologies that suffuse our cultural milieu.
In other words, we are not just "thinking things" who have been "taught" to see God this way; we are desiring creatures who have been trained to "imagine" God this way. And our imagination is formed on a visceral, even unconscious level. It doesn't just change how we think; it shapes how we love.
Yet while Wells is attentive to the dynamics of our cultural deformation, he is oddly flatfooted when it comes to imagining reformation. He prescribes an intellectual antidote for an imaginative disorder.
Late in the book, he introduces a metaphor that actually touches on this point. As Wells puts it, believers "live in the midst of their culture," but "they live by the beat of a different Drummer. They must hear the sounds of a different time, an eternal time, [and] listen for the music from a different place." The challenge is one of attunement: "How are we going to hear this music? How are we going to hear the Drummer whose beat gets lost in all of the noise of our modern world?" Indeed, this is the psalmist's question, too: "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (137:4, NASB).
But the metaphor is better than Wells's actual prescription. Instead of inviting us to absorb the rhythm of the Spirit, he prescribes a regimen of music theory, "a framework of ideas." But if we've been following the wrong drummers, isn't that because their beat got our toes tapping and captivated our imaginations?
The Spirit reforms our imaginations by a similar dynamic. By inviting us to inhabit the rhythms of embodied, intentional Christian worship, God not only informs our intellects but retrains our heart's desires. Worship, then, is not just how we express what we already believe. It is also formative—an incubator for a biblical imagination.
Amid the whirlwind of modern culture, what we need most is not a better message, but a fresh encounter with the holy-lover of our souls, who will sweep us off our feet.
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and editor of Comment magazine.
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