David Wells’ newest book seeks to examine the Christ-and-Culture discussion by infusing the “Christ” side with a view of God in holy-love.
He comments concerning the various volumes he’s authored over the past 25 years: “I began what would turn out to be five interconnected volumes. These we all in answer to the question originally posed by Pew: What is it that accounts for the loss of the church’s theological character?...These volumes were a sustained cultural analysis” (13).
And he introduces the current volume by stating: “What has been principally lost in the evangelical church…is our understanding of God’s character but an understanding in which that character has ‘weight.’ …And now, in this volume, I have shifted my focus. No longer am I so preoccupied with the culture part of the equation. Now I am looking out on life from the other side of things, what is symbolized by ‘Christ’ in the Christ-and-culture juxtaposition of things. This volume reflects on what we have so often lost in our work of framing Christ-and-culture. It is the holy-love of God” (14).
We must be sure to catch his intent; otherwise we will judge the book inaccurately. Wells wants to address the Christ-and-Culture debate by discussing the holy-love of God. His application and conclusion explain that by the redeemed persons of the Church portraying the holy-love of God the ‘culture war’ will fall in favor of Christ. It is interesting to note what is absent from his conclusion. The Christ-and-Culture debate is not a debate between Christians and Atheists, but Christians among Christians: how are we as the covenant people of Yahweh to relate to the surrounding culture? The argument that Wells offers (both implicitly and explicitly) is that we are to be within culture as sanctified (holy-love conformed) individuals and that people will recognize Christ as a result. However, in order for this to be true within culture, we must spend a great deal of time apart from culture—the greater part of chapter 7 is dedicated to “carving out” time for spiritual disciplines. So Wells wants to influence the Christ-and-Culture discussion in a rather unconventional way. Does it work? That awaits to be seen among the lives of those who take his words to heart.
But how does Wells get from thesis to conclusion? Does he argue well? Is he convincing? Clear? Unfortunately not as much as we would hope.
There has been mass amounts of press surrounding this release, even heralded as his magnum opus—his hearts’ work and gift to the evangelical world. James Smith shadowed the glory early on in CT’s pre-release review of the book, but Crossway released a follow-up interview with Wells to address Smith’s concerns; The Gospel Coalition has done similarly highlighting the release of the book with praise. Crossway has continued to release interviews, videos, and a study guide alongside the book. Many well-respected evangelical leaders have endorsed the book. I mention all of this because it isn’t easy to say that God in the Whirlwind is rather unconvincing and commonly confusing in its discourse; I acknowledge that I am at odds with a great deal of evangelical leaders—at least ones that have voiced opinions about the book.
I do want to say one thing, however, before I mention my problems with his discourse:
Wells passionately loves Jesus, and that truth redounds through every chapter of the book. You simply cannot miss his adoration for our Savior; it is convicting and encouraging through and through to feel the love through printed words.
I plan to explain my reservations and then offer a final commendation (if you would only read a portion, read reservation 3).
Reservation 1: Wells’ Christian-cultural corrective is often over-corrective
This is a time-bound book as all cultural engagements are necessarily. This book would be near senseless in many other areas of the world because Wells is engaging the Western world, and more specifically the United States. What’s more this book will not be nearly as pertinent twenty years from now as it is today. That’s not bad, however, that’s actually good! It means Wells has hit something of today. However, I fear that many of his assertions and corrections of the attitude today are over-corrective. Sometimes things are simply too strongly worded, reaching for an emotive effect, but stretching the truth beyond its equilibrium. And at times his overstatement actually usurps his own argument.
For example on pages 30 and 31, he warns of culture’s redefining efforts and how concerned we ought to be, but then he compares it to the Marxists attempt which “now lies in ruins,” and states, “One suspects, though, that the outcome will not be very different.” Ought we to even fear such redefinitions if they will lie in rubble ten years from now? A common refrain throughout is that God is “objective.” In several places he further explains that we cannot know God through ourselves that he must be known outside and external and apart from us only. Truly, God is external, but we were also created in the image of God and can know God in part by an internal viewpoint. Our culture today is too self-focused, but that doesn’t mean an external look is the only valid option. On page 34, he states that our world “today is deeply, relentlessly, and only therapeutic.” But it is a bold and unsupported claim. Perhaps much of the culture is, but by stacking the adjectives together, he leaves no room for any anomaly. That is a dangerous place to stand. On page 147 he engages in syntactic overload: depending on an ambiguous grammatical construction for his argument. Chapter 8 laments the current state of evangelicalism with strong sympathetic tones to the point of despair, but on the final page (217) he says, “There is a way back. We can come back to what we ought to be and to what we ought to be doing. And that is what I perceive is beginning to happen today.”
Reservation 2: Wells’ is occasionally imprecise, unclear, or unsupported
At times Wells is philosophically, historically, or otherwise inaccurate. On page 27 he collapses modernity and postmodernity, but they are quite different. It is uncertain whether he is using “objective” as meaning ‘pertaining to an object’ or as ‘absolute.’ He states that if John had written I John 4.10 today it “would have been completed quite differently” (33). But that statement overlooks the Holy Spirit’s work—assumed, of course, but it doesn’t mean the statement is precise. He claims that the apostles were perplexed: “as if David had a deeper and truer knowledge of God without the gospel than we sometimes have with it” (43). I’ve never read that in Scripture. Were “the works of the law” a reference to “matters that were distinctive to Jewish national identity” (46)? Perhaps, but his exposition on page 46 and 47 contains too few and unrelated verses to convince me. He commonly draws on judicial language for justification, but he forgets that judicial language in the ancient near east was magisterial, not judicial in a three-branch sense. Similarly, legislative language is cultic-legal, not legal alone. The chapter “The Gospel across Time” seems to promise a phenomenological look at the development of the gospel, but ends up actually taking an eternal perspective and leaning upon New Testament Scripture to interpret the Old… though in a dynamic time-bound way! This systematic theology where biblical theology is required causes self-refuting claims such as Abraham first not participating in sacrifices, but also—yes—participating in sacrifices; all believers being regenerate, justified, etc., but not being united to Christ, and yet that these realities are not possible without Christ having actually entered time. Chapter 4 explains that we cannot know God from down up but he must be known from up down which sounds like a question of epistemology, but which Wells turns into a question of justification. Some statements are explicitly contradictory—in word if not in thought: “There are not two sides to it” (86, paragraph 1), and “Indeed, we see this two-sidedness in the very passage…” (86, paragraph 2!). the discussion on imputation is clouded and unhelpful (142, 143). Page 145 uses “incomprehensible” incorrectly when the word used should have been ‘unapprehendable.’ He confuses means for ends in his discussion on reconciliation (147). He first states that redemption should be taken as slave language rather than war language only to later say that we should take it as war language over slave language (148). On page 192 he exposits John 17.11 by ‘worship,’ but his claims simply are not found in his base verse. On page 204 he criticizes Saturday evening services forgetting that Israel measured days by sundown not hours/sunrise.
Reservation 3: Well’s is predisposed to the number two (2) even when it is wise to consider others
Unfortunately Wells often espouses false dichotomies. He is prone to play off the number two: two sides to a coin, etc. But many times there are three or more possibilities. The most problematic is foundational to his argument throughout the book. He frequently foils a “therapeutic” worldview over against a “moral” one, attaching Christian faith and the Bible to the “moral” one. However, that is extremely unhelpful for those of us engaging the public square and the lives of individuals. A moral worldview is not exclusively Christian, and in fact, the Christian worldview is not primarily moral. The “war” between Christ and culture, the marketplace of ideas, is not simply a fight between Christian faith and atheists. It is full of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim persons, agnostics, wiccans, Buddhists, and others. Is there a psychological-therapeutic worldview? Absolutely, but it is not the only other one. Mormons have a moral worldview. Moralistic-legalism in fact… some might argue a more strict moral view than Christians. Muslim’s as well. Wiccans, Taoists, and Yin-Yang have a positive-negative correspondence as worldview. The biblical worldview is certainly moral in part, but not anywhere near in whole. The biblical worldview is three-tiered in relationship, sovereignty, and character as we image forth the God who has entered into covenant with us. “Morality” is a subsection of character. By no means is it the whole story. Yes, we ought to live forth in holy-love as a moral expression of the God whom we serve, but that is a drastically small point to consider. Returning, therefore, to the thesis: it is good for us to consider how we might live as holy-love conformed individuals in the midst of culture, but the question as a whole is far from answered.
All reservations explained, I commend this book to a very particular audience. This book would be best suited in the hands of a recent high-school graduate as they begin to enter college/university. An understanding of holy-love is certainly missing from the minds of evangelicals, and we would do well to remember it—particularly those who have grown up in an Oprah-saturated world. This book would serve well the young minds who are soon to encounter persons who believe that love is only emotional and that holiness is dead and unappealing. I choose this group for a second reason: they are unlikely to pick up on the reservations I have—most have not read enough sustained argument to recognize when something is unsupported, and the main point of the book issues through and will be remembered far beyond the minute problems.
This book compares with others that you might be interested in with particular foci
Christ-and-Culture: Leslie Newbigin or James K.A. Smith
Character/love of God: Knowing God, Packer
Relation of love-holiness: God the Peacemaker, Graham Cole
This review is crosslisted on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com