Over the last twenty years, David Wells has established himself as the insider chronicler-in-chief of how the self-centered trivialization of life in wider Western culture has transformed conservative Protestantism in the United States and, by implication, elsewhere. His earlier books, from No Place for Truth onwards, have often been criticized for having plenty of bad news and few positive proposals. Yet there are those Christians like myself who have enough Christian absurdism in our souls to think that, humanly speaking, life is short, often darkly comic, and in the end really rather tragic. We are the ones who quite enjoy the pessimistic aspect of his work as confirming our basic convictions (or prejudices, as others would no doubt call them). Nevertheless, in his latest book, God in the Whirlwind, David goes some way to offering positive proposals against the backdrop of traditional Reformed theology and pertinent critiques of contemporary culture.
He take as his central motif the notion of God’s holy-love (the hyphen is important), arguing that many of Christianity’s woes derive from emphasizing one half of this term at the expense of the other. The first seven chapters serve as a fine survey statement of Reformed theology from the perspective of this guiding motif, with apposite comments about how contemporary cultural forces twist and distort the biblical teaching. This part of the book would serve as a great text for an adult Sunday School. The last two chapterson worship and on calling respectivelyshow how Christianity has capitulated to the spirit of this present age in practical terms, i.e., in the ways in which Christians now express their worship when gathered together and in the manner in which they relate to the wider world. The solution as David sees it is to take seriously God’s holy-love and to make this a key guiding principle for all Christian thought and practice.
While David does not explicitly make the connection, the biblical resonances of the book’s title are surely apposite. It is significant that when God makes his entrance onto the stage that is the wreckage of Job’s life in the book that bears his name, he comes in the whirlwind. Even after his first speech has induced Job to take a vow of silence, God comes again in the whirlwind. That is a sign of judgment and, in a book already filled with mystery, it adds perhaps the greatest mystery of all: Why does God address this man’s suffering in a way that speaks rather of judgment than comfort? In this present age, such a god seems rather harsh, unfeeling, and a touch too capricious and judgmental. Yet the answer would appear to be simple in an unfathomably complicated way: God is not human, his ways are not human ways, and thus human ways are not to be criteria for thinking of him. That is surely a key insight possessed by all the greatest theologians, from Paul to Luther and beyond. The history of humankind shows that that has always been a hard teaching to grasp. It is peculiarly problematic for a generation for whom external, given authority of any kindeven that of our X and Y chromosomesis something to be ignored or overcome.
This is where David’s chapter on worship is so key and, indeed, the hinge of the book. What he highlights is the casual tendency for the forms of Christian worship to be separated from the content of Christianity in a manner that often divests the act of corporate worship of its very purpose. The dramatic themes and movement of the Bible and of the gospel (sin, cross, redemption, forgiveness, future hope) should shape what the church does when she gathers together and should thereby strengthen Christians for their everyday lives by giving them an understanding of who they are, where they, and whence they are going. The world in all its forms, from billboard aesthetics to news broadcasts to video games, preaches other forms of life to us every day of the week. Worship is to be a reality check which re-calibrates our minds so that we might live as aliens in a foreign land. Too often, however, it merely apes the tastes of the world outside.
Further, while he does not use this precise language, he also points to what I would argue is the lethal use of the aesthetics of power to present the Christian gospel in the context of corporate worship. While he does not directly engage the current revival of Calvinistic soteriology among otherwise generically Evangelical churches, one might comment that numerous representatives of this movement have successfully harnessed the aesthetics of power to market a theology whose content thus stands in contradiction to its packaging and is thus rendered highly volatile: The weakness of the cross and the dependent fragility of a redeemed but still fallen humanity cannot be expressed with the idioms of power drawn from the culture without fundamentally changing their real significance. And yet this extraordinary marketing feat is what we now witness in the swagger of certain leaders and their followers, in their lack of accountability, in the cults of celebrity, in the massive influence wielded by media savvy organizations, in the plethora of lucrative personal ministries, and in the various other expensive products and pyrotechnics of the movement.
These may appear at first glance to be merely practical problems, but there is already evidence that in the long term they might well prove to be symptomatic of moral and theological ones too. That is certainly the conclusion to which an application of David’s analysis to the latest neo-Calvinist movement would lead. Indeed, Evangelicalism as a business does not place a very high premium on the kind of things for which David longs and which he believes are possible if we are intentional in pursuing them: Finely-tooled theology rooted in historic confessions; sober-minded worship; thoughtful pastoral care; and deep commitment to the church as church. How could it? These things are a minority interest and could never attract the capital necessary to sustain the big Evangelical industry over even a short period of time. The reformation for which David calls is thus not one which requires a mere shift in doctrinal belief, something with which Evangelical leaders seem too often too easily satisfied; it also involves the transformation of a whole form of church life, one which he sees as starting in what happens in gathered worship on a Sunday and leads to a reorientation of thinking and living throughout the week. Perhaps it also involves the transformation of the received Evangelical vision of a kind of Manifest Destiny into something much more modest and narrowly focused.
For David, as one hopes for all Christians, the church’s worship is a response to God’s grace, and thus what happens in the worship service is a good indicator of how grace is theologically and practically understood. The convenient and specious separation of form and content in worship often lies at the heart of the broader Evangelical movement as a means of facilitating inter-church alliances and building consensus has, I suspect, spilled over into other Christian traditions too. David is not so concerned with the hackneyed debate about contemporary music versus traditional; rather, he is interested in the role, priorities, logic, and structure of the worship service. A separation of form and content in this sense is something which David clearly sees as lethal to biblical Christianity in the long term. Such a separation always ends up favoring the form, rather than the content and tends over time to make the religious marketplace king and theology really quite negotiable. We should not underestimate that sobering reality when we reflect upon our worship practices.
This is a book all Christians should read. And, while generally positive in its proposals, it has sufficient pessimism (though David, as a good fellow pessimist, will no doubt tell me he is not such a one) that this Englishman still enjoyed it. Christianity in the West is shifting to the status of an annoying, perhaps even unwelcome, sect. The future is, humanly speaking, bleak. David’s books in general are a good argument for seeing ourselves as a large part of our current problem and this book in particular offers helpful thoughts on what must now be done.