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No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Paperback – December 20, 1994
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"A stinging indictment of Evangelicalism's theological corruption."
"An excellent addition to a theologian's library, this thorough study of the development of current evangelical expression will also inform the philosopher, the social observer, the cultural anthropologist, and even the interested general reader. . . Though profound, the book is easily approachable. Ecumenical thinkers will rank this presentation as the evangelical contribution to current interfaith dialogue."
Religious Studies Review
"A ground-breaking work in evangelical self-criticism. . . This book is must reading not only for evangelicals, but for those who know little and care less about the current evangelical constituency that now numbers a third of U.S. population. The acuity of Wells's analysis, as well as his self-critical spirit, show something of the intellectual prowess and recuperative powers within evangelicalism, and thus represent a small counterpoint to his otherwise accurate assessments."
"While David Wells's careful reflection on the state of evangelicalism is firmly rooted in an American context, his analysis is so powerful and far-reaching that the Church throughout the Western world can scarcely to ignore it. . . This is a compelling book which must be taken seriously."
"Wells's book is designed to be controversial. . . Many will agree with his incisive critique of modernity. Many of his pithy statements . . . will surely find their way into sermons. . . Wells is right in his claim that evangelicalism, if not evangelical theology, is flirting with abandoning objective truth through benign neglect. . . Wells's book can serve as a catalyst for evangelical self-examination."
"I can find no fault with the method, style or validity of Wells' presentation. His demonstration of the changes wrought by modernity was both insightful and enjoyable; it provided the essential backdrop for his arguments about individualism and conformity, and their effects on the twentieth-century Christian. Especially impressive was his articulation of the changes wrought in the pastoral office. . . His writing style is scholarly, but accessible. . . . I would highly recommend No Place for Truth to everyone who now holds, or in the future plans to hold, a position of leadership in the church. It should be required reading at evangelical theological seminaries."
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Both books touch on similar subjects, though with different emphases. Both are concerned with the decline of what Noll calls "the life of the mind" within American evangelicalism; and both are concerned with how authoritative Christian thought can be sustained in this modern or postmodern world. I suspect that Noll's book has proved the more popular, even if the only direct evidence for that is the number of customer reviews on this site: 29 for Noll; 12 for Wells. And both books were published a year apart -- Wells in 1993, and Noll the following year. With a title like that, Noll was always going to be onto a winner!
However, I suspect that one of the reasons for these differing figures is that Wells writes from a different perspective, one that ultimately makes more demands on the reader. Another might be that Wells' position is subtly yet noticeably more pessimistic. Noll is an historian who is eminently capable of working in theology; Wells is a theologian who is eminently capable of working in history. One only has to look at satellite television to realise which of these subjects is the more popular; and I hope that nobody reading this review imagines that Christian television has any connection with theology!
One of the great strengths of this book is that it approaches its subject with the very breadth of thought that both authors find wanting in evangelicalism in general. While its focus is on North America, it spreads its net wide; and Wells is especially good at teasing out subtle relationships between culture and religious thought. It also manages to be at once highly opinionated, generous in spirit, full of subtle humour, and intensely passionate.
How's this for a start? When, in his Introduction Wells asserts his "disbelief in much that the modern world holds dear" (p. 10), he also says that while he feels he must use this pugnacious style, he intends "no disrespect either for the reader or for the modern world. After all, I work for the one and must live with the other. The pugnacity is only in the appearance, not in the intention. The problem is that even the mildest assertion of Christian truth today sounds like a thunderclap because the well-polished civility of our religious talk has kept us from hearing much of this kind of thing." He then draws on John Kenneth Galbraith and G.K. Chesterton, to demonstrate a point that has nothing of religion or theology in it -- at first. So when the theological point arrives, it has force: "Evangelicals are antimodern only across a narrow front; I write from a position that is antimodern across the entire front. It is only where assumptions in culture directly and obviously contradict articles of faith that most evangelicals become aroused and rise up to battle 'secular humanism'; aside from these specific matters, they tend to view culture as neutral and harmless. More than that, they often view culture as a partner amenable to being coopted in the cause of celebrating Christian truth. I cannot share that naivete; indeed, I consider it dangerous. Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith, even when they are mediated to us through the benefits that the modern world also bestows upon us."
This epitomises Wells' ability to lay a profoundly humane groundwork for a theological starting-point, and then for an entire historical and theological argument; and that is one of the main reasons why this book is such a compelling indictment of contemporary evangelical theology. Or perhaps I should say non-theology; for that is what Wells finds everywhere -- though like Noll, he finds the malady less prevalent outside the USA.
Beavers who are over-eager might get impatient at Wells' methods. Indeed, I suspect that at the root of one or two of the more negative responses this book has received, there lies a typically modern impatience. But for those willing to take time, there are rewards a-plenty. For example, the opening chapter's title is "A Delicious Paradise Lost." The Eden-like innocence belongs to the town of Wenham, Massachusetts, in the two hundered of so years after the town's foundation in the 1630s by a group of puritans of English descent. Less than ten years later an English visitor described the place as "a delicious paradise" which he would choose "above all towns in America to dwell in." Via authoritative comparisons with contemporary towns in Britain and America (the book has plenty of informative footnotes and cross-references), Wells charts Wenham's growth, which was very slow. He embraces the role of the church as a building and as community of believers (and a community which included many who were nominal believers); he shows how, as people of differing religious backgrounds moved into the town, they interacted with the dominant puritan heritage; and he follows the lives of a number of prominent figures, notably the schoolteacher. This was a community defined partly by its strong sense of place, and partly by its awareness of how people lived together -- or how they should live together. Of course, it wasn't really Eden. But until well into the 19th century it was so utterly different from the modern world that we might imagine it to be such.
In a series of similar historically rooted pictures, Wells shows how those qualities disappeared, to be replaced by transience, by superficiality. In one of his many virtuoso analogies, he shows how Truman Capote (1924-84) was transformed by publicity "from an author of some initial repute into a personality. . . He bonded briefly with his devotees, but the bond was synthetic. In this new world, the statues are made of celluloid, not of stone; here the achievements are those of personality, seldom of character. . . This is experience without community. It is the experience of mankind in the mass, bereft of the forces that once drew it into centers of human fraternity and organization." Gloomy stuff! But it has precision and insight.
All this proves to be an essential preliminary for the theological discussion that makes up by far the larger part of this book. The theological discussion is fed from the ground up, by being rooted in the communities in which theology should, and at one time did, hold its discourse. The third chapter takes its title, "Things Fall Apart", from Yeats' poem The Second Coming (yet another example of the broad synthesis that characterises this book), and charts the decline of theology from its place as the "queen of sciences" to an irrelevance, even in the evangelical world to which Wells and most of those who will read his book belong.
Wells explains, with a magisterial grasp of history, culture and theology, how the decline of evangelical theology in the last two hundred is a direct result of the church's engagement with the world and its prevailing culture. It is a striking demonstration of the adage that the church rarely now turns the world upside (Acts 17:6); rather, the world has turned the church upside down. Hence the title: the church has been so concerned with accommodating itself to the world that it has forgotten how to sustain the mission God intended it to have to the world.
Wells shows how thought, including that of some greats of American theology, became gradually corrupted by this accommodation. Along the way the religious institutions have become corrupted too. One of his most devastating critiques is of the modern seminary. Great institutions like Princeton and Yale began with Christian values at their core, with subjects designed from a Christian perspective. But as these universities have become inexorably secularised, other institutions had to take over their role; and those in turn have been run off their feet to maintain recognition by the world. Many of the qualifications issued by modern Christian colleges, including doctorates, have very little real value: they merely provide a veneer of respectability so that being a pastor might appear to have the same worldly status as being a lawyer, an academic or a doctor. It is not just that there is little reflection: there is no time for it.
As for the corruption of the church's life . . . I'll leave you to read the examples Wells gives, which are shocking even to someone who knows something of what the God Channel and things of that kind spew out indiscriminately.
As I say, this is not an optimistic book. But it is honest. It offers few large-scale solutions. But it is a clarion call to those who read it, and who believe that we should indeed love the Lord our God with all our minds. If one follows Well's thesis through, it becomes clear that institutions are not readily amenable to reformation. But individuals are. Just as the Gospel began with individuals, so it will be with individuals that any reformation of theology will begin.