Book Response: The Courage to Be Protestant, by David F. Wells

The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. David F. Wells (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).

The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).

As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World

David F. Wells concludes Chapter II: Christianity for Sale in The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Press, 2008) by declaring:

It is time to reach back into the Word of God, as we have not done in a generation, and find again a serious faith for our undoubtedly serious times. It is now time to close the door on this disastrous experiment in retailing faith, to do so politely but nevertheless firmly. It is time to move on. It is time to become Protestant once again (58).

Wells offers a timely critique of Church Marketers and Emergents who embrace sola cultura over sola Scriptura. But how do evangelicals return to biblical truth when “much ‘born again’ religion is simply cultural spirituality that has no doctrinal moorings, inspires little or no Christian commitment, and often opposes itself to the institutional church and to Christian truth” (43)? Not to mention the larger culture’s, or should I say “network of individuals,” significant disassociation from absolute truth in order for the autonomous self to be free from all expectations regarding right belief, behavior, and values (69).

When our family faced significant adversity, Theresa and I found deep personal renewal in returning home to Lancaster County, PA, with our children. In Chapter III: Truth, Wells articulates how the move has enabled our family to engage in craft, community, and extended family in an unanticipated, but enriching manner.

[T]he way one generation brings another into its understanding about life. . . . the way knowledge, understanding, beliefs, and wisdom are handed on and inculcated. A person takes a journey from childhood to adulthood, and along the way is taught much about life (65).

But truth as engaged by the church as a learning community is even more intense when focused upon learning “the ways of God, his character, his acts, through the truths he had given and was giving them. This they [the early church] knew was indispensable for a life of obedience in this world” (84). In the end, the “autonomous self,” equated with pride, lives a sinful life of rebellion to God and by doing such loses sight of the center (i.e., God) (103-104). Furthermore, the autonomous self collapses into the irony of disconnectedness and loneliness spurred by a lack of commitment while swamped by competing voices (33, 31).

Although minor to The Courage to Be Protestant, I disagree with Wells’ telling of N.T. Wright’s perspective on the Fifth Act of the “play” (85-87). I find Wright’s illustration quite helpful and do not consider it a telling of my narrative, but instead the biblical narrative including the people of God. In addition, I wondered (not for the first time) who engages Wells. Is his voice “too prophetic” for Marketers and Emergents to listen? But maybe this is not surprising for one representing the “Outside God,” i.e., the disciple obligated to grapple with sin not only in the wilderness, but also in public even to the cross with Jesus the Christ.

Overall I appreciate that instead of attempting to summarize and update fifteen years of intense writing (including five Eerdmans publications); Wells delivered the essence of his work. But I wished from the beginning that he included a limited number of footnotes and/or recommendations for further reading beyond references to his previous titles.

In the end, I concur with Wells that “the evangelical Humpty Dumpty” can never “be put together again” (18) and the term “evangelicalism” has outlived its usefulness (19). Furthermore, it is time to turn from “Christianity Lite” (19) back to the strong biblical perspective offered by the Protestant Reformation and apply it to our present day. Maybe my perspective is influenced by the fact I lack the strong “Classical Evangelical” attachment to defending the name of “Evangelicalism.” The Word, doctrine/theology, the people of God as “an outpost of the Kingdom of God,” and the “Celestial City” offer greater encouragement in pointing me (along with my family and those whom I serve in the Emerging Scholars Network) away from “self” and to God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) even in the face of the “American paradox.”

To God be the glory!

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God’s creation.

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2 Comments

  • latchison@global-scholars.org'
    Liam J. Atchison, Ph.D. commented on June 14, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for this review. I was surprised when I saw the book is eight years old! His critiques still seem fresh.

    Tom, I think I know what you mean, but I am a bit unclear about the following paragraph:
    “When our family faced significant adversity, Theresa and I found deep personal renewal in returning home to Lancaster County, PA, with our children. In Chapter III: Truth, Wells articulates how the move has enabled our family to engage in craft, community, and extended family in an unanticipated, but enriching manner.” Do you mean that Wells cited your very experience as an illustration, or that he put words to your experience?

    The term “Evangelical,” as we all know, predates its application to contemporary evangelicals and has often been used to refer to activist Protestants since the Reformation. I always get a bit nervous when we talk about changing our name to avoid misunderstanding, especially when there are so many examples of those who embraced disparagement throughout the centuries but persevered to see the redemption of their inherited epithet: Anabaptist, Methodist, even Christian. It seems that “becoming a Protestant once again” in the way Wells describes holds the possibility of once again becoming “those who proclaim Good News.”

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on June 14, 2016 Reply

      You’re welcome Liam. Yes, David Wells continues not only to be an important prophetic voice in the Protestant community as we proclaim the “Good News,” but also to offer words (even to some degree a narrative) which frame some of my family’s experience. For this I am thankful.

      Although our family is not an illustration in his book, I encourage you to give The Courage to Be Protestant a good, thorough read :) To God be the glory!

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