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David Wells on Postmodernism

With the release of the January issue of Credo Magazine, “In Christ Alone,” we were pleased to release “10 Questions with David Wells.” Today we would like to follow up with another interview with David Wells, conducted by Jared Moore.

David F. Wells is a distinguished senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and conferences such as the Desiring God National Conference. He has also authored several articles and books (a list is included at the end of the interview).

1. What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernity is almost what anyone wants to say it is!  And the word itself hints at some of the conceit that often is a part of the definition. People are beyond the modern?  Neo, a character in A New Kind of Christian, one who sounds very much like Brian McLaren himself, adds a whole series of other “posts”: postmoderns are postconquest, postmechanical, postanalytical, postsecular, postobjectivist, postindividualistic, postProtestant and so forth.  But let us not indulge in fantasies.

Postmodernity is the mood that now hangs over the most highly modernized societies of the West.  In part, it expresses its disappointment that so many of the promises that the Enlightenment made about life that have proved false, most importantly the promise of progress.  The outward fabric of life, suffused with technology, is indeed progressing but the human spirit is not.  That promise was a fraud. 

But in part the postmodern is also the mood of the rich progeny, the children of affluence.  And let us not kid ourselves: we are affluent.  It is the mood that has gripped more of those in their teens and twenties than those who are older.  It is, therefore, a generational mood, too.  And right at its heart is what I have called the “autonomous self.”  That is, in its purest from, a self free from the past, from conventions, moral norms, social expectations, often from God and, in fact, from objective reality.  Everything outside the self is irrelevant to that self.

That may make sense at the level of self-reflection but it collides with the real world any time we run into an airplane schedule, or do our taxes, or look hopefully for a job in a corporation or in government, in the F.B.I. or in the armed services.

2. Is it important for the church to understand Postmodernism today? 

It is.  It is important because this mood refracts the truth of the gospel.  In fact, the gospel is often misheard or discounted because of this posture.  It is important, therefore, to be able to understand the core assumptions and challenge them rather than capitulating to them in hopes of being “successful.”

3. Concerning Postmodernism, what issues face the church today? What are some potential answers to these issues?

The postmodern mood is mostly generationally located.  This is what has fueled the Emergent experimentation with doing church.  Emergents are catering to postmodern likes and tastes and acceding to all of the core, cultural assumptions.  The outcome will be a new kind of liberalism.  Already, the Pied Pipers of the movement, like McLaren, have softened the traditional sexual ethic or, like Rob Bell, the traditional doctrine of judgment and hell.  The biblical teaching on the “age to come” which is already penetrating “this age” evaporates and the whole preoccupation becomes this age, time, and culture.  The upside is a renewed sensitivity to the earth and to injustice but the downside is that this sensitivity begins to look no different from any other politically correct posture.  And this is Christianity?

4. What are some books our readers might find helpful for understanding how Christians should respond to postmodernism?

I don’t think evangelicals have really distinguished themselves in understanding this cultural mood.  Just this week I read James Livingston’s The World Turned Inside Out:  American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (2010).  It looks at the way the American cultural landscape changed in the last quarter of last century.  The book is irreverent and unsympathetic to Christian faith.  But it brims over with cultural insights.  Why hasn’t a literature emerged on the other side of the religious equation, one that is as insightful culturally but is written from within Christian assumptions?  Still, we are not entirely bereft.  Gene Veith’s Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture was a good start.  There are some useful essays in Millard Erickson’s Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation to Postmodern Times and David Dockery’s The Challenge of PostmodernismBut, as one might expect, for every Veith there is a Stan Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism or a Craig Detweiler A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture which seem too anxious to get to the point, as soon as possible, when the Church’s distinctive, theological voice will be lost.

Dr. Wells, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.  We appreciate your ministry immensely.

Resources available from Dr. Wells:

He is the author of numerous books, including Above All Earthly Powers, No Place for Truth God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, The Courage to be Protestant, and Reformed Theology in America. For free audio, interviews, and articles from Dr. Wells see the 69 links from Mongergism.com.

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