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Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary

Liberty University

A CRITICAL REVIEW OF

GOD IN THE WASTELAND

BY DAVID F. WELLS

Submitted to

Dr. Fred Smith

in partial completion of course requirements for

THEO525 – Systematic Theology

Elke Speliopoulos

Downingtown, PA

December 6, 2009
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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION...........................................................................................................................3

WHERE DOES WELLS SEE THE PROBLEMS FOR THE CHURCH?.....................................3

DID WELLS DO WELL TO ARTICULATE WHAT CAN BE DONE?......................................5

CONCLUSION................................................................................................................................8

BIBLIOGRAPHY............................................................................................................................9

BIBLIOGRAPHY
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INTRODUCTION

In his 1994 follow-up book to his 1993 No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to

Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1993), David F. Wells attempts to move beyond what Eric J.

Miller describes as a “largely critical and analytical framework”1 of his first book toward an

attempt to find answers to the undoubtedly significant challenges facing the believing church

under the enormous impact of modernity on society. Giving solid examples of how the impact is

not only felt in the individual local churches but also in seminaries, Wells sets up a thought-

provoking picture and challenges his readers to be part of the solution of bringing the church –

and therefore the people of God - back into the realm of orthodoxy. His suggestions offer a first

effort to lead churches and their leaders to a model that will allow a turn from a deeply

modernity conformant therapeutic approach to one that is bringing worshippers back to a

realization of the holiness of God and the power of the cross while offering up a model for

Christian living on this post-modern side of eternity.

WHERE DOES WELLS SEE THE PROBLEMS FOR THE CHURCH?

Wells begins his book with a 23-page prologue, in which he sets up his premise that

Christianity has, almost unbeknownst to it, experienced a fundamental shift towards the outward

signs of modernity and with it a distancing from orthodox teaching and a move toward a

therapeutic mindset. As he expresses, modernity is closely tied to what society has experienced

through modernization, which he encapsulates in four areas: capitalism, technology, urbanization

and telecommunication.2 As a result of capitalism, population centers have formed that allow for

“manufacturing, production and consumption.”3 Technology has brought about a rationalization

1. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Trinity Journal Volume 16 (n.p., 2002), 248.

2. David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand
Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1994), 7.

3. Ibid., 8.
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of life coupled with a calculation of benefits, while urbanization is a natural outcome of the

centralization of centers of economic activity, as well as through the large influx of immigrants

who have formed cultural pockets within urban areas. Finally, telecommunication has brought

the planet into close proximity to all. We experience others pain and joy in almost real-time.4

As a result of these influences on societies, anonymity has increased and with it has come

a lessening of accountability for individuals. According to Campbell, whom Wells cites, this

changed moral responsibility toward others and society in general also generated a decline in

psychological well-being.5 Wells offers a plethora of examples of the infiltration of modernity

from Madonna to MTV to a move to a society of victims and offers equal critique of these

symptoms. Likewise, Wells describes the arrival of the thinking of this modernity-impacted

society in churches. He uses two notable examples to highlight how much modernity has entered

into the church’s reality: George Barna’s research, in which he repackages, in Wells’thinking,

the Christian experience as a marketable entity, and of Frank Peretti, whose books This Present

Darkness and Piercing the Darkness speak of a spiritual battle raging, which excludes on one

side the human agents and on the other side God.

Wells does not leave his readers with just an understanding of where they find themselves

as believers in the present, but offers approaches to what needs to be “fixed” in Christianity in

order to return to orthodoxy and therefore a Christianity that honors a holy God. These

approaches center around returning to a clear understanding of His holiness being the primary

characteristic of God, rather than His love, which Wells describes as an outcome of God’s

holiness, and around the centrality and non-negotiability of the cross. Wells closes his book by

looking at seminarians and their belief and value systems, which, based on Wells’ studies, have

4. Ibid., 8-9.

5. Ibid., 13.
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also been impacted by modernity, without the realization of these students. He ends on a note of

hope that the next generation of church leaders can find again what it means to be the church.

DID WELLS DO WELL TO ARTICULATE WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The basic premise under which Wells writes this book is that society, under the impact of

modernity and as expressed through the influences of and symptoms caused by capitalism,

technology, urbanization and telecommunication, has slipped into the mode of, what he terms,

“therapeutic culture”6, which is expressed through a large focus on self and a common

acceptance of victimhood. As a root cause he cites modernity’s shifting concepts of

anthropology and theology. Specifically, he cites the move from seeing God as both a

transcendent and immanent God to a solely immanent God, while at the same time relegating

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to an inconsequential part of biblical story telling. Individuals have

thus been slowly moving to attempting to find the god(s) within themselves. At the same time,

the society around them has become one that has made them more vulnerable than ever before

with a family structure that is eroding and crime rates that appear to rise with every passing

decade.

Wells convincingly sets up the theological and moral picture, which the society around us

is walking into our churches with (or not). While this could have been easily done without using

the names and examples of certain cultural phenomena, such as singers or television channels,

which does date the book and takes away from its rather enduring message, it does paint a vivid

picture of how far 20th century society (this book was written, as already mentioned, in 1994) has

removed itself from the values of the pre-industrialized society of the Western world.

6. Ibid., 27.
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Wells moves to an attempt for a solution to this apparent problem. He believes that only a

return to a clear understanding of the holiness of God and to the relevance of the cross, coupled

with a change in seminaries teaching a strong impact on the importance of correct theology. He

correctly identifies part of the problem as a historical one, begun by the church fathers who

seemed to separate God the Father from God the Son by associating holiness and aloofness to the

one and love to the other by developing “a bipolar vision of God – one pole distant and the other

pole near, one pole absolute, cut off from life in this world, and the other pole related and

connected with life.”7 The resulting focus is on a view of God as solely a God of love as

expressed through Jesus, God the Son. He critiques the consumerism approach to worship in

modern churches, where worship has become self-centered, when he rightfully says, “In his

holiness, God is not to be trifled with; familiarity with God inherently borders on contempt and

is subject to judgment.”8 Likewise, Wells calls for a return to a lifestyle that reflects this holiness

aspect of God:

God in his holiness is deeply intrusive, cutting to the very heart of our inner life.
Specifically, he demands that the external expressions of our inner life be fully in accord
with the fact that we belong to him through Christ consistent with his truth, and obedient
to his moral law.9

Another element that Wells cites as having been forgotten in a society, which is easily

pleased through such media as television or video, is the self-study of Scripture. Finally, Wells

uncovers another element of conflict in the modernity-impacted belief system: the neglect, or

rather wrong understanding, of divine providence. He issues a clear call to a renewed teaching of

biblical teaching on the expectation of hardships and persecution. This does not mean God is not

providentially caring for His creation, but rather, as Wells says, the church is “called to declare

the message of the cross, not to uncover God’s hidden purposes in this world or the secrets of his
7. Ibid., 126.

8. Ibid., 141.

9. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Trinity Journal Volume 16, 143.248.


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inner therapy.”10 Wells convincingly argues that the evils of this world, while still visible to the

present generation, may be restrained or may even serve to further God’s purposes, yet God

“deals with evil decisively only at the cross.” The power of this message is one that Wells

rightfully highlights, as it will naturally provide an answer to the perils perceived by a society

despite all its advances, not by necessarily delivering from them, but by putting them into the

proper context, understanding and eternal relevance.

In a review of Wells’ book in the Trinity Journal, author Eric J. Miller, while applauding

Wells’ attempt to offer more solutions to the modernity-shaped problem in Christianity, critiques

his failure to “elucidate clearly what this Christ-culture relationship should be.”11 Likewise,

Miller is concerned with Wells’ definition of “modernity”. Miller poses the question whether

Wells is suggesting that culture is incapable of changing by the power of God due to the

overbearing evil of modernity’s impact.12 Miller concludes that without the needed leadership

arising in the future generations, Wells’ book will only be a history book featuring “fine

analyses”.13

This author, for one, arrives at a position in favor of Wells’ analysis of the influence of

modernity on this generation’s churches and sees great danger if this is not adequately addressed.

At the same time, to believe that a return to orthodoxy should mean that churches throw out

every element that speaks to a post-modern society, such as style of worship, seems unnecessary

as well. Of critical importance seems to be that we do not allow the message of the holiness of

God and the power of the cross unto salvation to be watered down in our churches. Only people

who become aware of their sinfulness before a holy and jealous God can be called by a loving

God, who loved so much He sent His Son, to receive His mercy and grace.
10. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, 185.

11. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Trinity Journal Volume 16, 250.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 251.


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CONCLUSION

Very early in his book, Wells cites a 1993 study that showed that baby boomers are

impacted in their choice of staying or leaving a church by “the relative presence of orthodox

belief.”14 Based on his findings in his book, it would seem to affirm his analysis of what might be

the “cure” for the church’s departure into modernity: a return to biblical roots. He rightly

addresses the two key elements that would allow for such a return to orthodoxy: the realization

of individual believers of the holiness of God and the necessity and power of the cross unto

personal salvation into a redeemed relationship with this holy God. While Wells offers only

limited practical “how-tos” as to churches can achieve this goal amidst the maelstrom of

modernity, he does grasp the quintessential impact of it. Ultimately, he also expresses the “cure”,

albeit in paradigmatic, rather than truly tangible and actionable fashion: “Until we acknowledge

God’s holiness, we will not be able to deny the authority of modernity.”

14. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, 185, 22.248.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Trinity Journal Volume 16. N.p., 2002.

Wells, David F. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams.
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1994.