God in the Wasteland by David Wells

Wells, David F. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

In his follow up to No Place for Truth,[1] David F. Wells offers his assessment of the state of the Church ravished by modern thinking and then provides a potential solution to bring the evangelical church back to its appropriate role in society, especially as the culture shifts from modernity to post-modernity.  Theology, according to Wells, has unknowingly slipped away from the culture of the Church,[2] and elements of modern culture, specifically the processes of capitalism, technology, urbanization, and telecommunications have taken its place[3].  Wells argues that understanding the relationship between modern culture and the Church is not an issue, it is the issue.[4]  “. . . modernity is to contemporary Christians,” writes Wells, “what the medieval synthesis was to the sixteenth-century Reformers: is it the issue.”[5]  In what follows, this critique of God in the Wasteland will provide a brief summary of the book, an interaction with the author’s work, and concluding thoughts.

            Wells introduces the theme of his book with a personal story.  While driving near his home, a truck pulls out in front of him.  On the rear bumper of the truck were two bumper stickers.  From the distance, all Wells can see was that the one sticker reads “McGuire,” a political figure in the area, and the other reads “Jesus.”[6]  It is in this mixing of the two bumper sticker agendas that Wells draws an analogy of the mixing of today’s Church with today’s culture.[7]  But this mixture did not come about through angry and excited revolution, but through the subtle changes in modern culture.  “Unlike all of its predecessors,” says Wells, “this accidental revolution is not being driven either by a self-conscious ideology or by self-conscious revolutionaries.  Our guerrillas are, in fact, very ordinary people, most of whom would be aghast if they could see themselves for what they are: provocateurs and agents of revolutionary change.”[8]  Capitalism, technology, urbanization, and telecommunications are the four modern realities that Wells identifies as the vehicles of the quiet revolution[9].  Through these areas of modernity, the purpose of life has shifted to production output, ethics are defined as what works, self and community identity are morphing into a single world urban identity, and communication of ideas through the world have turned participants into merely witnesses.[10]  As these advances begin to fail and the world shifts from modernity to postmodernity, the boundaries become extremely blurred[11].

            Through the transition of the changing world, Wells demonstrates how it was that the Evangelical Church rose into prominence, but it was not without a cost.  Wells unfavorably sees the blending of theology and culture in the church, writing, “If a convergence has in fact taken place between modernity and evangelicalism, it is not because modernity has become more theological but because evangelicalism has become more modern.”[12]  Evangelicals, argues Wells, have become more politically orientated, wanting to transform culture because, in fact, they have become a part of culture.  As the cultural agenda increases, it seems that biblical usage and knowledge decreases.  “The fact is,” laments Wells, “that while the nature of the of the Bible was being debated, the Bible itself was quietly falling into disuse in the church.”[13]  Through most of the middle section of his book, Wells articulates that the church has moved away from its firm stand on theology and now leans on the ways of the world.  To drive his point home, he compares the world’s commercial model with the model of the present Church. “Malls are monuments to consumption—but so are mega-churches,”[14] writes Wells.  There is little distinction between the economies of the world and those of church.  Wells points to the work of Finke and Stark[15], writing that “four factors are essential to both economies: (1) organization (or church polity); (2) sales representatives (or clergy); (3) product (or religious doctrine and life); and (4) marketing techniques (or evangelism and church growth.)” [16]

            In an effort to gage the future, Wells conducted a survey of seven theological seminaries to compare to a similar survey taken in 1982.[17]  This survey makes up the bulk of his conclusion and prescription to cure the ills of the future.  Wells writes, “. . . I believe the vision of the evangelical church is now clouded, its internal life greatly weakened, its future very uncertain and I want something better for it.”[18]  The thing that is “better” will come from the future leaders of the church.  The future church, contends Wells, must develop an “antithesis between Christ and culture and find ways to sustain that antithesis.”[19]  A lot rests in the hands of these leaders, these “ . . . people of large vision, people of courage, people who have learned again what it means to live by the Word of God . . .,”[20] but it is in them that the Church will once again find is appropriate place “in the world” without being “of the world.”

     Wells’ observation of the present cultural atmosphere and the position of the Church, immediately seems concerning. The world, thanks to capitalism, technology, urbanization, and telecommunication methods, is in a state of difficult flux and the Church has been swept in with it. Wells purpose and goal for the book is to ring the alarm and then help his readers adopt his vision for the Church. What is his vision for the Church? Wells writes,
I want it to embody a vibrant spirituality. I want the church to be an alternative to post-modern culture, not a mere echo of it. I want a church that is bold to be different and unafraid to be faithful, a church that is interested in something better than using slick marketing techniques to swell the numbers of warm bodies occupying sanctuaries, a church that reflects an integral and undiminished confidence in the power of God’s Word, a church that can find in the midst of our present cultural breakdown the opportunity to be God’s people in a world that has abandoned God.[21]
This is a fantastic vision, but it comes with little instruction. Most churches do not think they are “using slick marketing techniques” even if they are.  And rightly asked but not very well defined by Wells: What is authentic evangelism to share the Word of God?  Is it wrong to desire to see people filling the sanctuary?  Indeed, the alarm is ringing, but with instructions as simple get back to the Word of God, stand once again on theology, and be in the world but not of the world, Wells is ambiguous with his vision.

            Robert K. Johnston’s review—found in the Oxford Journal—addresses both Well’s solution to separate the Church from culture and his call to a strict theological orientation.  First, Johnston reminds his readers that Wells’ counterculture Christianity echoes both Barth and Neiburh.[22]  He then suggests that Wells presentation is an overemphasis in countercultural, saying, “When the church is true to its nature, thinks Wells, its cultural irrelevance becomes a virtue.”[23]  Johnston takes further issue with how sharply Wells draws the line between results-orientation and theological orientation.[24]  Indeed, should this be an all or nothing proposition as Wells implies? Johnston agues that Wells’ approach is less nuanced than Scripture,[25] that it is not wrong to see some blending of culture and theology.  However, one gets a sense that Wells understands that his position comes across rather sharply, but that he indeed needs to cut a sharp line to make his point.  Even he at one point admits his exaggeration showing that his eye catching chapter title, “The Coming Generation” is not really that far reaching, but that he is looking at the church leaders of the coming generation.[26]

            An additional weakness of the work is how Wells approaches the culture, specifically the four categories of capitalism, technology, urbanization, and telecommunications.  These, he identifies are the vehicles in which the world has moved forward and away from God.  However, what is the alternative to them?  Could it be that although they come with ill effects that they can also be used for God’s glory?  Capitalism, for example, is only one type of economic system and if there is another that does not bring about the downfall of culture, Wells fails to mention it.  One must ask, what is Wells idea of how an economy might function if all the people in an area were believers (as he sees they should be) and rejected the culture to the extent Wells implies.  In addition, Wells implies that urban living, thanks to modernization, is bad and has stripped the culture of its individual identity.[27]  However, there is also the possibility that urbanization has the potential to bring communities together.  He does not do much to prove that large urban areas are free of a communal identity.  Technology and telecommunication have advanced God’s Word and allowed Christians to travel all over the word.  Furthermore, he is critical of how much marketing our culture is exposed to every day, yet his books likely have some system of marketing behind them.  Thus, his efforts are still contributing to the machine.

            While Wells does draw a shape line, the strengths of his book come in the area of how effectively he has rang the alarm.  His observations of modernism and especially his argument that post-modernism is “really just modernity stripped of the false hopes that were once supported by the straw pillars of Enlightenment ideology. . .” are an important contribution to the collection of books either ringing in post-modernity or warning that the sky is falling.  He is straightforward and arguing that at least concerning post-modernity, it does not yet have to be an all or nothing observation.  In addition, most Christians are seeking to find ways to blend into the post-modern world while Wells rightly argues that the appropriate position for the Church is to be something other than “the world.”  Few Christians take this theological stand, only to later disappear completely into the crowd.

            Future leaders of the church would be well served to read God in the Wasteland, which likely explains why many seminaries have it on required reading lists.  His observations of the modernity and post-modernity are fresh although his book is over ten years old.  Given that Wells often points back to his previous work, No Place for Truth, students might find it helpful to read his previous work first. 

            In conclusion, Wells’ work is informative.  This reviewer agrees with many of Wells’ observations of culture and modernity; however, more room should have been allowed for other explanations for the recent changes in society.  In addition, God in the Wasteland needs more specifics as to the solution.  Wells has called the Church to be in the world but not of the world, he has identified where the Church has gone wrong, but he offers little detail to help the Church, or even the future church leaders for that matter, move the Church back toward his vision.   
Johnston, Robert K. 1995. "God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 63, no. 4: 872.

Wells, David F. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading DreamsGrand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

[1] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1993).
[2] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 7, 26.
[3] Ibid, 7.
[4] Ibid, 28.
[5] Ibid, 29.
[6] Ibid, 3-4.
[7] Ibid, 5.
[8] Ibid, 7.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid, 7-9.
[11] Ibid, 48.
[12] Ibid, 26.
[13] Ibid, 150.
[14] Ibid, 61.
[15] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 17.
[16] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 63.
[17] Ibid, ix-x.
[18] Ibid, 214.
[19] Ibid, 223.
[20] Ibid, 215.
[21] Ibid, 214.
[22] Robert K Johnston, 1995, "God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 63, no. 4: 872-875, 874.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid, 875.
[26] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 186.
[27] Ibid, 8-9

*I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.