Archive for August, 2009

Reading David Wells

Posted: August 25, 2009 in church, Culture
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I’m currently reading The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David F. Wells. This is a thought provoking analysis of our culture and the Church’s response to that culture.

Dr. Wells discusses at length the rise of the “autonomous self” as a key to understanding contemporary America. He traces that rise through the four changes in the following quote:

First the change from virtues to values; second the change from character to personality; third the change from nature to self; finally the change from guilt to shame. p. 143

I can’t really do justice to the analysis of these changes in our society in a blog post. While each change may seem subtle, I think Wells rightly views them as significant. I can’t do real justice to these changes in a blog post but here is a nutshell summary:

1. Change from virtue as an external moral excellence to values which are individually selected. Wells writes that the word “values” was not in the 1882 OED and the concept of pronouncing certain things as important to us (either corporately or individually) is also novel.

2. Second Wells contrasts words of character (duty, morals, honor, citizenship, reputation, etc) with the labels of personality (fascinating, attractive, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, etc). He suggest that these later traits are now what is desired.

3. The third change is from the idea of a shared human nature that emphasizes are solidarity with each other and the created world to an emphasis on the unique self. This is very significant for theological conceptions of sin and redemption but also has ramification for our communities. A sense of entitlement to our rights replaces civic responsibility as people seek to have their uniqueness validated and affirmed.

4. Finally there is a change from guilt to shame. Wells unpacks this carefully but as I understand it guilt results from violating some standard (a court pronounces people guilty) where shame results from others discovering what we want to keep hidden. Wells see this change playing out in our fascination with recovery movements and personal health and fitness as we seek self help.

I’m still reading but this articulation of our society has stayed with me. I’ve been particularly thinking about character and how little we esteem it. We do seem to be very pragmatic in our estimation of others – do they get the job done or are they nice. And truth be told often this is what I aim for in my life. Rather than striving to be a man of character.

Finally, I also think Wells is right to say that most of this change a) has happened with little resistance from the church (actually Evangelicalism has often welcomed it) and b) that this is very problematic for traditional Christian theology. All of this goes along way toward answering the title of my favorite David Wells book – No Place for Truth: Whatever Happend to Evangelical Theology?


“While gentrification is a sensitive issue (and needs to be watched for its most insidious effects), when we consider the alternatives, it really seems to be the best option for our cities”

Eric Jacobsen wrote that on page 150 of his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom. Despite his much more nuanced and trepid discussion of this topic in his conclusion (only a few pages later) the damage was done. At least for my book discussion group. Personally, I don’t have the same strong reaction to the “g” word perhaps due to my lack of urban roots.

I see gentrification as part of the following urban history narrative. Following WWII the automobile made suburbia the place to be for all who could afford it. The central cities became commuting destinations for all the new suburbanites. The move to the suburbs and the white flight into segregated neighborhoods decimated cities. Large federal attempts to deal with urban poverty only concentrated the problems of the urban poor in inner city housing projects and ghettos. The future of cities looked bleak in the 1970s. Around that time (I wish I knew more details) cities began to consciously try to attract residents. As the old industrial infrastructure was abandoned new areas opened to residents who converted warehouses into lofts, clubs, and restaurants. The initial urban pioneers were young people who reacted to the perceived sterility of suburbia by fostering the arts and culture. This coincided with the transition in our country (esp. our cities) from a manufacturing based economy to a service one – also making cities more livable. As we moved into the past 20 years living in the city became hip (think Seinfeld and Friends). All the new residents brought new amenities, new construction, and a new real estate market. Indeed some of the long time residents of the city no longer could afford to live there and some neighborhoods were quickly changed as the YUPpies (Young Urban Professionals) invaded.

On the whole I see the flight to the suburbs as a novel mid-20th century experiment. One that ultimately wasn’t very healthy. Gentrification is part of the correction. I think this is the view that informs the quote at the top of this post.

Unfortunately it is far from a painless (or harmless) correction. One of the chief problems is people moving into the city with no intention of staying. Planning on cashing out on their real estate investment with little view to the long term development of their neighborhood. Nor are they concerned that the neighborhoods continue to support people in a variety of life stages from young children to the elderly. When the yuppies completely take over and re-purpose the neighborhood to the interest of young professionals this is a problem. This is closely related to the neglect of local history and failure to appreciate the local customs and institutions that define a place.

There is also the problem of a reverse white flight. Yuppies are mostly (but not always) white. As these people (people like myself) move into a neighborhood they may expect the “minority” members of the neighborhood to adapt to their culture or leave. A white invasion often with political and economic connections can easily displace former resident and they are justly angered by it.

It easy to see why gentrification has such negative connotations to many in our cities. But I don’t think it is wrong for young people to move into the city, nor do I think that it is a bad thing for wealthy people to move into the city, finally, I don’t think it is reasonable to expect cities not to change. So how do we accomodate the young and the wealthy? How do can we have both change and justice? These are topics I would like to read more about and welcome your suggestions.

If revival would sweep our society so that God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven…

  • Would houses be closer together or further apart?
  • Would public buildings like courthouses be more grand or more plain?
  • Would savings on law enforcement go toward parks or tax breaks?
  • Noting that John’s biblical vision of heaven takes the form of a city rather than a garden author Eric Jacobsen explores faith and the city in his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom. He begins with questions including those above to encourage reflection on how our theology shapes our civic vision and intriguingly how cities can influence our theology. Urging us to think of cities not only as mission fields but also as places that can uniquely teach us Christian truths. Instead of thinking only about how we can save the city, it is time to think about how the city can save us.

    Here I will note an important secondary argument that runs throughout this book – that modern suburbs are spiritually impoverished places built on the hollow promises of individual autonomy and safety. Places where it is hard to encounter grace. I have often heard people denigrate suburbia, but here I found a developed argument on why suburbs are not Christian. This argument fits well with some of my thinking on Church and culture and I think it has a lot to commend it.

    However, Jacobsen does not think all urban life is equally blessed. Instead he promotes “New Urbanism” a collection of ideas on how to build cities on a sustainable human scale. Cities where neighbors are encouraged to mingle with each other and public spaces are created for encountering the outsider or stranger. Communities that preserve local history and cultivate art and intellectual exchanges. In these communities Jacobsen believes the believer can best learn to love our neighbor, to practice hospitality, and to proclaim the gospel.

    I found a lot of interesting and encouraging ideas in this book and have enjoyed reading and discussing it this summer (thanks Friar Tuck for the suggestion). I think that our geography does shape our faith and that urban Christianity is different than Christianity in other contexts. I hope to share some more practical reflections on this book later but in the meantime I would encourage you to check it out.


    Posted: August 10, 2009 in Uncategorized

    Walking across a lush lawn, down a hill, towards a pond in a Worcester park, I noticed my 5 year old nephew carrying a dandelion. A white, seedy one.

    I said maybe they don’t want dandelions growing all over the park to which he turned with big earnest eyes and told me:

    “Dandelions grow to the glory of God.”

    That made me smile and think all week – thanks Bambino!

    photo by nerdegutt

    photo by nerdegutt