The Courage to Be Protestant condenses and reworks David Wells’ previous four books written over the last 10 years about the current state of evangelicalism. Wells pulls no punches in his indictment of current evangelicalism, for it is the gospel that is at stake, not some mere set of cultural practices. Evangelicalism, he argues in this book, has mutated in the last few decades into a grotesque creature that looks more like liberalism than orthodox Christianity. The form that this creature takes varies. For some, it has become the marketing movement that cheapens the truth by entertainment and gimmickry. For others, it has become emergent, which sheds its “obsolete” past of certainty. However, Wells does not too carefully dissect marketers from emergents—they have more in common than they admit (I think he is certainly correct here).
Wells observes, “The truth is that without a biblical understanding of why God instituted it, the church easily becomes a liability in a market where it competes only with the greatest of difficulty against religious fare available in the convenience of one’s living room and in a culture bent on distraction and entertainment” (p. 12).
Wells outlines the failures of the oversimplified yet overstimulated evangelical church. For all its innovation, the modern church has not cured the lonely heart. It ignores that practices and teaching are intricately woven together and cannot be cleanly dissected. It blindly gives in to the temptation to let the whole world of change in technology, commerce, relationships, etc., spin on without ever taking into consideration its impact on life. As a proverb says, If you want to know what water is like, don’t ask a fish. So, too, Western Christianity, with all its innovations, has never paused to consider how peculiar their church must be in the eyes of the rest of Christendom (p. 29).
A few more brief observations: Wells’ brief explanation of the disintegration of truth was particularly helpful for me. I would recommend it as a good summation of postmodernism. The chapter on “Self” is most revealing of the Western, particularly American, sinful pride. Even in the midst of such emphasis on self, Wells illustrates that people are wasting away and drowning because they have become their own hopeless therapists (p. 141). Virtues are replaced with values; character is replaced with personality. And guilt has again disappeared.
It is wonderful that this book was written from within evangelicalism. Had someone written it outside of evangelicalism (e.g., fundamentalism), I fear much of this book would go unheeded. With that said, none of the solutions Wells offers are profound. He simply, though poetically, calls evangelicalism back to doctrinal purity and to again replace sola cultura with sola Scriptura. Though written to evangelicals, this book is also a warning to those conservative evangelicals who are tempted to flirt with the world or at least the evangelical Left. However, Wells’ book is not simply a look into evangelicalism. It is also a look in the mirror, and I’m not sure that you’ll like what you see. We and our churches are all more a product of our times than we’d ever care to admit.