“Above All Earthly Pow’rs” by David Wells – A Review by John Beeson (Part 1)
Who We Are
Review #1: Introduction and Chapter 1
David Wells has an uncommon knack for understanding our world theologically. In the following series of posts, I’m going to work my way through his 2005 conclusion to his trilogy on the postmodern world. Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World is as helpful an analysis on the postmodern world from a Christian viewpoint as you can find and I heartily recommend it.
Wells begins his book with a reflection on September 11. Wells asserts that while the immediate impact of September 11 was that it brought a certain flush of modernity back to our day to day lives, in reality, culture today is little different than pre-9/11. We have reverted to our same apathy.
What 9/11 is emblematic of is the convergence of world religions. While for many of our parents Hinduism, Islam, and Eastern Orthodox were exotic religions of far away lands, these are the religions of our neighbors now. The question, Wells says, is how do we preach Christ in this multiethnic, multireligious society? This is the question that Wells will answer at the end of the book. But he begins by describing our modern context.
In his first chapter Wells describes the contours of our [post]modernized, Western life. Wells has a great talent for speaking between the academic and the popular spheres. He does well in navigating the ground between the philosophical ideas and the social processes that have mutually formed what we call postmodernity. When choosing between the two, Wells gives preference to the social processes. In postmodernity, Wells asserts, it is the people and the society who give the time its fundamental definition, not those in the ivory towers. This tendency can be frustrating at times, though, since most of what is best in postmodernity is found in its academic and not social expression.
But I think Wells’ tendency is fundamentally right. Assessing the Wells points out that when ideas are transferred from the intellegencia to everyman they are simplified. It is the simplification of ideas that make them coercive. Most ideas, in their academic form are nuanced enough so as not to have coercive power. Eliminate the nuances, though, and you have powerful ideas.
Postmodernity, Wells asserts, is really Enlightenment thinking revived and taken to its logical conclusions. Postmodernity, like the Enlightenment is characterized by: 1) confidence in science and the scientific method; 2) confidence in technology; 3) confidence in the autonomous self unencumbered by superstitions from the past.
While the combination of trust in science and the rise of the autonomous self have marginalized religion and morality, the combination of the confidence in technology and the autonomous self have produced an unrelenting consumerism which drives modern society. Capitalism coupled with technological advances has created a confetti society where hedonism is not only not a sin, but is the ethic.
It is not surprising, then, that the modern self is so thin. Our identity has unbelievably become fundamentally formed by our consumer habits. And yet all the while our sense of self has become bloated to unrecognizability. We believe we can be anybody and do anything.
Wells is at his prophetic best in these early chapters, although, like any prophet he does at times overstate things. Wells certainly does nail our postmodern society at its worst, though, and that is helpful. Wells’ critique of consumerism certainly struck my own heart. When I look into my own heart I see evidences of this hedonism and confetti-ism, suffocating my love for Christ and my neighbor. Let us repent and turn from our sin.