08 April 2009


Carl Trueman, licentiate in the OPC and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a provocative review of David Wells' Courage to be Protestant.

It's provocative, not because of his twofold  conclusion (such has been said before), but because of his primary insight in substituting "consumerism with capitalism throughout the book," which, according to Trueman, would make Wells' argument "even more powerful because it would reveal to us the full power of the forces at play in the transformation of church life here [in the modern West]." Trueman goes on:
Consumerism is not some accidental, aberrant by-product of the West; it is the epiphenomenon of capitalism, a system within which we must all today live, move, and have our being, given the complete lack at this moment in time of any really viable alternatives for economic and social organization. Communism has failed; as did medieval feudalism, as will feudalism's modern-day relative, Muslim fundamentalism, Taliban style. To use the term consumerism potentially blinds us to the real, all-consuming (pardon the pun) power of the rip tide within which we swim.
Trueman rightly goes on to cut off at the pass that such talk necessarily means that the talker be suspected of incipient Marxism. Hardly. "One does not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge the powerful impact that capitalism and the free market have on all aspects of life, from the cost of living to the way we think." This is just applied sociology 101, and the church would do well to pay attention to it, for it helps us in two main ways: 1) recognizing that much good has come out of the forces that have simultaneously done so much damage; and 2) protecting us from promulgating a romanticized view of the past. Maybe the most important point in all this, however, is recognizing that we can't simply escape "the whole capitalist dynamic of our society." 

Part of the solution is no doubt deliberate practice in the here and now. But our expectations also must be realistic. There's much more to this review, but again I suggest reading it for yourself.

Incidentally, I think Jason Stellman's upcoming book on worship and life in this time between the times has something to say about this particular subject. Stellman's project doesn't suffer, it seems to me, under the optimism of which Trueman accuses Wells. But I'll have more to say on this when I get around to publishing the (ridiculously long) review I wrote of it. 

It should also be noted that Craig Gay's The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist did in one book what Wells attempted to do in the first three of this series, not to mention this last try. My guess is that, given Trueman's critique, he would have found it more palatable, if not helpful.


John Schaefer said...

Interesting! I think it would be useful for these guys to try to keep a distinction between capitalism as an economic system and capitalism as a means of exchange. For the former, financial capital operates in the service of industrial production, or vice versa (depending on your persuasion), and that's how the biggest and most important parts of our economy run. The latter refers to the work of money in measuring and determining value, and storing wealth. The former operates in distinction to non-capitalist systems, usually agricultural/tributary for the past 10,000 years. I'm not sure how he got from Roman or French tributary economies to the Taliban, who seem not to do much in the way of taxing annual agricultural yields on up a hierarchical structure. The latter operates in distinction to on-going non-capitalist exchanges, mainly barter and plunder (which we call taxation these days).

Chris Donato said...

Great insight, John. Thanks for sharing it.

I suppose you'd like to see these guys using "capitalism" to refer to as an economic system only? Does not the latter definition as "means of exchange" also in some way enter into this particular discussion (of church and the world)?

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