Capitalism Is the Worm Within Confessional Protestantism

Wow. Carl Trueman’s “Courageous Protestantism? Some Reflections on David Wells’s Analysis of the Contemporary Church” is blisteringly on-target. Don’t know how I missed this one back when it first appeared. In it Trueman diagnoses the uncritical nostalgia and capitalist apologetic that taints Wells’ analysis and undermines his argument. Trueman elaborates on how our vilification of consumerism lets capitalism off the hook though the two properly belong together. In scapegoating the one and leaving the other enshrined we inadvertently collude with the powers and principalities and degenerate our witness to the world. Why is that the most earnest Westminster Confessionalists can also be the most shrill advocates of personal rights? Because the hyper-individualism capitalism has proliferated is part of the woof and warp of what it means to be an American Christian anymore. Trueman shouts, “Thou art the man!” to a church which bears the marks of the culture more than it does the marks of its savior. Trueman’s essay demonstrates how you don’t have to be a card-carrying Marxist to perceive and receive a Marxist critique of culture. One of the strongest notes the essay sounds is that the selectivity of most nostalgia ends up serving as an altar to self-affirmation; unreflectively singing the praises of the good old days inevitably results in “I thank you that I am not like other men” Phariseeism. This selection comprises most of the central section of Trueman’s review and while it’s a little lengthy, it’s totally excellent nonetheless.


At the heart of Wells’s analysis is his correct identification of consumerism as perhaps the most powerful drive underlying some of the most unfortunate trends in current ecclesiastical practice. Here is just one of the many paragraphs in the book which makes this point with pungency:

The seeker-sensitive are adapting their product to a spiritual market that believes it can have spiritual comfort with very little truth. The emergents are adapting their product to a spiritual market that is younger, postmodern, and leery about truth. But in both cases we see this strange anomaly. Here are those who think of themselves as being biblical, as being the children of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus and the apostles, embracing an alternative spirituality in order either to be successful or to be culturally cutting-edge.

A number of comments are in order here. As noted above, David is correct in identifying the consumer/market forces which underlie the mega-church and emergent agendas and bind these two apparently antithetical movements together. But there is a sense in which David’s critique itself is somewhat muted because (I suspect) of its cultural context. Consumerism, along with its cognates, is a term bandied around (and I am as guilty as anyone here) in Christian circles and presented, generally speaking, as a very bad thing; but consumerism is itself a function of the wider phenomenon of capitalism. Now, if one were to substitute consumerism with capitalism throughout the book, the argument would remain a cogent and powerful one; in fact, the critique would arguably be even more powerful because it would reveal to us the full power of the forces at play in the transformation of church life here. 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. Of course, as soon as one uses the word capitalism, one is going to be suspected of incipient Marxism; but 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.

We can now push this a little further: if it is not consumerism but capitalism that is the driving force behind so much of the unfortunate nonsense that makes its way into the church’s life, we are surely forced to see the situation as more ambiguous and more complex. For a start, we have to acknowledge that the very forces which David (correctly) identifies as so damaging have also brought tremendous good. After all, who of us wants to go back to an era without all of those gadgets and devices which make life so tolerable? Or abandon the freedom of the democratic system which goes hand-in-hand with the freedom of the market? At the simplest, most self-serving level, I prefer to mark student papers that are typed on word processors, not scrawled in undecipherable hieroglyphics; at a higher level, I like living in a world where I have access to antibiotics, printed books, fine wines, the potential of peacefully removing failed political leaders, etc. None of these are essential to human life; but I consider them to be gifts of God’s common grace that allow me to enjoy being alive. I think that living at a time such as this, when there are so many things which enhance the overall quality of life, of which previous generations knew nothing, is a good thing. And I do not think that my access to these things is separable from the capitalist system within which I live. Consumerism is thus not an entirely bad thing; nor can I easily extricate myself from the consumerist mindset, given that its values are deeply embedded in the whole of life, both for good and for evil.

This should also surely influence how we look at the past. There is a sense in this book (and in the tetralogy as a whole) that, underlying David’s take on the past is a certain nostalgia. For example, he refers to the fact that, in times past, people’s sense of value was rooted in factors outside of the self, specifically in terms of its own gratification. Thus, work, family, community provided the focus of life, whereas now it is leisure activities and personal well-being/entertainment which stand at the center of each person’s universe. I have no argument with this, but I do want to point out that the balance sheet of present to past is perhaps more complicated than it might seem.

Take my late grandparents, for instance: in many ways, they epitomized the world whose disappearance David laments. They worked in order to provide for their families, they found their fulfillment in putting bread on the table and shoes on their children’s feet, their lives were centered on others, not on themselves. On paper, their world sounds just like the world David admires. Yet there was a dark side to that world: my grandparents worked long, back-breaking hours for little pay; yes, they put bread on the table and shoes on their children’s feet, but they were never more than a week away from financial ruin and a month or two away from total destitution; they did not find their fulfillment in leisure activities because, quite frankly, they had too little time, too little money, and too little energy after long hours of labor to engage in such; and it is questionable whether they found too much value in their work in itself—granddad worked in a factory, grandma scrubbed floors. Their work was a means to an end: survival. Needless to say, none of their children made it to college; only with my own generation did that become a possibility.

All of this is not to create nostalgic sympathy for my family of yesteryear, but it is to point to the fact that nostalgia for the good old days is, generally speaking, the preserve of the middle class intelligentsia or of those who are in no danger of living in such a past. Whatever idyllic visions we may have of the past, there is another side to the story which is not so palatable. And then the pressing question comes: can we have the values without the brutal social context? That is something at least worth asking.

Indeed, we could pursue this last question a little and turn up the heat on nostalgia for the past even more: what about Victorian values, which I am sure many conservative Christians look back to as a good thing? We may admire the virtues of thrift, self-control, modesty, etc., which we typically associate with the phrase. But what of the other Victorian values? What about children forced to work as chimney-sweeps or in factories, the workhouses, the debtor’s prisons, the absurdly harsh penalties for minor infringements of property rights? The general disregard for life—at least the life of the poor and the working classes—which marked these times? Of course, our times are no better: globalization means that the child sweatshops, etc., are generally speaking abroad, not at the end of our own streets. So our consumerist heaven is also built on oppression and exploitation; but that is not my point here. My point is that the past was not all sweetness and light, and that the package as a whole was problematic too.

To make the point crystal clear: can we pick and choose which bits of the past we like, and nostalgically mourn their loss and desire their return, while rejecting those bits we do not like? Are they separable in this way? The very system of capitalism which developed the tools for improving working conditions and gave my family the social mobility for me to go to a good college and find a job that does not involve back-breaking physical toil is the self-same system which has brought about the other social, cultural, and moral consequences which David rightly laments. On this level, his program is reminiscent of Mrs. Thatcher in the eighties: her genius was that she was able to persuade the electorate in Britain to believe that you could have free market economics that shattered traditional vested interests at a social and political level, and yet at the same time you could also maintain traditional moral and social values. History would seem to indicate that this is not the case and that advanced capitalism does transform the whole world, not simply the means of producing and exchanging goods; and that it does so in part by fostering the very thing which David identifies as such a problem but which also brings great benefits to humanity. David clearly acknowledges this at a principial level; but in practice, by talking about consumerism, rather than capitalism, he gives the impression that the unfortunate consequences we see all around us are the result of an aberrant mindset, rather than an essential part of the capitalist dynamic of Western, especially American, society. Is David himself guilty of a kind of eclectic consumption of the past akin to that with which he charges the emergents?

This then raises a further problem: if the cause of the transformation of Christian life and practice is not consumerism but the whole capitalist dynamic of our society, then the answer David gives—a return to what we might call traditional, confessional Protestantism—starts to look less promising, or at least more complicated. Do not misunderstand me here: I believe that the kind of traditional, confessional Protestantism for which David argues represents, in belief and practice, the most consistent kind of Christian belief and practice available. The problem is that even this can be subverted and transformed by such a powerful and comprehensive cultural force.

Think about it. Ideas are one thing; but social practices, about which David has much to say, are another, and these are frequently shared in common by those who represent a wide variety of different, even contradictory and mutually exclusive, beliefs. So much of what David criticizes in emergents and mega-churches is also alive and well within the more doctrinally refined circles of traditional, confessional Protestantism. Thus, when David talks about the pizzazz of the mega-church experience, my own mind is drawn to the vibrant world of Reformed conferences, with their celebrity speakers. When David notes the rise of the language of “rights” among today’s generation (156–60), my mind is drawn to how often in confessional Protestant churches I have been treated (!) to lectures, for example, on the right to bear arms, the right to free speech, the rights of the individual over against the federal government, even the right not to have to be on the church’s clean-up roster (!!). Whatever the merit of these discussions in themselves, radical individualism that focuses on rights is alive and well on the theological right as well as the political left and sits quite comfortably under preaching and teaching that, on paper at least, should be its very antithesis.

The amazing thing about capitalism is that it can turn anything into a commodity. It is a matter of form, not substance. The most amusing example of this is, surely, the fact that Marx’s Communist Manifesto is now available in multiple editions in branches of Borders and Barnes & Noble. The archetypal anti-capitalist tract is now a best-selling commodity, making money for big corporations. If it can be done with Marx, then it can just as surely be done with Luther, Calvin, the Reformed Orthodox, and their modern-day successors.

One example of this is provided by Frank Schaeffer in Crazy for God, his controversial memoir about growing up as Francis Schaeffer’s son. Here is how he compares his own father (of whom he is far from uncritical) in comparison with some other conservative, traditional evangelical leaders:

Dad had a unique reputation for an intellectual approach to the faith. And his well-deserved reputation for frugal ethical living, for not financially profiting from his ministry, for compassion, for openness, and intellectual integrity, was the opposite of the reputations of the new breed of evangelical leadership, with their perks, planes, and corner offices in gleaming new buildings, and superficial glib messages. Empire builders like Robertson, Dobson, and Falwell liked rubbing up against (or quoting) my father, for the same reason that popes liked to have photos taken with Mother Teresa.

Perhaps few in the OPC will have much time for Falwell, let alone Robertson; my guess is that quite a few will have books by Dobson on their shelves. But no matter: the point is that conservative theology can go hand in hand with empire building, personality cults, and worldly conceptions of power—and these of the most dramatic kind. Confessional Reformed theology can itself be an idiom for the most dramatically secular aspirations. There are a number of celebrity Reformed ministries out there. I wonder what the cultural difference between some of these and, say, Joel Osteen is. Is it perhaps simply that Osteen and his kind are more honest about what their agenda is? Sound theology is never going to be enough if it is allied to the contemporary culture. Critique of that culture is not simply being anti-abortion or believing in and teaching the five solas of the Reformation. It involves seeing how even the best ideas and theology can be co-opted by the silent but deadly carbon monoxide of “the American way” in its most attractive and deeply ingrained form: health, wealth, influence, and the radical individualism upon which these notions float. To put it bluntly, the content of our theology needs to shape the form of the church’s culture; but simply getting the theology right will not, in and of itself, produce this result.

This brings me to my final reflection. I applaud David’s call for the reinstatement of church discipline as a central part of the church’s testimony. As the Westminster Standards argue, discipline fulfils a manifold and vital purpose in the church: reclaiming sinners; deterring others; purging out the leaven; vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the gospel; and preventing the wrath of God (WCF 30.3). As such, it is clearly vital to healthy church life. The question for me, however, is this: what does this look like in an era of motor cars, multiple denominations, and a culture of radical individualism that is politically more alive and well in the middle class Republican ethos of conservative Protestant churches than in their equivalents in the inner city?

When Hester Prynne has the infamous scarlet letter in the novel of that title, discipline is an awesome and terrifying thing because she is trapped in a relatively tight-knit community with no anonymity and no way of escape. Discipline is enforceable because of the social conditions which apply. Today, any church that tries to discipline someone has to face the fact that, unless that person is immediately moved to repent, the likelihood is that, next Sunday, he will simply jump in his car and keep driving until he finds a church that will accept him. Then, during the week, nobody will care because we live in a world where there is significant privacy and anonymity. None of this is to say that I regard motor cars or privacy as wrong; it is simply that we need to realize these things have profound implications for the possibility of church discipline.

Further, once again confessional, traditional theology is, in and of itself, no answer. Indeed, my observation of conservative churches would lead me to believe that they can often be worse offenders. The “Here I stand!” principle of Luther at Worms is taken by many conservative Christians to mean that their conscience is sovereign and that there is no need to acknowledge the authority of the church in any practical way at all. Allied to the strong currents of individualism within American culture, this can make conservatives among some of the most egregious offenders when it comes to church discipline, accountability to the church, etc. The problem of discipline is not something monopolized by the anonymous, casual mega-churches or by the eclectic and loosey-goosey theologians of the emergent churches. It is a function of modern society, with its cheap gas, its anonymity, its multiple denominations, its radical individualism, and its consumerist aesthetic; and the confessional Protestant world is just as capable of being a part of the problem as anything else. Indeed, it might be worse. There is nobody less likely to meet with the elders, in my experience, than the hardline confessionalist whose monopolistic possession of the truth, combined with an oh-so-sensitive conscience and a Luther complex, places him above the reach of ordinary church courts.


Would that we all would hear the voice of the prophet and submit to the Lord he rails on behalf of! Kyrie eleison!

 

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