Wood, Ralph C. Contending for the Faith: The Church's Engagement with Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003. 218 pages. ISBN 0-918954-86-x
Ralph Wood in his book, Contending for the Faith: the Church's Engagement with Culture argues that churches must witness to the post-modern world. He believes that we are living in an "anti-cultural era: an era that is rejecting, with increasing vehemence, even the most basic requirements of life together and life before God" (1). He thinks the world is being "rebarbarized." The church can play a role in Christianizing the culture as it did in the Middle Ages. It can at least act as salt and culture to the culture. Wood notes, "The argument of this book is that Christian existence itself requires a culture: a realm where the most fundamental practices and doctrines of the church can be inculcated" (1). A the title implies the Church needs to engage the culture. One definition of engage is to "become involved in." The Church must not isolate itself from its culture. It must work within the American culture strengthening and transforming it.
Wood's goal is not to duplicate the work of H. Richard Niebuhr's, Christ and Culture. He is not going to offer one of the responses listed by Niebuhr. He thinks Niebuhr's book assumes that we live in a "Monolithic" culture. Wood thinks this is not true. Instead, the culture is "an immensely varied and dependent thing" (1). There are many cultures. He thinks the Church is called to create its own culture. He notes, "I will argue, in fact, that Scripture and Tradition provide the church with a distinctive kind of existence--with unique ways of birthing and dying, of becoming youthful and of growing old, of marrying and remaining single, of celebrating and sacrificing, of thinking and imagining, of worshiping the true God and protesting against false gods--and that these distinctive beliefs and practices constitute the church's own culture" (2). He denies that he is trying to create a Christian ghetto--Christian isolation from culture. Instead, the church will offer a culture that will revitalize the world. For example, the present culture seems to affirm death as shown in abortion and euthanasia. The Church will witness to the affirmation of life.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. He is the author of The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Cosmic Vision in Four American Novelists, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ Haunted South, and Chesterton: the Nightmare Goodness of God, and other published works.
The book includes ten chapters. Some of the major themes addressed in this work are: the Church and culture; alternatives to the current culture; problems with 'evangelical engagement with culture; Church's Colleges; "Creating a Christian Educational Culture;" skepticism and sentimentality; truth, beauty, and goodness; Christian Romance; faithfulness and piety.
Wood argues that the "church can best engage its individualist American culture precisely by seeking to remain uncompromisingly faithful to the community-centered Gospel" (78). This is in contrast to the failed liberal Protestantism that said the church must accommodate its message to the liberal culture. The author thinks we need something like the twentieth century Catholic revival and something the like the work of the Inklings--C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. The author argues that writes like these and the fiction of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor have been "a source of theological vitality for evangelicals. Thousands of them have found, through Catholic figures such as these, that their own scholarly and church lives have been given theological rigor and depth" (81). This has been shown even in the work of Wood which has majored on Catholic authors like Flannery O'Connor.
In chapter five, Wood describes the challenges facing the Church's colleges. He describes the works of Burtchaell and Marsden which have documented the secularization of colleges and universities. Wood notes, "without rootage in Christian thinking--faith seeking understanding, the good of the intellect--Christian piety and morality eventually die, though they may thrive for a while" (87). This seems to imply that our culture is living on borrowed time. How long will the culture collapse because it has been separated from its Christian roots?
Another point made by Wood in this chapter are the importance of a Christian vision of education. He notes, "One evident result of an unabashedly Christian vision is that it enables the liberal arts to flourish as often do not in more secular settings" (91). Wouldn't it be better to champion the liberal arts in Christian colleges and universities than abandoning them like the secular universities?
In other chapters Wood argues for the importance of religious liturgy. In the context he discusses the importance of beauty and holiness in the context of worship. He also shows how even the "ugly" can be a vehicle to worship God. What we look as disfigured could be a picture of Christ. This reminds me of my reading from Nouwen this morning. He spent time working with the mentally handicapped. Many will not see a purpose for those severely handicapped, either mentally or physically. Nouwen tells how God uses these people to show Christ's love. They even teach us how to love. How often do the values of the world determine our own values? Why do we think people that are wounded are of less value than the successful and powerful in the world's eyes?
Wood's Contending for the Faithful is a good read. It shows how the Church can be more beneficial to the culture by being true to its own teaching. However, the main purpose to being faithful is to glorify God. As the Westminster confessions says that our first duty is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Wood tries to lead a path between liberalism and fundamentalism. This book is written mainly for evangelicals. In it Wood encourages them to retrieve Catholic tradition, liturgy, and culture to revitalize their own tradition. It provides good advice on engaging the postmodern culture of our day.