Total Truth

David Elkin

This is a very difficult review to write.

The difficulty first became apparent to me several months ago when I realized that I was enormously behind my intended deadline of October, 2005. Due to a variety of circumstances, I have been very late in getting this review completed, and the powers that be at Reformation21 have been nothing but understanding and patient.

But you don't really want to hear stories, do you? You want an intelligent, thorough, concise, and honest critique of this book.

I understand. This is exactly the position in which I found myself when reading Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. What I was expecting was a powerful position paper on how we as Christians are to address culture and its pervasive influences on the gospel and evangelism. What I got was a bit of this, embedded in many stories and examples. Total Truth is more testimony, less sermon. For some curious reason, many modern Christian writers feel the need to illustrate their arguments with "real life" examples. To give Pearcey credit, this was probably an editorial decision.

On its own, the book offers a blunt dissection of modernity and an encouraging way out of the confines modern (or post-post-modern) culture has placed around the concepts of Truth and Practice. Pearcey does a wonderful job highlighting and illustrating the "two-tiered" model of physics and metaphysics with all its shape-shifting and modern incantations. She shows how we as Christians are to actively engage culture rather than conforming to cultural standards. Pearcey does an admirable job of showing how culture has shaped the debate, so to speak. This is a timely work, and hence one that should be particularly developed further.

Like David Wells, Pearcey is concerned that culture has shifted to such an extent that we can no longer have intelligent conversations between opposing points of view. This important point, elucidated so well by the philosophers Alistair McIntyre and Tristam Engelhardt, holds that without common foundations and starting points, a discussion of ethics is doomed to failure. Unlike Wells, who argues that the way to address this conundrum is to present the true gospel untainted by the trappings of modernity, Pearcey advocates for an oddly accommodating gospel presentation. As she states, "We need to practice "pre-evangelism," using apologetics to defend basic concepts of who God is, who we are, and what we owe Him, before presenting the gospel message" (p. 90). Her take here is that contemporary American culture no longer has a common biblical foundation, and this cannot understand concepts such as sin without some sort of pre-evangelical foundation-building.

While this may sound like a good point, it smacks of formulaic (even post-modern) methods of working the gospel in, rather than presenting the gospel as a powerful tool. In short, the gospel is a sharp tool, not a blunt instrument that must be helped along.

The difficulty with seeing all of Reality in the two-tiered model is that it can at times produce some decidedly unbiblical viewpoints. For instance, "By beginning with the theme of sin, it (typical evangelical message) implies that our essential identity consists of being guilty sinners, deserving of divine punishment." (p. 87). Pearcey terms this an "excessively negative view," though this is a biblical view. In doing so, she gives away the one things for which she was arguing: that we not give in to cultural mandates when presenting and living the gospel. An attempt to smooth over the gospel smacks of post-modern Arminianism.

Pearcey's conclusion is very important and should not be overlooked: we as Christians should be actively engaging culture from the viewpoint of Christianity, not shaping Christianity to culture. She astutely points out that many modern American Christians are unable to do so. But the answer is not to change the gospel presentation. The answer is biblical, church-based discipleship, something which Wells has pointed out is sorely lacking.

Different audiences may use this book in different ways. I've heard that Total Truth is being assigned to high school students as a tool to encourage cultural engagement. Surely the many illustrations and case studies (testimonials) will serve as examples for students. I'm not sure of Pearcey's intended audience, but this is an excellent book for this purpose, as long as these students also hear that the church preaches the gospel, and the Christians' job is to go bursting through the back door and into the world to change it for Christ. This book does not carry the weight and precision of David Wells' anthology, but it can be a useful introduction into the church/culture debate.

Nancy Pearcey / Crossway, 2004
Review by David Elkin