I have long enjoyed the writings of cultural critic Os Guinness. The first book I read of his, in college, was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (a good time to read such a book). Since then, I’ve read Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, A Free People’s Suicide, and two books that he compiled as curriculum material for the Trinity Forum: The Great Experiment and Doing Well and Doing Good. I haven’t agreed with everything he’s written, but he is always a thought-provoking and talented writer.
His latest book is Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. In it, he asks the question: “Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel? Or is all such talk merely whistling in the dark—pointless, naive and irresponsible?” I really enjoy his writing style, so here is a brief rundown of the contents with a few quotes mixed in:
In chapter 1, he explores what he calls “Our Augustinian Moment.” He calls it an Augustinian moment because, like in the time of Augustine, he sees Western civilization beginning to crumble around us from the threats of Islamism, “illiberal liberalism,” and self-destructive Western ideas and lifestyles. Therefore, like Augustine, it is possible to see renewal. In fact, he writes that “in many ways St. Augustine throws more light on our age than Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and all our noisy new atheists combined.” However, Guinness emphasizes that the book is “not an argument for ‘Christian civilization,’ let alone Western civilization. My supreme concern is the first term rather than the second, and therefore the church rather than civilization.” Guinness is ultimately hopeful as he ends the chapter with the challenge before us: “It is, I believe, that we trust in God and his gospel and move out confidently into the world, living and working for a new Christian renaissance, and thus challenge the darkness with the hope of Christian faith, believing in an outcome that lies beyond the horizon of all we can see and accomplish today.”
In chapter 2, Guinness looks at the “Grand Global Tasks” before the church in the West: preparing the global south for the challenges of modernity, winning back the Western world, and contributing to the human future.
In chapter 3, “Unnecessary, Unlikely, Undeniable,” he explores more fully what the relationship between Christianity and culture really is, and argues that it is marked by the three characteristics of the chapter’s title. He writes, “Our aim should always be to advance the kingdom of God rather than create culture. But on the other hand, Christian faithfulness will always have cultural consequences, if only as a by-product of Christians following the call of Jesus and aiming for higher and other things.”
In chapter 4, he reveals “The Secret of Cultural Power.” The secret is that “when followers of Jesus live out the gospel in the world, as we are called to do, we become an incarnation of the truth of the gospel and an expression of the character and shape of its truth. It is this living-in-truth that proves culturally powerful.” Yet Guinness does not want to seem triumphalistic here; he emphasizes that Christianity always has a means of self-criticism, and that means is found in God’s revealed Word: “It is that supreme power and authority of the Word of God—powerful, objective and standing above the flux and flow of history and human culture—which is the true source of Christian self-criticism and the true hope of ongoing Christian renewal.”
In chapter 5, “The Dynamics of the Kingdom,” Guinness looks at various lessons we have learned from the world about the process of cultural change, and how those lessons interact with the way of God in the world. In the world, the ideas of leaders always outweigh the ideas of followers, ideas are always more powerful when they are exerted at the center of a society, and ideas spread best through networks. But in the kingdom of God, “God himself leads, and he leads his church and his people through his Spirit.” Also, the kingdom is characterized by “surprising reversals” of the way we think things will go: “We are … always ready for the surprising voice, the far-from-obvious leader, the last-person-you-would-ever-think would be the key player. And yes, we are always ready to recognize God’s nobodies and God’s fools. For these may be the truly anointed ones prepared to be seen and treated as nobodies and fools for Christ’s sake, whom God uses far more than we who are the obvious ones for God to use.” The third feature of the kingdom way is that “distinctive culture is more often a by-product than a goal.”
In chapter 6, the final chapter, Guinness argues that “Our Golden Age Is Ahead.” But while he is optimistic about the prospect of cultural renewal, he doesn’t ultimately put his hope there. He writes, “There is no one Christian culture and there is no perfect Christian culture, so there is no golden age behind us. Our golden age lies ahead—when, and only when, our Lord returns.” Until then, “our highest endeavors must always be regarded with realism and a wry humility.” Thus, the church goes forward best by going back first—but not to any imagined golden age: “We are talking about a return to God, not an era.” Paradoxically, by going back to God and moving in concert with his Spirit, “The Christian faith becomes the most progressive faith in history—though, and here is the crucial difference from modern progressivism, the Christian faith always has a standard by which to assess the purported progress.”
In his concluding postscript, Guinness asks whether it is “conceivable that God will revive the Western church a third time, after it has gone cold twice.” He also asks (and in particular it seems he is in dialogue with James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World) whether it is possible to change the world. He answers, “Yes, we can, because God can—and he has in the past, and he is doing so elsewhere in the world, and he is able to do so again even here in the advanced modern world, because God is God, and his is the last word in human affairs.” So our hope in a renaissance in the church, and by extension in the West, is dependent on whether God wants it to be so: “The time has come to trust God, move out, sharing and demonstrating the good news, following his call and living out our callings in every area of our lives, and then leave the outcome to him.”
At the end of the book is the full text of “An Evangelical Manifesto” (2008), which Guinness helped to draft. If you have read that manifesto and liked it or disliked it, that will likely be an indication of whether you will like or dislike this book.
As for myself, I found this to be a realistic yet ultimately hopeful book, and the hope is put in the right place. It is a helpful corrective to nostalgia for an imagined golden age on the one hand, and irrational optimism about the future prospects of Western civilization, on the other. He doesn’t wring his hands about the direction the world is headed, because he knows history well enough to see that the world has been pulled back from the edge of the abyss before. Of course, the fact that Guinness ultimately decides that our hope can only be placed in God’s will is going to make non-Christians and even some nominal Christians uncomfortable. But if you are a Christian who trusts in the character of God as revealed in the Scriptures and your own life, it is a much easier pill to swallow.
Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.