Faithful No Matter the Cost: A Review

I have never gone to L’Abri, the Christian community and study center that Francis Schaeffer founded in Switzerland, but I was greatly influenced by it growing up. My mom had been there in the ’70s when she was sorting through what she believed, and in our house there were several of Schaeffer’s books. I went to a L’Abri conference in Greensboro, NC with her in the late ’90s, and listened to the lecture tapes I got there for several years afterward.

Os Guinness is an English social critic who was a leader at L’Abri in the late ’60s. He has gone on to do a variety of things since then, but his connection with L’Abri is what originally turned me on to his books. I think the first one I read was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (1998), which came out while I was in college and helped me sort through what I was thinking about career and vocation. In the last several years he has written a book every year: A Free People’s Suicide (2012, and my current favorite of his), The Global Public Square (2013), Renaissance (2014), Fool’s Talk (2015), and this year Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization.

9780830844654This latest book is a call to Christians in the West to be the “impossible people” of the title. The term “impossible man” was used to describe the medieval reformer Peter Damian, who attacked evil within the church. While some in his time criticized him for being purely negative, his great passion was for faithfulness to the gospel. He was later recognized for this positive passion and was canonized. Guinness calls Christians to have this same passion for faithfulness: “Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people. Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation. So help us God” (223).

Those who have read Guinness’s earlier book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times may wonder how this book relates to that one, since the subject matter appears similar. Guinness makes this comparison:

Impossible People is a companion to my earlier book Renaissance, which came first for a reason. In that book I explored the reasons for our response of assured faith in the gospel—which must be forever unshakeable—and it concluded with hope. I deliberately reversed the normal order of “challenge and response” and put the response before the challenge. Such is the character and record of the gospel of Jesus that we may trust it absolutely however dark the times and however bleak the challenge. Doom, gloom, alarmism and fear are never the way for the people of God. We are to have “no fear.”  Impossible People addresses the challenges we face and subjective side that is our response to these challenges—the gospel carries its own inherent transforming power, but we need to trust it, obey it and live it—against all the odds and at any cost. (33)

Guinness spends the bulk of the book, six chapters, enumerating various challenges Christians face in the West: secularism, modernity, spiritual warfare, social constructionism, atheism, and generationalism. Then he spends a final chapter setting forth some tools Christians should use to discern and engage the times they live in.

Guinness is a skillful writer, and I enjoy everything he writes. This book was no exception, yet I am also ambivalent about it. I agree with him about many of the challenges he sees facing the church in the West, but I think splitting the “challenge and response” into two books has caused him to focus unduly on one side in this book. There seemed to me to be not enough space spent on the proper response Christians ought to have to these various challenges. The book felt incomplete in that regard. Also, since each of the challenges he enumerates is complex and could warrant a separate book on its own, I thought some of his critiques were too broad-brushed and lacked the power to resonate with anyone but those who were already convinced.

So if you want to read Guinness’s thoughtful take on the current cultural climate, I would recommend reading Renaissance first (read my review of that book here). Then, if you’d like more detail, read Impossible People.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

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The Wisdom of Speaking Foolishness: A Review

Apologetics—the systematic defense of Christianity—sometimes gets a bad rap, but for different reasons. For one thing, in our current cultural climate it is often frowned upon to “proselytize” anyone. For another, the field of apologetics has too often (at least in my experience) been the refuge of belligerent people who are trying to put a spiritual sheen on an attitude they should really be repenting of. They seem to be more motivated by a need to be right rather than a genuine love for others. And finally, apologetics is sometimes treated as a silver bullet—as if all you need is the right argument and the doors of people’s hearts will automatically be opened to you. Especially because of the latter two reasons, when I hear of a book about apologetics, I often want to run screaming in the other direction. At the very least, I’m skeptical.

What made me want to read Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is its author, Os Guinness. Earlier in his life he was a part of L’Abri Christian Fellowship, founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. More recently he has been part of the Veritas Forum, which hosts events on college campuses to dialogue about the important issues of life. This is a guy who has walked the walk for years before he ever sat down to write a book about how to talk to people about the Christian faith. I respect him, so I wanted to see what he had to say about apologetics.

Guinness opens the book by claiming that Christian persuasion is a lost art, and that there is no one way to do it. There is no one-size-fits-all theory, no one technique that will work all the time: “Jesus never spoke to two people the same way, and neither should we” (33). Persuasion is also not just for the intellect; it is also aimed at the heart, and it should only be undertaken by people who know that love of God is an essential part of knowledge of God. And God himself is his own best defender. In short, Guinness begins his book about apologetics by putting apologetics in its proper place: it is a valuable tool, but like all tools it should be handled carefully and used for the purpose for which it was intended.

In the next several chapters of the book (chapters 4–8), Guinness unpacks various strategies and techniques for approaching people who are hostile or indifferent to Christianity.  In chapter 4 he looks at the “fool maker,” the person who is not a fool but is willing to be seen as one and play the jester, catching others unawares (think Socrates). In chapter 5 he sets forth the “anatomy of unbelief,” saying that there are two poles in the unbelieving heart: the “dilemma pole” (in which people are more consistent but also more troubled by the implications of their beliefs) and the “diversion pole” (in which people are less consistent, more distracted, and less troubled). In chapters 6 and 7, he outlines two strategies for approaching this anatomy of unbelief: “table turning” and “triggering the signals.” Table turning recognizes that all arguments cut both ways, and signal triggering presents the gospel as the fulfillment of people’s innate passions and desires. In chapter 8, Guinness looks at four different types of subversive speech found in the Bible that can be used by apologists: reframing, raising questions, telling stories and parables, and using drama.

In chapter 9, Guinness moves away from technique and focuses on tone, discouraging prospective apologists from falling into the trap of always needing to be right. In chapter 10, Guinness speaks about how to address the claim of hypocrisy (i.e., the Christianity many people experience is not the Christianity apologists speak about). In chapter 11, Guinness talks about challenges within the church, which he calls “kissing Judases.” Into this category he places the sort of conservative Christianity that eschews persuasion in favor of proclamation, and the sort of liberal Christianity that eschews debate in favor of dialogue. Finally, in chapter 12 he sets forth the four stages that a seeker often goes through on their journey to faith, and how to approach someone who is at different stages of the journey.

While this book does contain some practical “how-to” advice, that is not its focus. It certainly doesn’t present a step-by-step process for apologetics. It is more notable for its tone of boldness (Christians really do have a role to play in addressing objections to the faith) combined with humility (that role is not as a know-it-all, but a junior counsel for the defense, where the senior counsel is God himself). It is a call to recover the golden mean of Christian persuasion, as opposed to ignoring differences on the one hand and engaging in belligerent arguments on the other. If anyone I know is looking for a book on apologetics, this will be the first one I will hand them. Other books may say more about particular techniques, but this one gets the tone right, and to me that is more important.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my review. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Christian Faith in the Future: A Review of Renaissance by Os Guinness

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 ForumThe 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.

The Slavery of “Freedom”

We Americans love to talk about freedom.

We call ourselves “the land of the free”; our Declaration of Independence talks about liberty as an “inalienable right”; there are still few things that can get an American riled up like the threat of a loss of freedom.

But our freedom is in jeopardy, says Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (there is a very good three part interview with Guinness by Timothy Dalrymple). Guinness doesn’t find the primary threat to our freedom in an external source, like another nation, or even “big government” or “big business” or special interests. No, the enemy is us. Freedom cannot be won for all time and then left alone; it needs to be sustained. And, Guinness writes, Americans are failing to sustain the freedom our nation’s founders worked so hard to win: “The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves” (37). The vision of freedom we Americans are pursuing is “short-lived and suicidal” (29).

(Side note: The title A Free People’s Suicide might seem bombastic, but it comes from a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”)

The problem with our vision of freedom is that the freedom we love to talk about and claim for ourselves focuses exclusively on freedom from external constraints. There are two kinds of freedom: freedom from constraint (negative freedom) and freedom for cultivating virtue and becoming the people we ought to be (positive freedom). Modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. We claim rights and entitlements for ourselves, but do not care about duty, virtue, character, or pursuing excellence. Negative freedom alone is unsustainable. Freedom from external restraint, without self-restraint, undermines itself.

What can be done? Guinness argues that we need to return to the founders’ vision of freedom, which he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He demonstrates that the founders did not have a vision of freedom that stopped with freedom from constraint. Rather, their vision of freedom was part of an interdependent triangle: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this triangle of freedom in our time is faith (Eric Metaxas wrote a good review of this book in the Christian Post focusing on this point). The point for Guinness, and I agree, is not necessarily that the founders were Christians (though some were). Rather, the point is that the founders (even the Deists) were unanimous in their approval of faith of any kind, because faith fosters virtue, and only a virtuous people can remain free.

Guinness’ book is intended not just for Christians or religious people, but for all Americans who care about freedom. For that reason, I understand his arguing for faith as part of the golden triangle of freedom on pragmatic grounds (he follows the founders in adopting this tactic). Nevertheless, I think his argument ought to have particular force for Christians. The Bible also understands freedom as not merely freedom from constraint.

Seven times in the book of Exodus, God (through Moses) says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36), but he also said, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt 11:29). One of the earliest Christians’ favorite self-designations was “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1; Rev 1:1). Freedom, for the Christian, can never be merely about freedom from external constraints. It begins with freedom from constraint, but doesn’t stop there. Christian freedom is not just freedom from, but freedom for: freedom to serve God and others. From a Christian perspective, those who begin by thinking freedom is merely the absence of external constraints end by becoming slaves to their own appetites: greed, lust, and desire for power.

I applaud Guinness’ effort to prod Americans to do the hard work of sustaining freedom. I hope his argument gains a wide hearing. In particular, I hope his argument gains traction among Christians, who are just as prone to only care about negative freedom as anyone else, but who have the least reason for doing so.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.