Guinness, Os. 2016. Impossible people: Christian courage and the struggle for the soul of civilization. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Os Guinness is a senior fellow at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, and lives near Washington, DC. He is the author or editor of over 30 books, many of them similar to the topic of this book: the challenge of the contemporary secular world views to the Christian and Jewish faiths. “At stake is the attempted completion of the centuries long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths and the replacement by progressive secularism…suited to the conditions of advanced modernity” (22).
The new world of technology promises that science can and will solve all problems and therefore our responses to these challenges is a “trial run for the even graver tests that lie ahead” (27). Guinness pleads that Christians and their churches be faithful to Jesus as Lord and not cave in to modernity and the “particular temptations of the sexual revolution” (30), the “acceptance of homosexuality, pedophilia and pederasty especially among the clergy” (31).
Guinness follows each chapter with a prayer and with questions for discussion, for example “Why do you think Christians have become so culturally weak when they remain a sizable community in terms of numbers?” (35).
The book’s first chapter is called “New World, Old Challenge” and speaks to the question of whether the West will sever or recover its roots, for “[t]he West has lost its soul” (39). As a post-Christian entity, it is not yet wholly pagan or secularist, but is close to being so. The Christian and Jewish beliefs that formed the foundation are collapsing and their old definitions are now being used in different ways. Freedom now means liberty and weird ideas are tolerated, even promoted, as long as they are not Jewish or Christian ones. Guinness is strong on this point: “The truth is that world, as Christians have known it for many centuries, has gone—and gone for good” (45). The biogenetic revolution may be in its infancy but it “could make the appalling Nazi experiments and China’s horrendous gendercide policy look primitive” (49). We now live in a global world with multiple modernities to contend with.
Chapter two is called “The Greatest Challenge Ever” in which Guinness examines the philosophy, political policies and processes that encompass modernity. There are now an infinite array of philosophical choices open the Christians fueled by “free-choice consumerism” (69) and faulty theology. The authority of Jesus and the Scriptures are dismissed as churches become fragmented, with “different purposes, priorities and ways of life” (76). Guinness finds that “as faith grew fashionable, the increase in secular power meant a corresponding decrease in spiritual power” (83). What has followed is “specialization, corruption and overreaction” with a subsequent loss of discipleship in the church.
Chapter three is an intriguing chapter called “The War of the Spirits”, which is something our Christian culture, for the most part, does not address. Guinness notes that “You can judge a culture by what it talks about and what it refuses to talk about, and talk of ‘spiritual warfare’ would be a useful litmus test today” (93-94). It concerns not only world order, but also the “idolatry of nations”. Guinness sees this most clearly in the example of how the great scholars of the ages have shown beyond all reasonable doubt that the Bible is opposed to homosexuality, as well as heterosexual behavior outside of marriage, and “yet our brave new Christians trust their own brilliant reinterpretations and serve their own interests without a qualm“ (110). He believes the war of spirits is a real one, but that Christians should not fear such activity. Rather they are to trust and watch as they take part in this warfare.
“Exploring the Heart of Darkness” is the title of chapter four. It deals with aspects and problems of modernity, such as certain radical claims, the proliferation of choices and the rapidity of change. Our challenges and choices are, nevertheless, the same: a world with or without God. Do we depend on evolutionary atheistic humanism to build us a new humanity with its claim that “human knowledge is socially constructed—and nothing more”? (128). If all truth and reality is socially constructed, it “means that what we take to be reality is always humanly constructed” (129), which “invites an attack on all accepted truth” (ibid).
This sort of thinking leads to what Guinness calls gender fluidity, with no categories of right and wrong, true or false, male or female and is followed by “no rules in human relationships…no Ten Commandments, Golden or Silver Rule, or natural law” (133). But what if God, in the words of Churchill, becomes “wearied of mankind”? And “[w]hat do we do as we wait to see God’s mind made clear?” (140).
Chapter five talks about “Life with No Amen”, with ”no minister…no blessing, and…no religious rite at the burial” (142). This is the picture of a society that is totally atheistic, seeing religion in general and Christianity in particular as not simply objectionable in terms of philosophy, but to be fought against and buried. Guinness gives a historical sketch of the failures of Christianity, including the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, that have led to the wide acceptance and force of atheism. Yet even the greatest of atheistic thinkers have had a “restless heart”, a longing for something that their own system does not provide. “The hard truth is that to live with no Amen is smaller, colder, darker and less welcoming for the human heart” (153).
Guinness recognizes that Christians, despite historical examples of failures, and atheists, despite their rancor and rhetoric, must live together and he suggests several things to help them do so. However, first he asks “Can Christians and atheists still be cobelligerents, united in their common commitment to freedom?” (162). To do so there must be “modern liberal societies” that depend on assumptions and actions that they do not generate, recognizing that the differing worldviews are based on traditions, secularism, and other factors. It follows that “Nothing is more urgent for democratic societies than the forging of a civil and cosmopolitan public square that does justice to the interests of both partners in the relationship” (165).
Chapter six, “Yesterday, Today, Forever” addresses the generational problem of conveying the heart of the Christian faith from generation to generation. This, it seems, is a difficult problem, given the individualistic generation of “many Evangelical churches [that] resemble a field of quick growing, quick-disappearing mushrooms rather than a longstanding forest of oaks” (176). Without the wisdom of the past, the present generation is shortsighted and selfish. For this transmission to happen, Guinness notes that we need two essentials: passing on healthy relationships, and the kind of natural marriages that produce sustainable societies. In summary, “We must restore our own healthy practice of Christian tradition and renew its life-giving transmission that reflects the character of the Lord, whom we worship” (192).
Of course, the practical question is “What do we do about it?” and chapter seven (“Give us the Tools”) provides some suggestions. For one, we must recognize that technology is not enough—we need Christians who “have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word” (196-197). Technology alone becomes an idol, providing information, but alienating us from face-to-face conversations.
Guinness maintains that we are fighting a spiritual war and that we need the supernatural warfare God has provided to win that war. Jesus was explicit about his adversary and His authority to overcome Satan. We also need to know something of the history of ideas so that we can refute many of the false claims made by postmodernists about Christianity. A further tool is “cultural analysis”, so that we can analyze and understand our culture and the “signs of the times” we are living in and observing today.
In the afterword called “A Time to Stand”, Guinness states that “Impossible people are called to be different and different they will be or they will not be Christians” (217). Christians must be true to their calling and, for example, speak out against the slaughter of the unborn, the “foolish alternatives to the natural family” (220) and even the magic arts of the best technologies. Then, God, “In his mercy…may revive his church, and the Christian faith may flourish once again and provide the working faith of the West….” (223).
This is an important and current book for serious Christians to read. Os Guinness is well equipped to provide an overview of the history of ideas that have gotten our society into its present insipid condition. However, he doesn’t leave us mired in the past, challenging us to understand what is happening around us and respond as faithful followers of Christ.