Article by   March 2015
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Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power Of The Gospel However Dark The Times. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2014. 187pp. $16-00.

What has Reformation (21) to do with Renaissance? It is the wrong question, at least if Os Guinness' latest book is in mind, because he tells us that 'renewal', 'reformation', 'restoration', 'revival' or 'return' serve as equally apt rubrics under which to treat his matter (p. 29). The light of the gospel shines in our distinctively dark time and the darkness has not the power to overcome it, but the ways of divine sovereignty do not make the vagaries of human faithfulness or faithlessness matters of indifference. Hence the author aspires to instill in us a sense of responsibility and of urgency, along with confidence.

Os Guinness covers his terrain in six chapters, to which he appends the Evangelical Manifesto published in Washington, DC, in 2008. We do not know where our swelling post-Christian secularity will take us more than Augustine knew what would follow the momentous break-up of the Roman Empire, but we must share his trust in God in our different, global, context and we can know that '[t]he world to come will be shaped by whether the worldwide Christian church recovers its integrity and effectiveness and demonstrates a faith that can escape cultural captivity and prevail under the conditions of advanced modernity - or does not' (p. 26). 

To the church is committed three tasks: preparation of the Global South for the coming challenges which accompany development and modernization; winning back the Western world to Jesus Christ and contributing constructively to the global human future. We have to reckon with the twin historical facts that (a) cultures and civilizations have been established and sustained independently of Christianity and (b) its conversion to Christianity has made the West what it is, whether we think of philanthropy, social reform, education, science or human rights. Whatever the future of civilization, the secret of healthy cultural power is a God who works through the lives of faithful Christians but where there is faithlessness, self-correction is possible in history under God and, together with our knowledge of a judgment which transcends history, this makes our Christianity globally distinctive. 

'Committed engagement, cultural discernment and courageous refusal' (p. 85) comprise our proper attitude to the world so, in sum, faithful presence matters, but Os Guinness takes us beyond that. Drawing on sociological study of how ideas exert their influence, he presents us with three conclusions. First, 'the ideas of leaders always outweigh the ideas of followers' (p. 97). Second, 'ideas are more powerful when they are exerted at the center of a society, rather than the periphery' (p. 99). Third, 'ideas spread best through networks, rather than through either individuals or institutions' (p. 100). To bring this to our attention is not to substitute worldly for celestial wisdom, the human for the divine project. Time and time again, Os Guinness reminds us that to God belongs the sovereignty and the power. What does the story of Acts or the history of mission tell us if not of the Spirit's direction? The author's mapping of the way of ideas is not meant to box in or forecast the correlative ways of a predictable deity. And we are not in the business of building a human city. Os Guinness balances his quotations: we hear of the social way of ideas and we hear of the religious limit of studied cultural endeavour. If the establishment of a global culture becomes our studied aim and direct goal, we shall be overwhelmed. In that perspective, establishing a culture can even be judged a by-product by the standards of a managerial or marketing mind-set. The form of world-engagement, as opposed to world-denial, to which we are summoned as followers of Jesus Christ is not one where faithfulness is confused with an aspiration to control. 

Where does this leave us? The answer is: aware that 'our golden age is ahead'. History teaches us at least three lessons: 'times of the greatest success often carry the seeds of the greatest failure' (p.125); 'the darkest hour is truly just before dawn' (p. 130) and 'the church always goes forward best by going back first' (p. 132). One major thing which Os Guinness does in this book is to seek to understand history, not out of leisurely curiosity, but in order to learn. Augustine's City of God inspires him throughout. 

Yet again, Os Guinness puts us in his debt with this volume. Not only does he speak so truly, which is the main thing. He does so with a passion, conviction and judiciousness, communicating in a characteristically lively style which promotes rather than distracts from the message; perlocutionary ambition is fulfilled because performative skill is subordinate. Intellectual engagement with sources is serious enough to make its outcome weighty while making its fruit accessible. The whole looks like the product of authorial wrestling, rather than something painlessly acquired: our ignorance of God's ways; our ignorance of the novel cultural future in disturbingly novel present; the relation of God's sovereign path to the wisdom of human experience and analysis - these preoccupations course through the book. 

Persuaded, as I am, by the thrust of Os Guinness' argument, what follows is in the nature of questions rather than demurral. When James Davison Hunter published his volume, To Change the World, in 2010, he uncompromisingly and forcefully attacked the evangelical mind-set which maintains that, to change the world, what we need is a multiplicity of individuals with the correct worldview grounding correct values and leading to correct choices, all manifested in the public and political arena [1].  Hunter vigorously argued an informed case that 'the individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the "center" where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low' (p. 37). 'Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up...The world of world-making and world-changing are, by and large the work of elites...' (p. 41); 'cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in a common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production' (p. 274). Amongst those named as representative of the stance to which he opposed was Os Guinness, specifically the Os Guinness of The American Hour, published in 1992.

There are passages in the present volume where it might seem that Guinness maintains stout defiance of Hunter's thesis, where he speaks of the 'living-in-truth' of Jesus' followers as what 'proves culturally powerful' (p. 75); '[o]ut of each individual conversion should come a silent personal revolution that transforms the personal lives of the converted, which will lead in turn to a social public revolution in wider society, as such a way of life and thought spreads and is demonstrated by the people of God together' (p. 86). Yet, Guinness warmly endorses the thesis espoused by Hunter and, for that matter, the cognate one argued by Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies, although the potential for direct collision with Guinness in this latter volume here is not as apparent. Collins and Hunter 'have demonstrated beyond argument [that] it is the centers of cultural power in any society that define reality, set the agendas and create the fashions' (p. 99) and Guinness wants to take this into positive account as he describes our social and culture-shaping responsibility. I am left unclear on what, in Hunter's work, Guinness is actually endorsing, the more so as he gives the misleading impression that Hunter puts networks in opposition to institutions as well as to individuals (p. 100). Does he think that Hunter's thesis and his own earlier stance can be jointly maintained in some mutually modifying form and so reconciled? Given Hunter's antitheses, this would take quite some doing, but it may be doable. 

Perhaps it is only a knowledge of Hunter's work that forces my question; as far as Renaissance itself goes, the relatively isolated introduction of Hunter's positive thesis may not create a sizeable ripple of surface incoherence. But what do we make of Guinness' endorsement of the work of David Martin on Pentecostals and Evangelicals in South America (p. 35)? In his Forbidden Revolutions, Martin offers a compelling short account of how Pentecostalism and Catholicism were effective in transformation in Latin America and Eastern Europe, but his point was that they were effective from the margins: the cultural margin affects the centre. Does this square with Hunter? In terms of Renaissance, is Guinness essentially a synthesist, who sees some truth in different positions which apparently conflict prima facie, but does not view it as his task to demonstrate theoretical coherence? Or does geographical situation make all the difference, so that analyses which hold for the USA do not necessarily hold elsewhere?

I hope it is clear that reference to Hunter and Martin's work, arising from Guinness' own, is not a case of a reviewer's gratuitous self-indulgence, requesting of a book that it remark on issues which interest a reviewer more than the author. Forbidden Revolutions is an example of a book that raises the question of how we understand the church and this is really Guinness' concern in this volume. Where does God's use of folly and the foolish fit into our understanding of cultural change? Where does suffering fit in? Perhaps you can be near the centre and suffer; perhaps you can be near the centre and speak the word of foolishness, but are folly and suffering confined to social margins only contingently, as in Paul's Middle Eastern day?

Questions, not criticisms; questions which take us into well-worn but germane discussion of ecclesiology and social power. Os Guinness will have his answers.  An author cannot say everything in one volume and a volume need not be designed to concentrate on conceptual frameworks. Ours to heed, ponder and embrace the summons of Renaissance.

Stephen N Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College in Belfast


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: OUP, 2010). Page references are from this volume

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